For the Love of the Chile


The item this morning is from staff writer Bill Strobel of the San Jose Mercury News, from (who want's 'em?) yesterday's papers, with a photo of Rancher Larry Guglielmetto, taken by Vince Musi. Mr. Guglielmetto and Mr. Dino Orsetti grow capsicum species, chili peppers, in the southern Santa Clara Valley, in order to help supply "the fastest growing market in the food industry."

Mr. James Lusk, an official with Petoseed Co., of Saticoy in Ventura County, one of the world's largest suppliers of pepper seeds and plants, keeps tabs on pepper preferences and sales throughout the United States and Canada.

Christopher Columbus discovered the capsicum chili pepper, a native of tropical America and the West Indies. The Portugese popularized their use in Asia, especially following their introduction into India in the 17th century. The mission padres introduced the crop to California, but commercial production is fairly recent. In 1940 a South County rancher, Jim Hirosaki, planted 40 acres of peppers hoping to take advantage of the shortage of Hungarian paprika. The area is ideally suited for cascabels and jalapenos. "They like it hot, but not too hot," says Guglielmetto, "and they require a lot of water. But they are not a crop you can plant and walk away from. You've got to weed them continually or they'll get mugged by the wild mustard."

9,690 tons of peppers were grown in California in 1983, mostly in the counties of Fresno, San Joaquin, Monterey and San Benito. In a good year there can be as many as five crops. Squirrels, deer and cattle like them, but birds don't. Except for parrots.

One other point; Mr. Lusk notes that in one out of every three households in America someone is on a diet, and dieters are turning to chili peppers among other spices to add flavor to low calorie or low sodium dishes: "Americans are becoming more adventurous in their cooking and dining."

The three California boys noticed this in 1970, perhaps a little early on in the process. We wondered why it was so hard to find a restaurant in which you could eat food the way we ate it at home, without holding back on the chiles. Adventurous, eh? [Curator's note: See Diamond Sutra].


Out front it should be established that there is no clinical evidence whatsoever that the active ingredients of the chile (or chili) pepper have ever resulted in the destruction of human tissue. One of the most astounding things about the chile is, in fact, just this immediate powerful effect so utterly without deleterious consequences. In his chapter titled "Eating Chilies," Dr. Andrew Weil quotes Jethro Kloss, author of the popular herbal, Back to Eden on this point. (The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon, [Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.33].

We know that Christopher Columbus sailed to the East by going West in order to capitalize on the spice trade. Pepper was held in especially high value by late 15th century Europe because of its usefulness in preserving food. Peppercorns, being precious and portable, functioned as real money. Before the so-called discovery of the New World by Columbus, the only species of pepper known were from the genus piper, totally distinct, botanically, from the chile peppers of genus capsicum, said to contain some 500 varieties (although not all of these are distinct species, as cross-pollination is common). The discovery by Columbus of the true capsicum genus is one of the great success stories in the history of global cuisine. It could be planted in many parts of the world where there was sufficient sunlight, and swiftly became a popular ingredient of global cuisine.

Before the advent of the true chile, no food quite so perfectly hit the HOT point of the taste mandala. Peppercorns could be piquant, such as those from Lampong in Sumatra, or relatively mild like the Telicherry pepper favored by the conventional American market. In the Orient, an approach to piquancy was made through the pungency of ginger, horseradish and mustard seed. Andrew Weil discusses the differences between the "hot" of mustard and that of chiles: mustard comes and goes, and that is that, but chiles come on in waves, and the "hot" keeps coming. The true chile lover must learn to become a "mouth surfer," riding rather than fighting the intensity of the experience. We know that, physiologically, human beings are capable of distinguishing on four basic tastes: acidic, bitter, salty and sweet. Technically then, the taste of chile might be considered acidic, because the active agent of piquancy is picric acid [C6 H2 (NO2)3 OH], also used as an antiseptic, as a dye and in the manufacture of explosives. The acid is described as bitter, poisonous and unstable when heated, as the picrate salts explode if just struck. Two observations about toxicity: the amount of picric acid in a whole bowl full of chile peppers is still very small--high intelligence says that it would be very difficult indeed to eat so many chile peppers as to risk poisoning by picric acid--although even pure, clear water is toxic if taken in sufficient quantities.

