Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke
Calabria is not only the southernmost tip of the Italian boot, it is also one of the hotbeds of European chile pepper culture. So it’s no wonder that — besides plenty of traditional “hot” dishes and products — a highly popular chile pepper festival and even a museum dedicated solely to the hot pods can be found here. In September 2017, the coastal town of Diamante will be hosting its Festival del Peperoncino for the 25th time. The pepper fest started in 1992, exactly 500 years after Columbus‘ discovery of the New World (and its fiery fruits).
Only a few miles from Diamante, you’ll find Maierà, with its Museo del Peperoncino. The chile pepper museum that originally opened in 2002, claims to be the only one of its kind in the world, for sure it is most likely the highest-located one, situated in the village on the mountain top. In its early years, the museum had its ups and downs. Among other issues, the rooms were not really perfect. In the summer of 2016 though, the museum moved to much nicer rooms in the same building, the village’s Palazzo Ducale. It now expands over two levels with well-lit handicap-accessible rooms and much more space. We went there in February 2017 and were impressed with their achievements.
In Italy hot peppers are called peperoncini (singular: peperoncino). This is the diminutive form of peperone, standing for sweet capsicum like bell peppers.
The museum was initiated by Enzo Monaco. Enzo is the founder and director of the Accademia Italiana del Peperoncino, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of chile peppers in general and particularly in his Italian home region of Calabria. So why in Maierà, and not in Diamante? We learned that it was Monaco’s intention to also include other locations in the region. A truly commendable idea, and with its sensational 360 degree view of Mediterranean Sea, landscape and mountains, Maierà has is charming in its own way. And it is nice and quiet.
Museo del Peperoncino – View of the Sea and surrounding Landscape
Maierà is located about 5 miles (8 km) northeast of Diamante. The road leading up there could well have been the Beatles‘ inspiration for their song “The long and winding Road,“ but it poses no problems whatsoever for regular cars. In fact, just a few years ago, the famous Giro d’Italia bicycle race went up here! It is important though that arriving from SS18 main street you don’t miss the sign to Maierà and turn into SP15. There’s basically no parking available within the historical center of the village, so parking outside is advised.
It is hard to believe that this remote place is home to a couple of hundred people, but strolling the streets we discovered a post office, a pharmacy, a bar, two restaurants and – at the very top of the village – the church.
If you made it to the top, signs point out the way to the remodeled Duke’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), now a truly prestigious home for an art gallery, the community center and for the Peperoncino Museum. But until you reach the halls of flame, some more stairs need to be climbed. Then you can’t miss the museum, as chiles painted on the street lead you there. Soon a chile pepper sculpture 32 ft. (10 m) high at the entrance will remove any doubts that you’ve arrived at the right place.
On to the museum. As mentioned, the location in the Palazzo itself isn’t new. But it is housed in new rooms now, stretched over two stories, with lots of sections for specific themes.
The walls are covered with historical prints, enlarged book illustrations and diagrams, documenting the history of the capsicum species, which dates back more than 9000 years, i.e. well into Pre-Columbian time. And of course the distribution of the hot pods around the globe after Columbus’ discovery.
Other sections are dedicated to hot sauce and other fiery products, chilephernalia, curiosities, or chile pepper related art.
There’s even a separate area that’s accessible only to age 18 and up, displaying various frivolous items related to the hot pods. Interestingly, there’s a lot of tongue in cheek humor about the relation of chiles and erotic in Italy. Especially in the southern part of the country, peperoncini are often even referred to as “viagra naturale.” This section was still work in progress – we’ll cover it after our next visit. A video corner provides peperoncino education, as well as a welcome opportunity to sit down for a little break.
There’s also a table, perfectly set for chile lovers.
One Room features a whole range of beautiful capsicum ceramics. “Si prega di non toccare” – please do not touch… good luck, particularly with that cool coffee cup.
A section dedicated to chiles and chocolate was in the works when we were there. Maya and Aztecs used both in combination as far as 2600 years ago.
There’s also a humor section with chile pepper cartoons, dealing with kitchen and erotics.
The main feature are of course the chile peppers. Pods from around the world are displayed fresh when in season, dried year round.
The Museo del Peperoncino has already lots of bizarre and out-of-the-ordinary chile pepper items on display. Stuff like that is also called “chilephernalia”.
And there’s even more hot stuff now. Since my wife Renate and I collected many chile-related items over the last two decades, we were happy to contribute to the museum’s collection. As the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. And if you could, I’d rather take a grill and a bag of charcoal. In fact, one of the museum’s highlights is its comprehensive collection of chilephernalia. The exhibit includes silverware with chile handles and other kitchen accessories, a stylish wall clock with pepper hands, a chile doormat, pottery and many cute little things we haven’t even discovered in New Mexico. When the movie “Woman on Top” became available for rent in Italy, the poster advertising the video tape showed actress Penelope Cruz taking a bath in chiles. Now that’s a hot tub!
We went to the museum in Maierà and handed our collection over to Diego Granata. The energetic Calabrian native and his family live in Maierà. Diego takes care of the museum in his spare time; he is not only heavily involved in the museum’s layout and design, but also in the acquisition of new exhibits. That’s how we met.
By donating the major part of our Chiliphernalia collection, we were able to impress and please not only Diego, but also the community officials of Maierà. The collection includes items like chile pepper piggy banks, pieces of art, paintings, prints, posters, kitchen utensils, rare hot sauces, as well as many varieties of dried peppers.
On the level above the museum, the tables of the community conference room offered plenty of space for us to unpack our boxes. Just going through all the hot items took Diego and his colleagues some time. And more than once, we heard them say: “senza parole” – there are no words!
Back at home, we unearthed even more pepper related items at our house, which we will also deliver to the museum shortly. By then, remodeling will also be finished, so please stay tuned for an update. Of course our little report can only show a small selection of what’s on display at the Peperoncino Museum. But if you happen to travel to Calabria, this peppered place is well worth the trip.
And in case you plan to attend the wonderful Festival del Peperoncino in Diamante (2017: September 6 to 10), be sure to also visit this unique museum in Maierà nearby.
For further information and opening hours, please check the museum’s Website. It goes live on June 18, 2017:
Finally, a Restaurant Recommendation
Walking up and down Maierà’s many stairs will most likely make you hungry. When leaving, it comes in handy that just outside the village a cozy little restaurant named Da Leda is on your way. For just about 5 Euro, we got a wonderful crusty pizza, homemade from scratch. When asking for peperoncini on the side to kick up the heat, we didn’t just get hot chiles in oil, but local fresh pods as well! And those were really hot! As at any Calabrian restaurant we went to, the service was very friendly and helpful. In off-season it is recommended to call ahead before braving the winding road up the mountain.
Da Leda Ristorante – Pizzeria – Bar, Via Ortaglie 13, Maierà, Phone 0985-889-227
There are also 2-3 Hotels in Maierà – possibly a lodging alternative during pepper festival season in Diamante (early September) in case rooms are sold out there. Just check with your favorite hotel booking site.