Written by John Graham
For the past 40 years, since 1979 on the first weekend of August, the small Galician village of Herbón honors the regionally grown Padron pepper at the Fesitval de Pemento Padrón (Festa do Pemento do Padrón in the native Gallego language, closely related to Portuguese).
Hidden away in the remote rugged northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, just to the north of Portugal, in the autonomous Spanish state of Galicia, the tiny province of A Coruña lies at the gate of the Barbanza peninsula. Between the banks of the Ulla and Sar rivers farmers in the municipalities of Padrón, Dodro, Rois and Valga have cultivated Padron peppers since the 1600s.
Padrón peppers are a small, thin-walled, sweet and occasionally spicy Capsicum annuum cultivar with a unique flavor profile, including the chance of a random hot pod. Though they turn from green to red when mature, they are harvest green for the fresh market. The well known local Galician phrase captures their essence - "Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non" ("Padrón peppers, some are hot and some are not")
The first Capsicum peppers (C. annuum) arrived to Spain from the New World with the return of Columbus' second voyage, reaching Seville in 1496. By the time the Spanish reached Mexico in 1519, the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican farmers had long since developed dozens of Capsicum pepper varieties of diverse shapes, colors and sizes, both hot and sweet.
But the first samples small pepper berries, thought to have been wildish bird peppers from the Caribbean islands, which made no dramatic impressions to the Spaniards, being overshadowed by the other wondrous bounty of the Americas.
In those times, the thought of exotic spices triggered suspicious minds to assume them to be likely aphrodisiacs. So according to the logic of the day, the seeds were entrusted to friars for ecclesiastical evaluation.
For a hundred years seeds were passed around monasteries, grown in their gardens and planted as ornamentals by the Spanish aristocracy. And though they served as little more than curiosities in the early years after introduction, little by little, Capsicum peppers began to meld into the Spanish national gastronomy.
The first progeny seeds of the Padrón cultivar that is known today reportedly arrived from Tabasco, Mexico in the early 1600s brought by Franciscan monks to the Convent of San Antonio in Hebron in the municipality of Padrón. Friars at the monastery maintained gardens for convent sustenance and surpluses were traded for needed goods. Capsicum peppers were planted among the food crops and over the seasons the Padron cultivar began to be favored, selected and shared in the local area.
By the early 1700s, the Padrón peppers had become an established favorite at the tables of locals and known enough in the region to allow monks to engage with farmers to establish a modest trade. The Padróns of those days were harvested mature red, dried and powdered as preservation and to have a product that could be distributed beyond the region.
The fresh green Padróns were known only in central Galicia. Wagons, rough roads and long distances kept the green pods a local secret until into the 20th century when refrigeration, paved roads and truck transport made it possible to distribute them beyond the region. Over generations, farmers of Padrón, have continuously selected and cultivated the variety for an idealized size, shape and sweetness, but lingering pungent genes persistently render approximately 1 in 10 of the peppers mildly hot. This characteristic has been called "Spanish Roulette" and has become part of the appeal of the Padróns.
As fame and popularity of the Padrón spread through Spain and into Europe, farmers in the traditional growing regions jealously guard the integrity and purity of the seeds with legal registrations and strict controls. The peppers are protected by Spanish law and designated PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) as the ecotype "Pemento de Herbón", variety "Padrón".
When it comes to the pungency of an individual pepper, there are no visual cues that can differentiate the no heat pods from hot ones but several factors can come into play during the growing process. The earliest peppers of the season typically have less heat than more mature peppers later on which are more likely to be hot. Rainfall, irrigation, soil fertility and high temperatures can play a role in the outcome.
A custom originating in Galicia that later spread across Spain, Padróns are commonly pan-fried with olive oil and sea salt and served as tapas - for which the trademark long, hooked stem makes the perfect handle, and used in scores of regional dishes, often paired with another New World immigrant, cornbread.
400 years after their introduction, the Galician district of Padrón is still an active center of production. The traditional season of May to September has been extended by greenhouse production and along with the national Spanish market, there are growing exports to Europe.
In recent years, the notorious Padrón has become popular in the Americas and is widely available in markets in the United States and Mexico. It could be called a case of capsicum karma or a spicy example of 'what goes around, comes around' - Padrón peppers have returned to the New World as a "Spanish" pepper.