A Hot Pepper for Cool Climes

When my faithful correspondent Sheila offered to send me seeds of a pepper variety called hinkelhatz, I didn’t bother to ask what a hinkelhatz pepper was. Every pepper variety, I figure, is worth trying at least once. As I laid the seeds on damp paper towels and later planted the sprouted seeds in pots in the greenhouse, I wondered what the fruit would be like, but I didn’t bother to research the question. And when I set the little plants out in the garden, again, I was too busy to look up a description.

It wasn’t until I idly picked and bit what I took to be an extra-small shishito that I learned what I’d planted. I screamed, spit, and tore to the house, drooling all the way, to salve my burning tongue with a big spoonful of sour cream. Hinkelhatz peppers are hot!

I grow many varieties of peppers, but with our cool summer temperatures of the past few years the chiles have sadly developed little heat. And our summers are simply too short for most reliably fiery varieties, such as habanero, to produce mature fruits. So the hinkelhatz was a big surprise.

Because it has been grown for well over 150 years by a small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites, the hinkelhatz has been added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. The name of this pepper—“chicken heart” in Pennsylvania Dutch—aptly describes its size (1½ to 2 inches long) and shape (somewhat conical but blunt-ended and slightly furrowed). The hinkelhatz starts out the same pale green color of the slighter longer—and never hot—shishito. Some Pennsylvania Mennonites grow a yellow hinkelhatz, but the commoner type, which I had, ripens orange-red. This description may remind you of the habanero, but the hinkelhatz has none of the habanero’s characteristic aroma. Just the heat.

When the first frosts came in early October, very few of my hinkelhatzes had ripened. I stored them in a box in our unheated guest bedroom, and I waited.

In mid-November, a few of the peppers had begun to rot; it was time to use the rest. Many were still fully green, so I put them in brine to ferment. About a third had ripened. These I would use in the way that Slow Food says the Pennsylvania Dutch do, as pepper vinegar.

The term pepper vinegar usually refers to vinegar that’s flavored by stuffing a jar full of hot peppers, pouring vinegar over, and letting it slowly draw out the peppers’ fire and flavor. Pepper vinegar of this sort is a common condiment in the West Indies and southeastern United States.

But Slow Food describes the Pennsylvania Dutch pepper vinegar as made from cooked and puréed peppers. So I created what might be better called a pepper sauce, in this way:

Hinkelhatz Pepper Sauce

1 pound ripe hinkelhatz peppers, tops cut off
½ cups cider vinegar (5 percent)
1 teaspoon fine salt

Grind the ingredients together in a blender or food processor until the peppers appear minced (not puréed).  In a saucepan, simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. Press it through the fine screen of a food mill. Funnel the sauce into a bottle, and store it in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

The sauce turned out a beautiful vermilion and, as expected, quite hot. It seems strange that Pennsylvania Dutch folks, with their sugar- and vinegar-rich but otherwise bland cookery, would favor hot sauce of any kind, much less this kind. According to Slow Food, the Mennonites who grow hinkelhatz peppers sprinkle pepper vinegar on their sauerkraut. I wish someone could tell the story of how this pepper arrived in Pennsylvania, presumably—though probably not directly—from Mexico, and how it came to be treasured and passed on through generations in a community of Mennonite farmers.

I thank those farmers for passing the hinkelhatz on to the rest of the world.  Seeds for the red type are now available from many garden seed companies, which you can find with a quick Internet search.