FALMOUTH — On a muggy afternoon, Rooster Fricke strolls past rows of small, thick bushes dotted with scarlet, gold, orange, jade, and purple chili peppers. Nobska Farms is home to some really hot chilies. A single bite can scorch your mouth, bring tears to your eyes, and make you break out into a sweat.
Fricke, a lifelong gardener, grows 50 varieties, some mild, others with sinister names like ghost pepper and devil’s tongue. This year he will produce 200 pounds that might be long and slender, or conical, or squat like lanterns. Most will go into the hot sauce he bottles in 5-ounce jars and sells as Rooster’s Rocket Fuel. He also sells them fresh, smoked, and dried, turns them into hot pepper jelly and spicy candies made with Belgium chocolate. All are for sale on his three-quarter acre microfarm or by mail.
Chili peppers are typically cultivated in hot climates, making Cape Cod an unlikely spot for the crop. For five years, Fricke has nurtured these plants from seed and transferred them to pots. He brings many of the pots into his house when the temperature drops, but this year he’ll move them into a new greenhouse.
As the sun beats down on the peppers, a grin forms beneath Fricke’s bushy handlebar moustache as he points to a pod. “This is Chilhuacle Negro from Oaxaca, Mexico,” he says. “It’s rare and hard to find. I use it to make mole sauce.”
Bright red pods resembling starfish hang from a shrub, and are appropriately named Aji Brazilian Starfish. This type is sweet and pungent, good for Peruvian dishes, the grower says. Then there’s the plant with scarlet, pebbly pods; they’re the rare Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, said to be the hottest pepper on the planet. On the Scoville scale, used to measures a pepper’s capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that sets your throat aflame, it can reach up to 2 million units. In comparison, jalapenos rate a mere 5,000 units, habaneros up to 350,000. New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces last year identified the Moruga Scorpion as the hottest, upstaging the Bhut Jolokia, or ghost pepper, from India, once considered the fieriest in the world.
“These super-hots are for salsas and sauces,” says Fricke. Besides the ferocious pungency many have vibrant flavors. “Some are smoky, others have tastes that are fruity and citrusy.”
In the kitchen at Quicks Hole in Woods Hole, chef Stephanie Mikolazyk dices only one half of a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Nobska Farms to make a half-gallon of a salsa. Chefs, some in New York, are the farmer’s best customers. “Rooster’s peppers are rare and the variety enables me to make dishes I wouldn’t make,” says Mikolazyk. The intense heat from the capsaicin is in the inner membranes, which houses the seeds. The chef says when she cuts these chilies, she pulls on rubber gloves and runs cutting boards and knives twice through the dishwasher. “The vapors can catch you off guard and you can lose your breath for a minute,” she says.
Ardent devotees who seek out Fricke’s specialty chilies tell him they find the lip-tingling, burning sensation a thrill, and the warm glow or rush it creates can be addictive. “The heat sensation is a pain sensation going to the brain, and the brain then tells the body to make endorphins to block the pain, and endorphins makes you feel good,” says Paul Bosland, a pepper expert and professor at New Mexico State University and director of the Chile Pepper Institute. “For some it’s a sport and a contest.”
Fricke says chili fans often tell him eating hot peppers helps them relax. “One of my customers says when she comes home from work it’s not a good day unless she sits down with some chips and a bowl of really hot salsa.”
Nothing like a chili pepper off the capsaicin scale to take away stress.
Nobska Farms, www.nobskafarms.com.
Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.