Calabria, Part 6: Searching for the Peperoncini

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Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke

Peperoncino Selection

Calabria — that’s the southern tip of the Italian boot. Warm currents of the Meditererranian Sea and an average of 300 days of sunshine a year determine the mild climate that lets chiles — called peperoncini in Italy — grow so well here.

As evidenced in our story about Diamante, the popular hot pods are omnipresent there, and in many other Calabrian villages as well. On literally any balcony, the chiles are drying as strings (called filas here, much like ristras in New Mexico), and they are a key ingredient in many local dishes. Specialty shops offer a wide variety of peperoncino products. Most hot peperoncini sold fresh or canned in Europe come from this region.

If your’re driving along the coast, you’ll hardly see any chilies, though, except for the occasional plant in a residential front yard, underneath lemon or olive trees, together with all sorts of herbs. Trips off the coast into the Calabrian hill country  don’t reveal more chiles either — all you notice here besides woods are vineyards and lots of olive trees. Or huge fields with those flavorful plum tomatoes that are harvested red at the peak of ripeness — so much better than the usual greenhouse crop. So where are those huge amounts of chiles growing that are used in dishes at home and at restaurants, that are sold on markets, and used to manufacture all those delicious peperoncino products?

A little Help of our Friends

We probably would have never found out without the help of our friends from a Calabrian company we deal with, Delizie di Calabria. The family-owned company in Catanzaro makes a line of upscale peperoncino delicacies, using pods grown in their own fields. So with our little knowledge of the Italian language, we manage to make an appointment with Morena, the owner’s daughter, and her husband Raffaelo, who also works at the gourmet food company. We meet in a picturesque mountain village named San Marco Argentano, just one hour driving southeast of Diamante, over winding roads, through green woody mountains and countless tunnels. Time seems to stand still in this old village originally built by the Normans about 500 years ago — no evident signs of tourism.

Peperoncino field

Peperoncino field, olive trees in the background

Our meeting point is the old cathedral. Our friends brought Enzo, who is not only their peperoncino field manager but also a chile expert. Renate and I park our subcompact rental car and join the group in their offroad bus. Off we go cross-country into regions we would never have found on our own, and which are probably not marked on any tourist map. After half an hour driving through beautiful vineyards loaded with mature red and white grapes, we make our first stop. Endless fields, and already from the distance we can see them shining on the low-growing plants: peperoncini, finally! What a beautiful sight! The horizon is lined by hundred-year old olive trees. How many peperoncino plants, Renate wants to know. “All together, about 250, 000” Enzo estimates. That’s a lot of peperoncini. We start strolling through the fields and notice the different varieties. 

Any jar of hot Italian peppers sold in Europe just says “Peperoncini” on the label, but out here it becomes evident that this is a generic name, just like “chiles” in the Americas, or “chilis” in Europe (sometimes spelled “chillies”).

Morena + Harald with miniature cherry chiles

Morena and Harald with miniature cherry
peperoncini, one of the area’s specialties.

And just like on the American continent, there’s an incredible variety in chiles, differing in apperance, flavor and heat. What all these Calabrian varieties have in common is that they thrive in this particular climate characterized by a certain altitude, ocean air, and lots of sunshine. Obviously not only the wine benefits from this, but the peperoncini as well, which — besides more or less heat — all have a very intense and distinctive flavor.



Amando, a very flavorful variety. Similar to big Cayenne in appearance and as fiery, but fleshier.




Wine and chiles thrive well in this soil and climate.

   Wine grapes

As we are marching through the pepper fields under the relentless afternoon sun, Enzo picks pods of every variety for us to taste. One is named Naso di Cane (“dog nose”). We’re biting the bullet, uhm, pod. It turns out to be “dolce” – surprisingly sweet, not hot at all, but with lots of flavor.

“Now try this one,” Enzo says, handing us a 2-inch long thin red pod, named Sigaretta (cigarette)  for its appearance. Leaves even nonsmokers with smokin’ jaws. Wish we brought some beverages.

Additional pods we sample under the eyes of our tour guide ignite fireworks in our mouths that last for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the variety. Our faces are getting sweaty, not only because of the southern Italian sun.

Naso di Cane (“dog nose” chile)  



Sigaretta – the cigarette-shaped
pods guarantee smokin’ jaws.


We notice that weeds are competing with chiles in growth — many varieties are grown organically here, without any use of herbicides or pesticides.

Weeds are just plowed under after harvest.

Organically grown chiles 


Organically grown chiles

Cherry chiles on black plastic mulch

Especially the hot varieties are getting just as much irrigation as neccessary, Enzo explains. Just like in other pepper-growing countries, they know that stress by watering sparingly results in hotter chiles. Just recently it had rained, but that’s rather rare up here. Black plastic mulch is used to protect the soil from drying up under the intense sun, as shown in the left picture of cherry peperoncini (Ciliegia). The mulch comes with pre-cut planting holes, and underneath the plastic foil, there’s also a perforated irrigation hose.


Raffaelo proudly presenting a
beautiful peperoncino plant.

Just after Renate and I cooled down our mouths with tasty tomatoes from a neighboring field, Enzo picks a newly developed variety for us to try. “That’s also a Naso di Cane,” he says. And after we trustfully took a good bite out of the juicy pod, he adds with a smile: “but this new one is piccante“. Wow. An interesting variety indeed, as most of the hotter varieties tend to have small, thin-walled pods, but this one’s fleshy and fiery!

