Peperoncino Festival 2006, Part 1 of 2

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Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke 

Peperoncino Festival





Calabria — that’s the famous southern tip of the Italian boot, and Europe’s headquarters of heat. As every year since 1992, chileheads gather here in early September at the Peperoncino Festival in Diamante. Peperoncini is Italian for hot chiles.

Our comprehensive Calabria coverage reports in detail about Calabria, its chiles and the little town that hosts the pepper party. Once again we discovered new “hot” stuff on our trip down south this year, so we share our 2006 fiery finds with you. Enjoy!


The new, fresh looking Peperoncino Festival logo

Although the Festival takes place in the deep south, promotion for the event started right after crossing the Alps in the north. Every  highway restaurant/gas station complex of the nationwide Autogrill chain had set up a section with hot & spicy food items, a peperoncino book, chile decoration, posters and festival brochures.


Autogrill  Festival Promotion

First stop at our friend Marco’s chile jungle

That allowed us to surprise our chile pepper friends Marco and Valeria with a copy of the 2006 festival schedule. The couple lives on the Ligurian coast, close to Genova. Marco has turned their balcony and front yard into an unbelievable chile jungle. It is good to see there are folks around that are even more pepper crazy than ourselves 🙂

Once again our friends treated us to great food specialties of their region, and of course there was a lot of pepper talk. Without our common love for the hot pods, we would have never met these supernice people.

An Extra Terrestial Chile Cocktail

After our two-day stop in Liguria we went on to the Calabria region. We arrived in Diamante two days before the festival started – always a good idea. It’s about noon, and we’re heading towards Café Niní, the poular meeting place right on the Lungomare, Diamante’s impressive seaside promenade. The sun is shining, and we’re greeted by familiar faces — the café’s owner Nini, as well as Massimo Biagi, the pepper professor from the University of Pisa. The two are experimenting with this year’s hot & spicy cocktail, by now a tradition at Café Niní.

A warm “welcome back”, and the guys are delighted to have one more beta tester for their capsicum concoction. Nini hands me a Martini glass, the piece of candied habanero at the bottom is a hint to expect some heat. Anyway, Massimo and I agree that the drink should be a little fruitier and hotter as well. So the testing goes on, and after three more rounds we got it almost right. Due to empty stomachs, we feel the vodka content of the cocktail and decide to do postpone the final testing to the evening hours.

So the testing goes on at night, and after a while, a group of people is joining our table, including Italian entertainer Gianni Pellegrino and an elderly gentleman who starts drawing something on his sketch pad. I knew he looked somewhat familiar, and it turned out to be Carlo Rambaldi — THE Carlo Rambaldi. He is drawing a rendition of the world’s most popular extraterrestrial that he created for Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. in the early 1980’s (see here).

E.T., King Kong Lives, Alien, Dune, … they all carry the handwriting of this award-winning special effects artist. And we’re sitting here at the same table, sipping hot & spicy martinis! In record time Rambaldi draws a perfect E.T. and dedicates it to Nini. Nini returns the favor and names the 2006 cocktail “E.T.”


The cocktail by the way contains Vodka, Cedro schnapps, habanero syrap and a couple of “secret ingredients”. It is served with a frozen appetizer which looked like two scoops of ice cream at first glance. All the more surprising is a somewhat salty taste. Nini explains: One is made with N’Duja, the popular fiery spreadable Calabrian sausage, the other one with rosamarini, tiny fish that is preserved with salt and lots of peperoncini. Sort of unusual taste, but somehow it goes quite well with the capsicum cocktail.

The Usual Suspects

German Chileheads

There’s more proof that Diamante is now appearing on the touristical radar screen. Take the professional street vendors for example, all too well known from popular Italian beaches, selling everything from “Rolex” watches to “Ray Ban” shades (stiff fines await tourists who buy pirated brand name products, by the way). Well, especially for the Peperoncino Festival, tons of cheap chile pepper accessories have been manufactured in the far east as ammunition for foreign vendors that bug you everywhere here, typically not knowing any more Italian than (prego, prego!). Just can’t escape them.