We know other things about basic taste, but perhaps just two are worth mentioning here. The first is that water is necessary in order to taste, which we experience as the presence of saliva. Secondly, we taste with four areas of our tongues: sweet on the tip, bitter at the back, salty in the middle and acidic along the sides.

One other, slightly different point about taste. The function of taste conjoined with that of smell seem to be impaired for human beings with a zinc deficiency in the diet or as a consequence of metabolic dysfunction. In such circumstances, medical patients are considered to be in danger because they are not able to distinguish between fresh food and rotten, which perceptions apparently require the participation of at least minimal quantities of zinc. Picric acid was described as being "bitter." No mistake, the name and the word are cognate(s); they derive from the Greek word pikros, which comes from the Indo European peiq or peik, with the sense of "to cut or to mark by incision." This same root yields paint, picture, pinto, pigment and pimento. Curiously, perhaps, the etymology of "piquant" and "pique" is traced through the Old French piquer, "to pierce or to prick," from the (unattested) Vulgar Latin piccare, probably from Latin picus, "woodpecker," which comes from the Indo European speik, also the source of the name for the magpie, and of the noun "pica", a craving for unnatural food, as seen in hysteria and pregnancy--as being associated with the omnivorous nature of the magpie. [American Heritage Dictionary, s.v.]

There is no crossing without motive. This we know by introspection and from reflection upon experience. We also have it from the master mathematician, G. Spencer Brown. Let us indulge ourselves, then, by speculating upon the motives for the epic voyages of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue." It's not hard to figure out why. We all know that the voyage was funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Spain, and that there is a monument with a statue on a tall column in the harbor area of Barcelona which marks Columbo's departure from that port--a monument which the contemporary artist Christo reportedly wants to wrap up. Clearly Columbo sailed to Spain for funding, and got himself into working for the crown of Castile and Leon, principally transporting gold back to Iberia. We do not know more about Columbo and his explorations because the records were kept as personal royal property, or have been sequestered in the Archive of the Indies in Seville. But it seems that the question of motive must have come up already when Columbo left his home port of Genoa.

Now everyone knows that Italians like to eat pasta. Generally, it is dangerous to make generalizations--but this has to be safe. OK, what do we know about pasta? That Marco Polo might have brought back news of noodle-eating from the land of the Jade Emperor does not change the fact that there are earlier recorded instances of pasta eating in Italy, before Marco Polo's expeditions. Spaghetti and meat balls is one thing, Carbonara quite another, as is fettucine with clam sauce, or Alfredo, or Greta Garbo. Nevermind. Around Genoa the primordial cullinary issue is resolved with pasta al pesto.

As proof of the globalization of cuisine, the best pasta al pesto in the world today can be made most easily in California. All of the ingredients are available, imported or fresh, of the finest sort--and in addition, the shops are open after one o'clock in the afternoon. In the fifteenth century, the wheat for Italian pasta would have been grown in the fertile Po River Valley, although now the very finest pasta is likely to be made from hard red winter wheat grown in North Dakota. We like our pasta made with fresh eggs. To really get the feeling of what sensuous pasta can be, slipping and sliding down the esophagous, nothing else does it like fresh egg pasta, cooked a little softer than the supposed "al dente" texture. In order to cook pasta fit to eat, of course, one must have pure, clear, sweet water in which to boil it (may we ever be memorious!). Some say add a bit of salt to the water. If one adds salt at all, that is probably the place to do it, in the water. We get a lot of salt we don't bargain for, and I don't like to add much salt to anything. Sometimes on raw celery, or other raw vegetables like tomatoes. Perhaps a bit on a melon tends to bring out the flavor; the same with a boiled egg. A little bit of salt in the water, and a few drops of olive oil, which should prevent the pasta from cooking together into one big lump.

But the pasta shouldn't be cooked until the sauce, the pesto is ready. The basic ingredient in pesto is fresh basil. Sweet basil is the king of herbs--literally, the name is from the Greek basilikosor, "king." It is a very ancient herb. A variety with characteristic purplish leaves was grown in India and used in Hindu temple ceremonies. There are many varieties of basil--so many that it is almost obligatory to say that we don't know which is which. Academic botanists contest the taxonomy of basil, undecided as to whether some species are truly distinctive or merely illustrate variation. The University of California at Davis houses a computer-based data bank of great usefulness in plant research.