Peperoncino Varieties

As mentioned before, there’s nothing like the Peperoncino. Italy – especially Calabria – has a whole line of chiles to offer, from mild to wild. Not all versions have “official” names, many are named by local farmers, and similar varieties can go by different names in other regions. Here’s a selection of what we found in Calabria on our peperoncino expedition:

Peperoncino Selection

1 – Italian Cayenne variety, hot.

2 – Ciliegia (cherry), big, medium hot. Often used stuffed, then pickled or in olive oil.

3 – Ciliegia , small cherry, hot. Available as whole pods, in olive oil or dried.

4 – A popular hybrid, name unknown. Hot.

5 – Naso di Cane, mild and hot variety, offered dry, tied on a string (fila).

6 – Amando, hot to very hot.

7 – Sigaretta, very hot (similar to Thai), grows upright in clusters.

8 – Another popular hybrid, name unknown. Hot.

9 – Name unknown, hot, gowing upright in clusters, just like Sigaretta.

10 – Chiltepin-like variety with just 1/4″ in diameter, very hot. Got this one served in olive oil at a restaurant.

11 – Peperone, dolce (sweet). Used fresh in salads, roasted and skinned for antipasti (appetizers) and pasta sauces, as well as dried.

Harvest Time

Our next stop on this enjoyable guided tour is a roofed place right next to the pepper fields. Piles of fresh peperoncino plants are picked by hand here. Very clever:  since the plants are used just for one season, they collect the whole plants and harvest the pods at a more convenient location, rather than slowly picking their way through the rows in the field, which would be quite a pain in the back. (Different story in Malawi and Zimbabwe, where the Birdeye chile plants grown there are used for up to three years before getting discarded.)

Harvesting Peperoncini

It is September now, and harvest is in full swing. The growers plan to be done by September 20.

So what’s happening to the Peperoncini?

string of mini cherry chiles           

The fiery field trip concludes in a huge, well ventilated building, also close to the fields, ensuring short trips. Countless strings of bright red chiles are lined up here for drying, ready to be shipped by mid October. Busy hands are threading the pods for the filas, the counterpart to New Mexican ristras. Even those “mini cherries” are stringed up. What a beautiful sight. This is pepper heaven!

Filas drying

Deseeding cherry pepper pods for stuffing


Another group of women cuts out and deseeds pods of the larger cherry pepper variety, using a similar tool as for coring apples.

These pods are then stuffed by Delizie di Calabria with delicious stuff like porcini (wild mushrooms), anchovis (small sardines) or cheese, then packed in olive oil.

A good deal of the hot pods is used to make the popular Calabrian hot sauces (salsa piccante). Mixed with salt,  the destemmed pods are packed in barrels and then aged for at least 8 months, as shown here by Enzo. So far, the process is comparable to the production of traditional Louisiana hot sauces in the USA. The pureed chiles become part of the sauce, resulting in a thick sauce with less vinegar, and with a very intense flavor.

Fermenting chiles for hot sauce

Calabrian hot sauce label

The sauces are used to spice up almost anything, particularly the region’s favorite pasta dish, Penne all’arrabiata

As evidenced by this hot sauce label, Delizie di Calabria shows a surprising sense of chilehead humor. Interestingly, the U.S. version of their “Devil’s Own Sauce” (Salsa del Diavolo) got a different, “politically correct” label. Guess they’ve never been to the Fiery-Foods and Barbecue Show 😉

To the right, a small selection of  products made by Delizie di Calabria is pictured, including hot sauces, hot peperoncino flakes and a hot, very flavorful chile pepper powder (peperoncino macinato piccante), small cherry chiles in extra virgin olive oil and ceramics packed with dried chile products.

It was exciting for us to take this tour and witness all steps from growing to processing, and find such a “hot” place in the center of Europe.

Calabrian pepeproncino product selection

It’s almost time to say good-bye, but first our three fiery friends invite us to a street cafe in a small village on the way back to our car. It is still hot, and we appreciate a special treat — the popular local beverage, a mix of sweet soda and cold coffee. Very refreshing, especially after tasting all those peperoncini. Enzo arranges for yet another treat: They are slicing a salsiccia for us, an  air-dried pork sausage, spiced with fennel seed and — of course — peperoncini. Since we are enjoying this tasty sausage so much, Enzo buys a whole sausage ring for us to take home. These folks are great. On our way back, he makes yet another stop, at a bakery named Antico Forno Normanno. (the antique Norman furnace). He buys a bag of Tarallini al Peperoncino for us, a crunchy Calabrian snack, made with flour, white wine and — peperoncino piccante. Those crispy rings are addictive — once opened, it’s hard to put the bag away.

An interesting day is coming to an end. We not only found the peperoncini of Calabria, but also the wonderful people of this region and their hospitality. We experienced their pride and enthusiasm in growing those chiles and turning them into incredible spacialties. We can’t thank Morena, Raffaelo and Enzo enough.

The day isn’t over yet, that is. Tonight, we are going to see a very special museum — the Peperoncino Museum! We are going to report about that in our next part – stay tuned!





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 Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke

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