Peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and potatoes are all members of the Solanaceae family. Those grown for their fruit have very similar cultural requirements and form an important and much-loved part of Italian cuisine.
The term “peppers” (peperone in Italian) includes chillies and a broad range of sweet and sometimes spicy peppers that are most commonly green, ripening to red and yellow in maturity, and ranging in size and shape from blocky capsicums to horn-shaped and small, thin skinned varieties. A native of Central and South America, the name is derived from a confused Christopher Columbus who thought he had discovered the East Indies and black pepper.
Most varieties of peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical that can produce a strong burning sensation in the mouth of the unaccustomed eater. Most mammals ﬁnd this unpleasant, whereas birds are unaffected and this in the wild allows dispersion of seeds.
Eggplant or aubergine (melanzana in Italian) originated in the Indian subcontinent and is very popular around the Mediterranean. It has a great diversity of size, shape and colour from white, eggshaped varieties to elongated and large spherical and spheroidal types that are purple to black in colour.
As with tomatoes, peppers and eggplants were introduced into Europe in the 16th century. They are now very popular throughout the Mediterranean and adjacent areas, and are grown all over Italy. The climatic variation from south to north allows for growing over a long period and for a variety of purposes. One of the most famous areas for pepper production is Asti in the Piedmont region of northern Italy and many varieties reﬂect this in their name.
Small sweet and hot peppers can be preserved through drying, pickling or under oil. Sweet peppers are particularly common as antipasto where they are simply fried in olive oil and ﬁnished with a splash of vinegar and a little garlic and chilli. Varieties include lombardo, dolce di Bergamo, friggitello and a famous Spanish pepper called padron.
Larger peppers can be eaten raw but in cooked dishes the skin is commonly removed by charring over a gas burner or roasting in a hot oven and then cooling in a plastic bag before removing the skin. They are ideal for stufﬁng and roasting with meat or vegetable ﬁllings ﬂavoured with anchovies, capers and parmesan.
Examples of large capsicums include giallo di Cuneo and quadrato d’Asti rosso, bull’s horn corno giallo and corno rosso and a small stufﬁng pepper called topepo rosso.
Chillies are widely used in Italy, usually in small amounts. My favourites are picante di cayenne, a long, thin, hot chilli suitable for eating fresh or dried, and picante Calabrese, a spherical, thick walled bright red chilli.
Eggplant is delicious grilled with a brushing of olive oil, garlic and salt, can be preserved in vinegar or olive oil, and can also be used in a variety of cooked dishes including caponata (a popular Sicilian dish eaten as a starter or side vegetable dish) and melanzane alla parmigiana (a layered dish with tomato sauce and cheese).
Varieties of eggplant include the more common purplish-black varieties violetta lunga and black beauty to the delightful white-ﬂeshed varieties prosperosa and tonda bianca sfumata di rossa.
Peppers and eggplants originate in tropical regions where they grow as perennials. In cooler climates they are grown as annuals, but in temperate climates they can sometimes be protected through a mild winter to be productive in a second year. Their optimum germination temperature is 21°C, and growing temperature is 21 to 30°C. They will not tolerate frost.
Eggplants and peppers can be planted all year in tropical and subtropical climates, and in other areas planting takes place from spring to summer.
Seedlings are typically raised in seed raising soil in pots or modules in a protected environment under glass. Germination rates are improved by soaking seed for 24 hours prior to planting. Plant seed 0.6cm deep and keep moist. Use a heat mat if ambient temperatures are below around 20°C. Failure to germinate is common if soil temperatures are too low.
To achieve the best results, it is important that the weather is suitable when seedlings are planted out. Count back eight to nine weeks from the expected last frost (eg. start of November) in cool temperate climates to calculate when to plant seed to raise seedlings. Do not plant where tomatoes, peppers or eggplants have been planted in the previous two years to reduce the incidence of disease.
Germination takes six to 10 days at which time seedlings require exposure to 10 to 12 hours of light, either natural and/ or artiﬁcial.
Seedlings can be grown for up to nine weeks before planting out. By this stage, they should be about 20cm high but need to be in 10cm pots with good quality soil.
Before planting out, acclimatise the seedlings by putting them outside in a sheltered spot for a few hours, increasing daily over several days. Plant seedlings into their growing position in the afternoon on a cool day and water well to minimise transplant shock. Seedlings should be planted up to 1cm deeper in the ground than they were in the pot to encourage additional root growth. Remove any ﬂowers when planting out to promote good growth.
Seed can be sown directly into the ground when the day time temperature is above 20°C and germination can take up to 14 days.
Peppers and eggplants should be grown in the open in a warm, sunny position protected from strong winds or in glasshouses and poly tunnels. Smaller varieties such as chillies can be grown in containers. Soil with abundant organic matter, neutral pH and good levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium is ideal.
Plants do not require support except when fruiting heavily as branches can break. Support can be provided as needed, or a simple framework can be established for the plants to grow through.
Regularly water plants to prevent them from drying out but do not over water. Test the moisture content of the soil by digging down 2-3cm. If it is dry below this level it is time to water. Mulch the plants, but keep the mulch back from the plant to avoid fungal disease.
Potential problems in warmer climates include fruit ﬂy, which attacks ripening fruit, particularly peppers, rendering it inedible. Baited lures can reduce the incidence of strike or individual fruit can be covered with paper or cloth bags. Collect and dispose of fallen fruit.
Wilt is a disease that causes brown discolouration of the stem and leaves from the bottom of the plant and is transferred from plant to plant by sap sucking insects. Affected plants should be burnt or disposed of in the rubbish bin and not composted. Do not replant in the same area for several years to avoid reinfection.
Nematodes in the soil cause nodular root development and poor performance but can be overcome by strict crop rotation and building up the organic matter in the soil.
Companion planting of marigolds and aromatic herbs will deter nematodes and white ﬂy. Planting mustard Swiss chard, beetroot and brassicas after the tomato crop will help to maintain soil health.