NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

Pardon my Padróns …
Andy is still working out the details of how to harvest his Spanish Padrón peppers before they get too hot. When he succeeds, the $20 per pound he fetches may finance a second honeymoon back in Spain … speaking of hot.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

September 13 , 2004: When my wife, Julia, and I visited the Spanish town of Padrón eleven years ago during our honeymoon I paid more attention to her than I did to the local hot pepper, the pimiento de Padrón. When we left and I drove white-knuckled over curvy, narrow roads to Santiago de Compostela I didn’t yet know Padrón even had a local pepper. All that has changed. Julia might accuse me now of paying more attention to my Padrón peppers than to her. But when we got married I worked on someone else’s farm and harvested a weekly paycheck; now she and I have our own vegetable farm. If we want to go back to northern Spain and drift around the countryside sampling frisky, white, local wines we’ll need money. Since Padrón peppers retail for up to twenty dollars a pound, growing them seems like a good way to get back to Padrón. But yes, there’s a catch.

I might have been better prepared to cultivate Padrón peppers if I’d spent more time bar hopping instead of farming. When Chef Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco, gave me a package of Padrón pepper seeds and told me he’d buy all I grew I accepted his proposition without thought. I knew how to grow peppers. Plant the seeds in the green house in February while the fields are still cold. Outside prepare the ground by laying drip tape over the top of raised beds, then put down a soil hugging black plastic mulch film for weed control. Transplant through the film in the middle of April. The film keeps the weeds down and soil humidity up. Peppers are heavy feeders so fertigate the planting by drip tape at any sign of loss in plant vigor. Because immature pepper pods are susceptible to sun burn push the plants for a dense, protective canopy of foliage that will shade the fruits. With all these precautions what can go wrong? Here’s where experience with the bar scene comes in handy.

While I was grunting around hot fields in California, my affluent Spanish peers were nibbling at tasty snacks and lingering over glasses of dry Sherry in cool tapas bars. No, not topless bars, tapas bars. A tapa is a bite sized morsel, often salty or savory. You might think of a tapa as an appetizer, though they are intended to stimulate a person’s thirst as much as their appetite. The idea is for people to get dressed up and head down the boulevard, stopping in at one establishment, then another, having a bite and having a glass while bumping into old friends and making new ones, before finally heading home for a sit down meal with the family.

Fried Padrón peppers makes a fabulous tapa. The peppers are picked in their tender infancy when they are about the size of olives. The cook tosses the peppers, seeds, stems and all, into a skillet so hot the olive oil almost smokes. The tiny peppers are blistered first on one side, then the other, before being salted and plated for serving. Most Padrón peppers are mild but about one pod out of twenty will burn the tongue as only a chili can. The risk every customer takes only enlivens their interest in their snack. Who loses when a Padrón pepper stings a diner? Certainly not bartenders; they respond quickly to the conflagration by selling another cool drink.

But I knew nothing of this the first year Chris gave me Padrón seeds. I planted the Spanish peppers and assiduously cared for them amidst all my other pepper plants. They thrived. Unfortunately for me all the hot peppers I cultivated shared an erect, airy habit and I couldn’t tell them apart. The plants looked all the same. When the Padrón peppers were tiny and ripe to be picked they looked like any other baby hot pepper with wrinkled green skin and a long stem hooked like a question mark. When the Padrón peppers matured to a waxy, fire engine red color with a scorching flavor they looked nothing like the pictures I puzzled over in my Spanish cook books. At length I decided the seed company ripped me off or the nursery had misplaced my plants. I did harvest some curiously hot “paprika “ peppers I couldn’t remember planting, though. When Chris began asking after his Padrón peppers I blamed everyone else. Since Chris is a trusting soul he got me more seed this past winter and I tried again this year.

I made the same mistakes the second year as I did the first and planted my Padrón peppers amidst my Poblanos, Boldog Paprikas, and Anaheims. This time I knew it was I who goofed. I went on hands and knees through the pepper patch inspecting young pepper pods and biting into them. I took samples of several peppers picked at different sizes and fried them just as it said to in my cookbooks. It finally made sense to me. Hot peppers only develop their heat as they near maturity. The super hot “paprikas” from the year before were simply overgrown Padrón peppers. The high price Padrón peppers command is simply what a farmer must charge to pay for the labor of picking such tiny fruits. When Padrón peppers are picked even a centimeter too large they are too uniformly hot to be a savory risk for the bar patron or a sure bet to the barkeep.

Though named for a town in Spain the Padrón pepper, like every pepper originally, is descendent from plants the Spaniards encountered in the New World. The Spanish palate is different than the Mexican palate; though the two countries share the same tongue they have different tastes. The Spaniard insists on only being occasionally surprised by a piquant bite of hot pepper. The Mexican fellows who work for me prefer peppers that are “bravo’, or even “muy bravo”. If I am going to earn 20 dollars a pound for my Padrón peppers, I have to learn the exact parameters of the tapas experience. Without the time or money to go bar hopping in Spain with urban trend setters I have to harvest, cook, and eat my own crop until I can pass an accumulated wisdom on to our workers who know they know more than me about peppers.

When I can teach the crew what I have learned, I’ll plant lots of Padrón peppers and sell them for lots of money. Then, with a fist full of money I’ll tell Julia she’s still hotter than any pepper I’ll ever find and invite her to go back to Spain with me, to Padrón, so we can hop from bar to bar toasting our marriage with cool, dry, golden sherry.

Previous Journal Entries

August 31
The social challenges of running a farmers' market stall
The protestors and cranks at an urban farmers' market thrust Andy inot delicate merchandizing dilemmas and make him eager to return to the sweet country life.

August 17
You can keep your lemonade...
Life gave me elderberries, not lemons, and that's just fine with me, says Andy.

August 2
Garlic Snakes
Andy discovers how his first-ever planting of stiff-necked garlic got it's scientific name and stumbles upon another marketing gimmick--spicy serpents.

July 20
Keep Rollin' While the rest of the world savors basil and tomatoes, Andy gets pumped up to plant parsnips. It's all part of the cycle.

July 2, 2004
Keep Truckin' Stop! Put that plastic truck (or other piece of marketing swag) down and back away. Think smart promotion to keep your small farm in the public eye.

June 2, 2004
Kinky Carrots It's astounding to what uses Andy Griffin's farmers' market customers will put his kinky, crooked carrot culls. Every carrot has a home.

May 11, 2004
Ain't I smart? Carelessness, poor planning and neglect leads Mariquita's Andy Griffin to discover the true value of a strange old heirloom crop--black Spanish radish.

April 20, 2004
Hats off to the many sombreros of a farmer Quack lawyer, truck driver, fake chef, and borderline carnival barker: all in a day’s work for a farmer like Andy Griffin … and once in a while he gets to contemplate nature.

April 2, 2004
The watermelon radish: Conspiracy from the left or the right … or just a darned good heirloom daikon? Those were among the suspicions raised by this ancient veggie at a recent event in Santa Cruz designed to introduce consumers to local food producers.

March 4, 2004
Guerilla garlic
Battling the influx of cheap Chinese garlic—even in to Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World”—Mariquita Farm grows green spring garlic, and banks its garlic dollars long before the garlic festival in July.

February 13, 2004
New riders of the purple goosefoot In Watsonville, California, the founders of Mariquita CSA discover the value of this antique cousin to spinach.

March 23, 2004
NOW is the time for shameless self-promotion He can't plant, cultivate or harvest--the fields are a swamp--but Mariquita's Andy Griffin can sell shares and hustle publicity.