Growing up in New York, my family used to go to Italian festivals once or twice a year. One of the highlights was the food trucks serving hot Italian sausage subs topped with a pile of sauteed onions and sweet peppers. But the sweet peppers, prominently displayed strung from strings over the counter, were not bell peppers. They were long and pointy, like hot peppers but not hot, and they had thin flesh that cooked quickly. My mom called them Italian Peppers. If she wanted to cook them at home, the only place she could find them was at the Italian market — and even then, only occasionally.
There are dozens of different types of Sweet Peppers, and hundreds of varieties. Unfortunately, the Supermarket Produce Manager’s Association* decided long ago that the only type of sweet pepper they would stock on the shelves was Bell Peppers. Like all peppers, bells need heat to grow well and ripen. But the large fruit are dark green bordering on black when immature and absorb sunlight, making them highly prone to sunburning. For this reason, growers must use a tremendous amount of fertilizer to provide big, leafy plants that provide lots of shade. It is difficult bordering on impossible to do this organically, and it also results in nitrate pollution of groundwater. Most of the organic bell peppers you see in the stores are now grown in greenhouses.
We tried for years to grow bell peppers with very little success. I distinctly remember throwing 80% or more of the peppers on the ground during harvest because one side — the side facing the sun — had been sunburned. It was such a depressing task no one wanted to do it.
Then we discovered Gypsys. Like almost all peppers, they change color as they ripen, becoming orange and eventually red. But unlike many peppers, they are light yellow when immature instead of green. This color reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it, meaning that Gypsys almost never sunburn. The plants are more vigorous and hardy than bell pepper plants as well. With temperatures in the atmosphere increasing and sunlight getting even stronger, growing these peppers is a form of climate change adaptation.
For several years now, Gypsys are the only sweet pepper Terra Firma grows (we don’t grow hot peppers at all). The only thing wrong with it is its name, which is considered a slur when applied to a particular ethnic group. Having done some research on the subject, though, it seems that the word is still acceptable when used in other ways.
Gypsys are descended from peppers grown in East Europe to make sweet paprika, but they have been improved so that the walls are thicker — not as thick as a bell pepper, but thick enough to give them a satisfying crunchiness when eaten raw or lightly cooked. Meanwhile, they have much thinner skin than many other peppers. It can still be removed after roasting them, but you may find it unnecessary.
Sweet peppers don’t have the range of flavors that tomatoes do. But the Gypsys have a bit more character than regular bell peppers, with fruity overtones that comes out when you cook them. Still, if you’re cooking them, they are best paired with strong flavors such as garlic, onions, and even hot chiles.
- — Not a real group.