The Basilicata region by way of Franco Pepe's pizza Video
14 November 2022
The history of the ‘peperone crusco’ and other culinary wonders of Basilicata
Anyone passing through Senise, a village nestled in the Pollino National Park, in August is greeted with a unique and picturesque sight. Long, bright-red strands made of peppers are hung out in the sun to be dried. They are so widespread that they blend in with the country’s architecture. This is how peperone crusco, or crispy pepper, is created: a Lucanian delicacy made from a very special product: the Senise pepper (PGI).
These peppers have been cultivated here since the 17th century, when they were brought to Europe from the Antilles and to Basilicata by the Spaniards: here they found favourable soil to grow in, thanks to the large water reserves and mild climate. Today the peppers are cultivated in an area stretching between the provinces of Potenza and Matera, from Senise to San Giorgio Lucano, and from Sant’Arcangelo to Montalbano Jonico.
At first glance, the Senise pepper might look like a spicy chilli, but this is only because of its small size, which can be up to 15 centimetres long. It has a bright red colour and a sweet taste and is distinguished by the fact that it contains little water: a characteristic that makes it particularly suitable for drying.
There are three types of Senise pepper: pointed, truncated or hooked. They are all planted between February and March and harvested in August, strictly by hand.
Then begins the process of turning them into the famous ‘peperoni cruschi’. First they are laid out on large cloth sheets in a dark, dry place for three days, then they are joined together with needle and thread to form the characteristic strands, which are called ‘serte’ and can be up to two metres long. The ‘serte’ are then hung on balconies or in ventilated rooms where there is enough air circulation to allow the peppers to dry out until only 10% of the initial water content remains inside them.
Now to prepare the ‘peperoni cruschi’ according to the traditional recipe: simply take the dried Senise peppers, remove the seeds and stalk, and fry them in a drop of extra virgin olive oil for a few seconds until they darken slightly.
Beyond ‘peperoni cruschi’
‘Peperoni cruschi’ are a perfect snack, ideal as an appetiser or side dish, but also as an essential ingredient for many Lucanian recipes, such as pasta with ‘peperoni cruschi’ or codfish Lucanian style. If ground, they can also become an aromatic powder with which to flavour meat, sausages, soups or bread: that’s why in Senise they are also called ‘Zafaran’ Pisat’, a term that compares them to a red type of saffron.
The Senise pepper is not the only Lucanian vegetable that visually resembles other products. The Melanzana Rossa di Rotonda, a PDO product protected by Slow Food, resembles a tomato in appearance, but is actually an aubergine with a slightly spicy flavour, perfect for sauces but also excellent fried and stuffed. It arrived in the Pollino area from Africa at the beginning of the last century, brought by some emigrants who had returned home, and today it is one of the symbols of Basilicata’s agri-food industry.
Lucanian cuisine is the child of the poor peasant tradition, synonymous with simple quality. Examples includes broad beans and chicory, the typical dish of the Lucanian countryside, or the Pezzente della Montagna Materana, a sausage that is traditionally made from the less valuable parts of the pig and spiced with fresh garlic, wild fennel and, of course, the Senise pepper. Or what about the Rafanata, a thick frittata typical of the Val d’Agri, which has two unique features: it is not fried but barbecued and contains horseradish, the spicy root that is an essential ingredient in Basilicata. Historically, it was widely eaten by shepherds and farmers because it was cheap and a valuable source of nutrients, which is why it is also called ‘the poor man’s truffle’.