A search for titles dealing with the herb basil reveals an imposing list of references. Much of the technical interest in basil, which is identified as osimium, is focussed on the nature of its essential oils--naturally enough, for this is where the flavor comes from, the rationale for its use in cooking, and therefore its principal attribute from the point of view of commerce, whatever spiritual qualities might have been imputed to the plant by other cultures. The molecular structures of essential oils in osimium are quite well understood; but there are several that contribute to basil's characteristic flavor, and their precise function in this subtler role is but imperfectly understood. What is understood by good cooks is that it pays to have the basil growing close to the kitchen. From the farmer's concern, the plant must have lots of sunlight.

Clearly, according to the expert botanists studying the molecular structure of basil's essential oils, variation in the amount of sunlight is the single most critical factor in determining the richness and concentration of flavor derived from the harvested plant. There are some other procedural considerations for harvesting. If there are few available plants, such as in the typical small herb garden, then immature plants may be plucked a few leaves back from their apical peristems or growing nodes. This will usually result in a branching, with two new nodes where there was but one before. Early formation of flowers are also important to watch for, and to pluck if one is not growing for seed, because the plant stores most of its essential oils in the green leaves, rather than in the stalks and stems or seed pods. If the entire plant is to be harvested, then it maybe kept fresh and alive until it is ready to be used by pulling up the entire root system, which part may be stored in a carafe of water. Only the leaves are preferred for use in cooking. Apparently different methods of preparing the leaf affect the flavor, as maintained by some traditional cooks, although this has not been established by clinically conducted blind comparative tastings. One hears it said that the ONLY way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle. There's no argument on lexical grounds, but it's quite another matter if the taste of basil that has been crushed is detectably different from that which has been cut, whether with a cook's knife or a mezzaluna. By inspection one can usually discern a different visual appearance, which may also provide a slightly different texture. The action of the mortar and pestle, rubbing and crushing rather than cutting through the plant fibers on a plane normal to the surface of the leaf, may very well release oils in a distinct way that enhances their flavor. So much has been attested, as we say, but not established.

If one should run short of basil, early in the season or expensive at the market place, the herbage can be extended by adding Italian broad-leafed parsley to the crushing or chopping process.

The pasta, the basil. Next comes the olive oil. Here we should say that the pesto itself is not cooked. It is served as a sauce or topping on freshly cooked pasta. Olive oil, sometimes with added butter for the sake of both flavor and consistency, is the basic vehicle or binder of the sauce. Olive oill We can't dive right into olive oil here, but we would feel remiss were we not to remind any self-respecting cook to use only the very finest virgin olive oil available. The very finest available, that is; so it is all a question as to how much trouble are we willing to tolerate in our quest for the ideal virginal essence. There are "vintage" olive oils very much as there are vintage wines. Sometimes there are comparably fine oils, subtly differentiated by their aroma, flavor, color, viscous qualities, smoking temperature, or aftertaste, and so forth. Then comes the question of price. Good oil is of course expensive. That is because the first pressing only yields real virgin olive oil--also, that pressing can be light (so that only the most exqusite liquor is drawn off) or heavier (with a correspondingly grosser pressing). Very good oil is expensive because it always costs some people a lot of time, care, labor and love. That is why, when one finds a particularly fine oil, small bottles make excellent presents for friends who enjoy cooking. It is possible to pay vast amounts of money for some olive oils; and while they may certainly be good, there are no guarantees. As the saying goes, "old wine, but new oil." Olive oil is difficult to store for very long, as it tends to go rancid unless tightly stoppered.

Usually new oil is purchased with each year's fresh harvest. As with wine labels, some are reliable indications of a quality product, others may have degenerated into merely the product of snobbery in marketing. Since few of us enjoy direct contact with growers and producers of either wine or oil, the next best practical move is to develop a correct relationship with one's purveyors. Many kitchens find it expedient to stock several grades of olive oil, using the finest for subtle dressings and sauces in which its flavor will be most noticeable, preferring, perhaps, a heartier oil if it is to be heated. In ordinary circumstances, oil should not be refrigerated, but stored at room temperature. As the pesto is prepared without cooking, and derives its heat only from the pasta upon which it is served, the very finest of oils should be used.

