Buongiorno a tutti,
How is everyone?
Well, I had a busy weekend up in Bellaria Igea Marina on the Emilia-Romagna coastline (on the calf of Italy’s boot) where the San Salvador Hotel had teamed up with Alba Peperoncino to introduce me and some wonderful fellow bloggers to the world of chillies.
Alba Peperoncino are a small agricultural company specialising in chilli plants, using dozens of different types to make oils, seeds, jams, condiments, dried peppers, chilli powder…and more recently and somewhat unrelated, hemp! (See here for the full product list). I was struck by their passion and knowledge of their industry. We went to visit their farm and greenhouses to see them in action. You can see from their farm and talking to them that they’re a very ethical company; having a “bio” certificate to prove it, meaning their processes and products are all natural and organic. There’s an emphasis on sustainable, high quality produce and the majority of their products are suitable for vegans and are gluten-free.
Chilli plants as far as the eye can see! The top right picture which you might think looks a bit suspicious is hemp. This is a new area for them and it’s become quite the top seller on Amazon. We actually tried the hemp in the form of tea one evening – it’s renowned for is relaxing properties. Despite being a bit bitter, I think it’s fair to say we all slept very well after!
If you’re in the area, I highly recommend going to visit them at their base and organise a tasting session. We tried many of their products over the course of the weekend and I have to say, all of them were absolutely delicious. I bought quite a bit: 3 jams (savoury and sweet with a mix of different peppers combined with figs, onions or strawberries), some diced chillies in oil and a massive jar of ginger and pepper jam. The chillies in oil go amazingly with cheese and pasta and the jams are great with bread or again, with cheese.
You can buy their products online through amazon.it.
A bit about Chilli Peppers
I have never before delved into the world of chillies. I was vaguely aware there were different sorts (long red ones, fat red ones, short red ones…) and varying heat levels (ow, ow-ow, ow-ow-ow) but I had never imagined there were thousands of them and the categorisation is a bit more advanced than the number of “ow’s”.
We had a talk from Claudio Dal Zovo from the Pepperfriends Association who’s literally written the book on chillies (or at least one of them!). The book is an 80 page delve into the world of chillies called Peperoncino: Dalla semina al consuma (loosely translated as “Chilli: from seed to plate”)! He was one of the first to discover some of the super-hot chillies. He gave an excellent introduction, focusing primarily on the chilli flowers which are as varied in terms of size, shape and colour as the chillies themselves.
Claudio in action…
I learnt a lot this weekend! Here are ten things about chillies that you might not know:
- There are thousands of different types of chilli plant – the plants themselves can vary between 15cm and 7 meters and grow in all manner of climates.
- Chillies aren’t physically hot of course (unless you heat them!). They feel hot because they latch onto the pain receptors that are responsible for feeling heat. Odd that we would eat something that causes us pain isn’t it? But the brain’s reaction to this process is to send out endorphins, an internal pain-killer and a natural high. That’s presumably why we keep eating them!
- Chillies have an anti-bacterial quality, killing 75% of bacteria. In pre-refrigeration days adding chillies to your food was a way of keeping it relatively germ free.
- The general consensus is that chillies evolved their heat to protect them from getting eaten by animals. This seemed odd to me – surely it’s advantageous to have animals eat them and spread their seeds? Well only specific animals it turns out. Seeds ingested by mammals tend to be chewed up and damaged and thus not as fertile as a result. Seeds ingested by birds however are not damaged at all by their intestinal tracts. It’s emerged birds can’t detect capsaicin, the ‘hot’ chemical in chilli so the clever chilli plant, by protecting itself with capsaicin ensures mammals don’t ruin the seeds whilst maintaining a convenient seed flight-delivery system.
- They have the most beautiful flowers…
…Like this one from the Rocoto chilli plant taken by Claudio Dal Zovo
- It seems relatively easy to interbreed chilli plants – you can just have them next to each other and they seem to cross fertilize. I’m sure there must be something more to it than that but occasionally that’s how it works!
- A chilli’s heat can be measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) – that’s the degree of dilution required of the chilli extract before its heat becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters. The higher the rating, the hotter the pepper. It’s not a precise science as people vary greatly in their perceptions of capsaicin.
- The “hottest” pepper is the Carolina Reaper from the US at 2,200,000 SHU. To put that into perspective, Tabasco sauce is about 5000 SHU. The Scotch Bonnet (which before this trip I thought was the hottest) is a measly 100,000 – 400,000 SHU! It made me wonder if eating enough hot chillies could kill you. It turns out it could, but you’d require so many of them that it would be nigh impossible. Our bodies have a way of rejecting things that are bad for them (here is an excellent example by some nutcases).
- There’s also a whole host of health benefits. Chillies are packed with vitamin c and other goodness. There’s a multitude of websites (this one is very complementary of the chilli) reporting how it can help with dieting, digestion, reduce the likelihood of heart-attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer, migraines… I’m not entirely sure all of these are backed up with scientific fact but certainly adding a bit of additional spice to your diet seems like it can only be a good thing.