Café Niní, is also the gathering place for members of the  chilehead community, and we met some old fiery friends from Germany like Gabi, Elmar and Bodo. While strolling through the festival booths, we later ran into even more fiery fellows from our home country. If this goes on, it won’t take long and restaurants here will have German menus, just like in the better known Italian places  😉 

Chile Junk  Prego, prego!

Peperoncino Fever in Diamante

Many owners of local shops decorated their windows even fancier than in previous years. One of the reasons was certainly the fact that the best shopping window decoration got an award this year.

Sharp Shopping Window

In one toy store, Barbie was riding a vintage Vespa scooter, equipped with hot peppers of course. As the shop owner told us, he borrowed the doll from his daughter..

Sharp Shopping Window

In this window, flickering light bulbs add “fire” to a chile bouquet. The guy in the shop even turned on the light for our photo. Note the old Ford “T” fire truck extinguishing the “flames”. What an idea. This is pepper town!

Sharp Shopping Window

Check out this pottery store that went nuts with fresh chiles.

Fashion stores like the one below always knew how to attract the target group in town for the festival..

Sharp Shopping Window

Fiery Food Court

Tuscany Menu

The makeshift food court at the end of the Lungomare featured specialties from Tuscany this year. We especially liked the Minestra di Pane that Massimo Biagi recommended to us, a tasty bread soup, nicely kicked up with peperoncino for the festival (for a recipe, see here).

Also, great Tuscan red wines were available at very acceptable prices — 1 Euro is about US$ 1.28 (September 2006).

Tuscany Menu

This Year’s Theme: Peperoncino and Cedro

Every year the Peperoncino Festival has a theme that combines the hot pods with other culinary items, like chiles and beans last year, or truffles the year before. This year, it’s a special citrus fruit from Calabria – the cedro.

Peperoncino and Cedro

Named botanically as Citrus medica, cedri fruits are the giants among the citrus varieties.They grow up to ten inches long and weigh up to eight pounds. Nevertheless they have a thick layer of mesocarp and relatively little flesh. Both the flesh and the outer peel are very aromatic, though. The taste is similar to limes, and they’re also harvested and used in their green state. While limes grow in many places,cedri  need a specific micro climate. One part of he Tyrrhanian coast of Calabria is one of the few such places, and it is even named  Riviera dei Cedri. The cedro flesh is used for tasty jams, the outer peel is candied for fruit cake, and is also the flavor base for the delicious Liquore di Cedro digestive schnapps. And Nini even makes a delicious cedro ice cream tartufo with white chocolate. The cedro plant’s fragrant flowers are used to make many commercial perfumes and are exported all over the world.

There was even a cedro panel discussion, with experts passionately talking about the prized citrus fruit, its Asian heritage, the special climate requirements, how this fruit was cultivated since the 8th century, and about its religious significance (supposedly Eve gave Adam a cedro fruit, not an apple. Hey, who knows?)

The one hour talk was accompanied by a sampling of cedro liquors and various cedro sweets. Also, cedro fruits and plants were on display and for sale.

Cedro Panel

Elisabetta Ferrara

The fragrant oils of the cedro peel are also used for cosmetics. Elisabetta Ferrara presented a complete line of cedro cosmetics that carries her name.

At Elisabetta’s booth we also found something we’ve been looking for for years: peperoncino soap. That’s right, a chile pepper soap!

Chile Soap

We wonder if that soap makes you start sweating while cleaning yourself. We bought a piece and will find out…

A Striped Chile plus 249 other Varieties

“Duecentocinquanta!”, Massimo Biagi proudly smiles — No less than 250 varieties he cultivated to have mature pods right in time for the festival. Quite a feat. The pods are presented and sold by the piece to chile lovers that crowd his display tables all day long, keeping Massimo and his wife busy.

Someone also gave him a variety that was supposed to be that mysterious superhot “Naga Jolokia”. Of course it wasn’t that hot. Another one we found more interesting was a pepper plant with variegated pods that resembled pepino melons. Here’s Massimo showing that plant.

Variegated Pepper

 Massimo Biagi

“Professor Pepper” Massimo Biagi

That’s it.

Just kiddin’! There’s more to come in Part 2 – so get a cup of cappuccino and keep reading!


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