If butter is to be mixed with the olive oil, the fresh, unsalted sort is to be preferred. Well, what about it? Apart from freshness and the question of salt (which helps preserve butter) isn't it all the same? Does freezing or whipping change the taste of butter? Can anyone tell the difference? Butter from Jersey cows? Golden gurnseys? The U.S. Government megabutter stash?

The dairy element of cardinal concern in pesto is cheese. I like to use a blend, starting with the sharp almost sour flavor of a ewe's milk cheese, a high quality pecorino romano. But purists, for the classic northern Italian dish, might stick to a parmigiano cheese, such as the famous one from Reggio. There are two Reggios in Italia, and they could be a thousand miles away from each other. Right down there, exactly on the tip of Italy's geographical toe is Reggio, Calabria, just across the Straits of Messina from Sicily.

It was near there, a few years ago that some divers in shallow waters, only some eight meters deep, happened to bring to the surface some of the most beautiful and well-preserved bronze sculpture we have from the ancient world. Two monumental figures, and another impressive head, have been meticulously cleaned and installed in the gracious museum in Reggio, Calabria. These are extraordinary works of art, which greatly deepen our understanding of Greek bronze statuary: one figure has teeth of inlaid silver, and eyes of inlaid stone. The craftsmanship of the bronze working is superb, the artistry of the highest provenance. To see them one must visit Reggio, Calabria. But it is the other Reggio, in Emilia, up north, near Parma, that is the home of the great cheese. The premium cheese is well-aged. One can usually tell this by inspecting for little pin-heads of calcium that develop in the body of a good ripe dry parmigiano. This cheese is stored at room temperature, as will be the pecorino. Both can be grated together and added to the oil (with butter, if any), and the crushed (or thoroughly chopped) basil (and parsley).

Next come the nuts. Talking more money here. All that elegant Italian furniture made from walnut wood...the beautiful walnut orchards of the Napa and Santa Clara Valleys...ah, when there were all the walnuts out in Lafayette! And all those walnut trees one still may see while driving along the country roadside--they all belong to someone, as do the nuts that fall therefrom. Walnuts are good in Italian food. The Latins, in their inspired wisdom, called their lady of letters, goddess of the alphabet, mother Muse and matron of the arts Carmenta, who was imagined incarnate in the walnut tree. So there is nothing wrong in adding some finely chopped walnuts to pesto. But the real nut of choice, without some of which no pesto would be quite the same, is the nut of the pine tree, sacred to the Great God Dionysos. We here in California ought to know, also, that the pine nut (pinola) was once a staple item of the diet for several local tribes. Nowadays the best bargains in pine nut shopping can be found in Chinatown: the imported Chinese product is tastier and sweeter, plumper, juicier and cheaper. The nuts get chopped up and put in with the herbs, oil and cheese. We are just about home. The consistency should be between chunky peanut butter and guacamole. Ha,ha. Does that help any?

There is no wish to be teasing or cruel; we must understand that the beginning to make pasta al pesto is quite another gesture from putting the finishing touches on the dish. And so the shortest way home just may be what appears as the longest way around. If it WERE such an easy matter, may we be emboldened to suggest, Christopher Columbus, old Columbo (named after the dove that flew from Noah's ark and returned to it again with the same news of dry land yonder, the dove of the Irish missionary Saint Columba, the dove as Paraclete, symbolic of the most primal and highest form of the Christian Trinity, God the Holy Spirit) might well have stayed home in Genoa eating pasta al pesto. But as far as we have taken it, the dish is not yet complete. It needs something else, but that "something" is not as easy or automatic as you might imagine. There is a bit of the mystery of the unknown ingredient, such as when we try to analyse a succulent and apparently simple dish.

The missing item in pesto, however, had momentous consequences for America. It was, obviously, pepper. Some kind of spice: ground black peppercorns possibly; others will want to grate nutmeg (which complements the flavor of basil very well). Delicious as they are, the sun-dried Italian tomatoes (pomidori secchi) just won't do--tomatoes have no place in pasta al pesto. Sorry. What is wanted is a bit of spice. And thus did Christopher Columbus set forth.

July 25, 1984