This hot pepper is surviving Italy's extreme heat wave

A chilli pepper from the south of Italy is winning a heroic battle against climate change-caused heat.

By Jonathan Moens
Published 21 Sept 2022, 10:15 BST
calabrian-chilli-climate
Dried peppers in the Calabria region of Italy. Chili pepper crops have been challenged by Italy's hot weather this year, but the plants are surviving when other crops can't beat the heat.
Photograph by Toni Anzenberger, Redux

Every 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 chilli pepper—known for its harsh sting somewhere between jalapeño 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 chilli variety, dangle from balconies. Enormous scarlet chilli sculptures stand erect in the town’s squares. Crowds stroll along the seaside, wearing red clothing, chilli-shaped earrings, and makeshift crowns.

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

Chilli 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 chilli 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. Still, chilli peppers’ resilience and versatility have helped to minimise economic losses, Viggiano says. 

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.

Chilli history

Chilli 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 in oils and grappa, melded into goat's cheeses, powdered to dust, combined with sardines, and used to make traditional recipes, including the much-loved Nduja, a spicy, spreadable chilli pork sausage. They also appear in chilli-themed film screenings and Red Hot Chili Peppers cover bands. The main event, however, is a race to see who can eat the most chilis in 30 minutes. This year, two contestants broke even at 1.5 pounds (680g) each.

“The entire town comes alive,” says Enzo Monaco, founder of the festival and president of the Italian Academy of Chilli Peppers.

When Monaco and his friends first launched the chilli 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 metres (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. “The priests, the church, they started pushing back, so we had to tone things down,” he says.

That tension between chilli peppers and the church is not new. Over 500 years ago, when Christopher Columbus brought chilli peppers back from his travels in the Americas, he was hoping to sell the spice in Spain and across Europe. But his plan didn’t quite work, says Monaco, who wrote a book on the topic. 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 chilli peppers in the country when it arrived there around 70 years later. 

It was only when chilli peppers reached poorer classes that the spice really started to be appreciated. Many people in southern regions of Italy, including Calabria, did not eat meat and were limited to vegetables like eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Chillis provided the perfect condiment to give these vegetables a kick of flavour, says Monaco. 

From then on, chillis quickly spread around the country and across the world, assisted by migrating birds, whose lack of taste receptors leave them unfazed by chilli’s spice. “Birds would eat chillis, do their business in the air, the seed would fall below, and chillis would spread that way,” Monaco says.

The fact that chilli peppers are so easy to grow also played an important role in its spread. “All you needed was soil, a vase, a seed, and place it on a balcony under the sun and you’d get chilli peppers year-round,” he says. Calabria—with its sunny weather—was an ideal spot for the plant to thrive and has become the region of Italy that eats the most chilli peppers. 

Chilli’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. When producing dried chilis, long and intense heat can actually speed up the process, says Viggiano. Some farmers have used this to their advantage. “If we can’t sell it [fresh], we dry them up and sell them. It’s another way of facing this problem,” says Francesco Donato, a chilli pepper farmer from Diamante. 

There is a limit to the chilli plant’s toughness, though. If temperatures stay high for too long, plants will often wilt, discolour, and eventually die, even if they have enough water, says Viggiano, who saw that happen in her own fields.

Farmers emphasise that it’s the heat waves, rather than droughts, that pose an immediate threat to chilli peppers in the region. Diamante is surrounded by mountains, small rivers, and plentiful aquifers that, for now, provide sufficient water for its agriculture, says Viggiano. Heat waves, on the other hand, will likely strike every year, and with increasing intensity as the effects of climate change tighten their grip on global weather.

Monaco, however, is more optimistic. With thousands of varieties of chilli peppers in the world, and the crop’s versatility and robustness, he is convinced that chilli peppers will endure and adapt. And if chilli peppers can’t handle the intense heats near the coast of Calabria, farmers can plant higher up in the surrounding mountains where temperatures are milder, says Monaco.

“In my opinion the chilli pepper won’t have too many difficulties,” he says. “Chilli peppers can grow in all kinds of altitudes—from sea to mountains.”

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