San Francisco Chronicle - August 14, 2002
Fresh Pimientos de Padrón
Spanish chile has underground following
Devotees of the mild, sweet pimiento de Padron finally have a local source
Laramie Trevino, Special to The Chronicle
Chile heads can understand that Judy Sheldon carried a torch for a pepper that captured her heart in a foreign land long ago.
While in Spain on a walking tour in the early 1990s, the San Francisco gardener ventured into tapas bars where she met the muy simpatico pimiento de Padron. That mildly sweet green chile from the Galicia region, fried in olive oil and served by the plate, also headlines a village festival in its honor.
Before heading back home, Sheldon's thoughts turned to smuggling seeds across international borders but in the end fortified herself with the hope that she would encounter the Padrons again in her homeland.
"I never forgot them," Sheldon recalls. And she never saw them again, either.
Until two years ago. That's when she spotted the pepper among the rainbow mix of 30 varieties sold by Happy Quail Farms at the farmers' market at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco. She reacted to the initial sighting with denial.
"Oh, my gosh -- it couldn't be the same thing," she exclaimed.
Ah, but it was. Now on her weekly visits to the market, the Padron is the only purchase she makes at the stand, reaching across the flamboyant chocolate, purple and golden bells to grasp a tiny sack or two of the comely newcomer. That scene is repeated by other faithful Padron fans at other Bay Area markets where David Winsberg sells peppers into late fall.
Winsberg started growing the Padron in East Palo Alto in 1997 with seeds a friend brought back after a visit to Spain. Today, he may be the sole commercial grower in the U.S., although this season the chile team of (one California cooperative) included the Padron among the 40 varieties of chiles planted in their vegetable project in Santa Clara.
Unremarkable in appearance the chile curves and grooves a bit and is somewhat ruddy. While regarded as a sweet chile in its early stages, now and then a spicy pod will surprise the eater. "It's only in the last couple of years that the Padron has hit its stride in Spain," Winsberg says.
The first restaurants to serve Winsberg's pimientos de Padron were El Mason and El Farol, both in Santa Fe. At El Meson, a plate of pimientos de Padron consists of about two dozen chiles, enough for sampling by several diners. The peppers, fried with garlic chips, are served with a small jug of extra virgin olive oil and a bowl of fresh bread on the side. Sherry is the recommended beverage.
Within each batch of a dozen or so chiles, Madrid-born El Mason chef David Huertas finds a hot pod has slipped through. "That's the fun thing when you're sharing them with friends -- to see who gets the spicy ones," he says.
In San Francisco, Zarzuela restaurant also serves pimientos de Padron fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with kosher salt.
In East Palo Alto, grower Winsberg's operation is anchored by a 28,000-acre greenhouse where the Padron makes up a fraction of the one ton of specialty chiles -- old Hungarian varieties, bells, Italian Longhorn and cayennes -- harvested each season.
The cooperative in Santa Clara County tried several European sources and finally obtained some Padron seeds. At the half-acre site they cultivate they are finding the Padron to be prolific and fast growing.
Some mornings, the cooperative gardeners wrap up their work day with a Padron fry on a portable grill in the shady doorway of a shed. Following the formula shared by chef Huertas, they cook the chiles until they blister all over and collapse when taken from the burner. The chiles are not ready if they retain too much air and fail to buckle after being removed from the heat. With the long stems left on the pod, the chiles are gripped by loving hands and nibbled on by admirers besotted with this chile they carry a torch for. ...
Here's where to find pimientos de Padron:
Tienda.com, a Spanish food Web site. Log on to www.tienda.com, or call (888) 472-1022.