This hot pepper is surviving Italy’s extreme heat wave
Calabria, ItalyEvery year in mid-September the small, coastal Italian town of Diamante undergoes a transformation. Up to 200,000 people come over the course of five days to celebrate the famous Calabrian chili pepper–known for its harsh sting somewhere between jalapeno and cayenne–against the backdrop of impressive murals of fishermen, religious figures, and abstract art.
Bundles of dried crimson Diavolicchio, the region’s most common chili variety, dangle from balconies. In the town’s squares, huge scarlet chili sculptures are erected. Red clothing, chili-shaped earrings and makeshift crowns are worn by crowds as they stroll along the seaside.
The festival is celebrating its 30th year, but in many ways this has been a year unlike any other. Italy faced raging, climate change-caused heat waves and scant rains, causing its worst drought in over 70 years. Italian agriculture, especially in the northern regions, has suffered immensely as a result, with crop yields, including rice, wheat, corn, olives, and tomatoes, plummeting by up to 70 percent.
Chili pepper crops, which aren’t as thirsty as others, fared better but have not escaped the heat unscathed. In Calabria, along with Sicily the largest pepper-producing area in Italy, “The drop in yields this year has been about 20 to 30 percent, “says Maria Viggiano, co-owner of Valle Lao Agriculture Company, one of the region’s largest chili pepper farms. That decline, however, wasn’t caused by drought, since Calabria had enough moisture but from the relentless heat; temperatures spiked up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit over the summer, about 15 degrees higher than average. Viggiano states that chili peppers’ resilience has helped to minimize economic losses.
For many, this year’s festival is a celebration of just that: the plant’s heroic survival in the face of rapidly increasing temperatures made more intense and frequent by climate change.
Chili peppers at the festival are everywhere in myriad shapes and sizes: small and button-shaped, long and slender, half-bent like crooked fingers. They are infused with oils and grappa and melted into goat’s cheeses. The powdered form is combined with sardines and used to create traditional recipes such as the beloved Nduja, a spicy, spreadable chili-pork sausage. They are also featured in chili-themed film screenings, as well as Red Hot Chili Pepper cover bands. The main event, however, is a race to see who can eat the most chilis in 30 minutes. Two contestants made it to the finals at 1.5 pounds each.
“The entire town comes alive,” says Enzo Monaco, founder of the festival and president of the Italian Academy of Chili Peppers.
When Monaco and his friends first launched the chili pepper festival in Diamante, in 1992, the focus wasn’t so much on the pepper itself. It was on its well-known aphrodisiac effects.”We built a phallus that was about three meters (10 feet) tall,” says Monaco.
As the festival gained momentum and started to attract more tourists from all over Italy, however, Monaco started making enemies. He says, “The priests, church, they started pushing back. So we had to tone it down.”
That tension between chili peppers and the church is not new. Over 500 years ago, when Christopher Columbus brought chili peppers back from his travels in the Americas, he was hoping to sell the spice in Spain and across Europe. Monaco, who wrote a book about the subject, said that his plan didn’t work out. Rich and noble classes didn’t like the taste, and the church saw its reputation as an aphrodisiac as anathema to its sacred values–so much so that they convinced monks in Mexico to define it as a spice that “awakens deranged suggestions.” The church in Italy also pushed back against the spread of chili peppers in the country when it arrived there around 70 years later.
It was only when chili peppers reached poorer classes that the spice really started to be appreciated. Calabria and southern Italy were home to many people who didn’t eat meat, but only ate vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. Monaco says that chilis were the perfect condiment to give these veggies a kick of flavor.
From then on, chilis quickly spread around the country and across the world, assisted by migrating birds, whose lack of taste receptors leave them unfazed by chili’s spice. Monaco states that birds would eat chilis and then go about their business in the air. The seed would fall to the ground, and chilis would spread like wildfire.
The fact that chili peppers are so easy to grow also played an important role in its spread. He says that all you needed to grow chili peppers was soil, a vase, seeds, and a place for them to flourish on a sunny balcony. Calabria, with its sunny climate, was the perfect place for the plant to thrive. It is now the region that eats most chili peppers.
Chili’s saving grace
As a crop, chilis are incredibly versatile: They can be harvested and sold fresh, but can also be dried, fermented, or pickled. Viggiano says that drying chilis can be made faster by using intense heat. This has been a benefit for some farmers. “If we don’t have the ability to sell it fresh, we dry them and then sell them. Francesco Donato from Diamante, a chili pepper farmer, says that it’s another way to deal with this problem.
There is a limit to the chili plant’s toughness, though. Viggiano, who witnessed it happen in her own fields, said that plants can wilt and discolor if temperatures remain too high for too long.
Farmers emphasize that it’s the heat waves, rather than droughts, that pose an immediate threat to chili peppers in the region. Viggiano says that Diamante is surrounded with mountains, small rivers, and abundant aquifers that provide enough water for its agriculture. Heat waves will be a problem, however, as climate change’s effects tighten their grip on global weather, with increasing intensity and more frequent strikes.
Monaco, however, is more optimistic. He is confident that chili peppers can withstand and adapt to the thousands of varieties of chili peppers available around the globe, thanks to their robustness and versatility. Monaco says that if chili peppers are unable to withstand the extreme heats of Calabria’s coast, farmers can plant higher in the mountains, where temperatures are more temperate.
“In my opinion the chili pepper won’t have too many difficulties,” he says. “Chili peppers can grow in all kinds of altitudes–from sea to mountains.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.