- Having a passion for chilli peppers is an excellent hobby. You have an excuse to go all around the world in the search for rare chillies (trekking Bolivian forests in the search for rare or undiscovered chillies sounds like a very cool thing to do!). You can spend your free time growing them. You can experiment with lots of different recipes and preserves. You can hang out with other chilli aficionados at fairs and talk about them online in various forums. So all in all, it fulfills everything that a good hobby should! I’m going to start my budding chilli hobby career by buying a plant I think.
Cooking with Chilli Peppers
During the weekend we made all manner of things with chilli. We made biscuits with chilli, a cake with chilli and er, more chilli not to mention having various chilli sauces and spreads on piadinas and bread, chilli jams with cheese… In summary, you can add it to basically anything. Why would you want to? Well despite the tasty kick, the health benefits I mentioned above seem to make it worthwhile.
The cooking extravaganza kicked off with biscuits. We made several different types with bloggers bringing their own favourite biscuit recipes to the table and adding a hint of chilli powder.
All the biscuits were delicious and not overly “hot”. My favourite of the biscuits were these Spicy Ciambelline, courtesy of my friend Elisa…
Ciambelline means donuts in English. The Italians have a very loose idea about what constitutes a donut. These are clearly not donuts at all – they’re knots! However, it’s an Italian recipe so I guess we should stick with the name!
125g sugar + roughly 100g for coating the “ciambelline”
100g sunflower oil
400g plain flour 8g of chilli powder (roughly half a teaspoon)
8g of baking powder (roughly half a teaspoon)
Mix it all together. To make the “ciambelline”, make little rolls, coat them with sugar and then make a knot with them. Put them on a baking tray, bake at 200°C for 15/20 minutes until they’re golden. Delicious!
Next up was a cooking demo with our fellow blogger, Bettina, who’s blog BettinaInCucina is a great success over here with tons of great recipes. She showed us how to make:
Top: Pineapple and Artichoke Salad. Bottom left: Gazpacho soup. Bottom right: Houmous with peas and thyme. Of course all the recipes had a spicy twist and we used Alba Peperoncino’s chilli powder for all the recipes.
We also had a talk from Naturopath, Francesca Rifici who spoke about how we can take care of our bodies naturally using some key principles of Chinese medicine. We just touched on the surface of this alternative medicine but essentially, we humans can be split up into 5 types (or we can consist of a couple of types): Wood, Earth, Fire, Metal and Water. Our characteristics respond to our type. We have different nutritional requirements depending on which type we are. This is further complicated by the time of year as each type corresponds to a season (with earth representing the beginning and end of each season). The theory is that illness comes from a disequilibrium within our systems and we need to make sure what we’re putting into our bodies is what it needs at the right time.
I’m intrigued by the idea of naturopathy. I’m apparently a mix between wood and earth and I’d love to hear more about what that means in terms of what I should and shouldn’t be eating. The key aspects I took away from the session were that sugar is the root of all evil and I should occasionally try to fast. I’m factoring them into my diet as we speak!
The session finished with Francesca showing us a recipe for a cake using coconut sugar as a replacement to regular sugar. It’s inspired me to look at more nutritional and healthier alternative flours and sugar to use in my baking.
Hotel San Salavador & the blogging team!
We were hosted by San Salvador Hotel who I was fortunate enough to stay with last year on another blog tour. Read about it here. San Salvador is one of my favourite hotels and I’m not the only person to think that either – it’s got 5 stars on Tripadvisor with many rave reviews. The hotel is run by the Poggi Family, specifically Federico and Stefano. Their father who started the hotel is still a familiar face in the building along with Sabrina on reception.
Apart from being made to feel so welcome, the hotel stands out for me because of their values – everything is carefully thought through in terms of the impact on the environment. They’ve got a whizzy little electric car, the produce for the breakfast, lunch and dinner is organic and picked from their own fields. The wheat is their own and ground in-house for use in bread making in the hotel. Though they provide meat dishes, they’re very vegetarian and vegan friendly, something close to my heart.
They are just a few meters from the beach and right next to a big park, which is great for children.
So all in all it was an excellent weekend shared with some great bloggers. Check out their blogs here to see what they’ve had to say about the weekend…
21Grammi: Alessandra who has a passion for all things Romagna focussing on art, culture, food and drink.
Forchetta & Valigia: Headed up by Tonia and Valeria both of whom have a love of food and travel. In particular thanks to Tonia who was our ringleader for this blog tour!
Bettina in Cucina: Bettina who shares her passion for food and travels on her blog.
Big Shade: Stefania who has a ton of great recipes on her website and enjoys discovering new recipes from around Italy too.
Finally a big thanks to Federico, Stefano and Sabrina at San Salvador Hotel; Roberta, Sara, Angelo and Marco at Alba Peperoncino; Claudio dal Zovo and Francesca Rifici for making my venture into the world of chilli’s not only interesting but great fun too 🙂