If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a Maple Lemonade or Spicy Sunrise from Verde, you’ve likely tasted the cayenne that we grow on our farm here in Abiquiu. It’s the pepper that gives your juice spice and a sunset pink hue. This particular cayenne variety is very special to us. It has traversed continents, shifted shapes, and has it’s own name: Joe’s Long.
Peppers are indigenous to the Americas and were spread to the rest of the world by early Spanish and Portuguese traders and soldiers. It is likely that some earlier version of the pepper we now grow made this same journey across the sea. By 1771, home gardeners were growing and breeding peppers in Europe, and the variety we now call Joe’s Long was eventually cultivated and became well known in Calabria, Italy. In the twentieth century, the seeds went to sea for a second time. Perhaps they were secretly sewed inside the hems of dresses or the hat brims of Italian immigrants as they headed for Canada. The seeds circulated through the Italian Canadian community of Toronto before being sent to Joe Sestino in Troy, New York. He had the good sense to share the seeds with the renowned Dr. Carolyn Male. She sent them on to the fabulous non-profit Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa that is still responsible for their continued existence and sales today.
Each year, we grow several rows of this historical pepper at Red Mountain Farm. Because of the work of generations of seed stewards and plant breeders, this is a particularly beautiful and vigorous plant. Most cayenne varieties have a stubby conical fruit not more than a few inches long. By contrast, Joe’s Long is finger thick with an unusual snake like shape and often reaches 10 inches in length.
The journey from seed to bottle takes roughly 9 months. In mid March we press each tiny seed into its own pot inside the warm protection of our greenhouse. By the end of May the danger of frost has passed, and the little plants are set out in the field, mulched with hay, and flood irrigated with the waters of the Rio Chama. Then we wait. The plants grow lanky and tall with a weepy foliage and distinct waxy texture. Later, papery white insignificant blooms give way to curvaceous green immature fruit. By mid September, a general blush appears in the rows and is followed by the brilliant streaks of red that signify mature fruit. A harvest basket brimming with the glossy, pungent, red twists is a gorgeous sight indeed.
After harvest, the fruit are tied into traditional ristras to dry. They hang outside in the open air until the frosts intensify and are afterwards moved indoors to finish curing by the fire. By October or November the fully dried peppers arrive at Verde where they are cleaned, sorted, ground, and added to your favorite drink.
When we know the stories behind the food we eat, we can’t help but recognize our interdependent and precarious relationship to the generations of plants and people that sustain us. Thank you to all the folks out there supporting the sorts of stories that keep regenerative agriculture alive in our communities. Let’s drink to that!