One of my first tapas experiences was in an underground bar near the Plaza Mayor in Madrid back in 2009. It was there that I partook in the customary coming together of Spanish friends to share food: Elena, Carlos, Esther, Moises, Maria, Alicia, Fran, Miguel and me, a chubby red-faced Englishman recently arrived.

I don’t clearly remember the selection of foods that I stuffed into my mouth, I believe they indulged me a jug or four of sangria, but what I do remember was an innocuous plate of what looked rather a lot like a pile of fried jalapeños.

I watched them pass the plate around, each person in turn taking a little green pepper and placing it in their mouths, chomping it off at the stem-head. The others watched on. The eater shook their head relieved and the plate went round until it got to me. I picked a big one, it was juicy and oily, the flesh was sweet and the seeds bitter. Not spicy. I passed the plate on.

Ay! Como pica!!’ Cried someone reaching for a glass of water.

‘They’re not that spicy come on!’ Said me, the ignorant.

Sometimes they are. Spain’s culinary answer to Russian roulette. Such is the nature of the peppers that they have their own jaunty saying, originally in Galician:

Os pementos de Padrón, unos pican e outros non’ – Literally, ‘Padrón peppers, some are hot and some are not.’

Spanish roulette.

The origins

If we are talking about these treacherous emerald bastards, we are talking about the gloriously beautiful and wind/rain-swept lands of Galicia in the frondy northwest of the country. And, as so often with Spain, our thoughts turn to the Spanish Empire.

It all started when seeds of a chilli – not unlike a jalapeño – were brought back from the Mexican state of Tabasco, the same name as the sauce, which is turn is named after a pepper, which is turn named after the state. They were planted by Franciscan monks in the ancient-looking Herbón convent in the 17th century.

It seems that, whether or not they were originally as spicy as some Mexican chillies, the gentler Atlantic climate of heavy rains, atmospheric mist and dewy mornings, tempered the Latino fire a little, and only in summer do you see a spike in the number of hot peppers.

Generally in winter one seldom gets a spicy one, though after a warm summer the frequency can rise to one in twenty being fiery. And when they’re hot, they’re pretty hot. If you like spicy food it’s great, the Spanish however are not so accustomed to heat, hence the genuine apprehension sometimes when sharing a plate.

Even though Herbón is the spiritual home, there are over 200 families growing the pepper all over the municipality, which pertains to the larger town Padrón – larger meaning not even 9000 people. For this reason the little green bites are more generally referred to as pimientos de Padrón.

The dish

The cooking of this tapa couldn’t be simpler really. Take your pile of fresh peppers – now rather easy to find in big supermarkets and food stores around North America and Europe – and fry.

If lacking a deep fat frier, a good deep pan will do. Glug in your Spanish olive oil and heat. When the oil is hot, but not violently bubbling, throw in the peppers. Every so often turn them over and around so they cook evenly on all sides.

Leave them in their hot bath for anywhere between 3-6 minutes. Take them out when they have started to crinkle and soften and even blacken a touch. Pour them out onto some kitchen towel, or if using a deep fat frier, shake them out well in the basket. Throw over some coarse sea salt, prep your Russian roulette gun, and serve to your guests.

Many restaurants will serve them with a variety of dishes – anything from huevos rotos and pincho moruno to grilled steaks and oven-baked fish — with these little green peppers acting as an edible garnish. In bar Cerveriz in Madrid Carlos jokingly likes to ‘empadronar’ his dishes with a scattering of in-season pimientos de padrón. Empadronar being the verb to legally register oneself in Spain.

As mentioned before ‘pimientos de Padrón’ is arguably the working title for these peppers, though one could claim that it is also something meaningless and non-existent. In reality there are various peppers. Some have IGP (Protected Geographic Indicator) status and one has the full DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin).

So, for the geeks and completists out there:

  • Pimientos de Herbón DOP
  • Pimientos de Mougan IGP
  • Pimiento de Couto IGP
  • Pimiento de Arnoia IGP
  • Pimiento de Oímbra IGP (super-sized versions)
  • Pimiento de Gernika IGP (a Basque pepper of similar characteristics)

Many traditional taverns throughout larger cities and towns over Spain, and certainly from the central plains towards the north, will serve these. But do note, despite the variants, they will be almost always signposted as pimientos de Padrón or padrones.

Where I eat it:

Bear in mind, especially if in Galicia, that the peppers are seasonal (the summer months).

Madrid – Casa Toni (Calle de la Cruz, 14), Cerveriz (Plaza de San Miguel, 2), Mesón del Champiñon (Cava de San Miguel, 17), Los Gallegos Casa del Pulpo (Calle Almendrales, 12), Casa del Abuelo II (Calle Nuñez del Arce, 5).

Santiago de Compostela – Mesón O’42 (Rúa do Franco, 42), Abastos 2.0 (Praza de Abastos, Rúa das Ameas, 13-18), O Gato Negro (Rúa da Raiña, s/n).

Padrón – Café Cultural Airiños (Herreros Numero 8).

A Coruña – La Taberna del Arriero (Calle del Capitán Troncoso, 19).

What I drink with it:

A nice cold bottle of Ribeiro white will go nicely with the peppers, sliding between all the stronger flavours of salt, bitterness and potential spice. I rather like the Colleita by Antonio Montero.

What I listen to:

Op.23, no.18. The Death of Åse from Peer Gynt Suite – Edvard Grieg

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