A visit to the grocer in Budapest, Hungary, puts an American shopper in a vastly different world of peppers. For example, you wouldn't find the large, blocky green peppers sold in American grocery stores. Instead, you would see what Hungarians refer to as white peppers, which are smaller, pointed, and almost always pale yellow. The typical Hungarian shopper could hardly pass a grocery store without stopping to pick up several of these white peppers to take home for dinner--and most certainly one would be eaten on the way home.
Once you are used to the sweet taste of true Hungarian stuffing peppers, you too will want to plant them in your garden every year. They are wonderful eaten out of hand in the summer, and their sweetness comes through in the pickle jar or from the freezer. If you are able to leave Hungarian peppers on the plant long enough to watch them pass though their color changes--from light yellow to blush to soft red--you may never again long for the ripe greenhouse peppers found in most grocery stores.
Hungary's geography places it on the northern limit of where peppers can be brought to maturity, the equivalent of USDA Hardiness Zone 4 (and possibly zone 3) in the United States. In Hungary, this has led to a process of natural selection toward early varieties. There are many types of Hungarian peppers, with varieties that range from sweet to hot. Today, what we in the United States think of as the archetypal Hungarian pepper--the Hot Banana Wax--is used widely in Hungary because it ripens the earliest. It is used to flavor soup and stews, as well as for canning and pickling.
I prefer the sweet peppers, such as Super Sweet Banana. This variety is not only great for eating, but it's ready to pick a week earlier than common early sweet banana hybrids on the market and it is much more productive. Another great favorite of mine are the cheese peppers, or, as the Hungarians call them, tomato-shaped peppers. These thick-walled peppers are shaped like hockey pucks and are sometimes just as large. They are the perfect canning pepper. Klari Baby Cheese is a sweet, white, miniature cheese pepper with no bitterness.
The main pepper for fresh market in Hungary is the white Hungarian stuffing pepper. According to distinguished Hungarian pepper breeder Gabor Csillery, the reason for the sweet flavor of these white peppers is the absence of chlorophyll in the fruit. Peppers with green tints will not give you the true flavor, Csillery cautions. Try Hungarian Yellow Stuffing or the slightly earlier Super Stuff to experience these true sweet and nonbitter peppers.
Hungarian fresh market peppers come in a range of pungencies, and you cannot tell how hot or mild they will be by simply looking at them. If you want a semihot pepper that you can eat out of hand or use to add great flavor to soup, try Szentesi Semi-Hot.
Until the introduction of the first sweet paprika pepper in the 1920s, Hungary was most famous for hot paprika. The production of the famous Hungarian paprika takes place south of Budapest near the towns of Kolocs and Szeged. The paprika peppers are known as spice peppers. They are easy and very interesting to grow. In the earlier stages, these peppers are a lustrous dark green, like a Mexican ancho. When ripe, they are an impressive red.
Selection for earliness is important in a pepper expected to dry on the vine, so paprika spice peppers can be grown even in short-season areas (zone 4).
Boldog Hungarian Spice pepper comes from a small but well-known spice pepper district northeast of Budapest around the towns of Boldog and Cece. This early variety will mature almost anywhere. The fruits are 1-1/2 inches wide and about 7 inches long. Let them turn dark red and dry on the plant in long-season areas or pick them and thread them on a string. Then allow them to dry in a protected place, just as they do in Hungary. When the peppers are dry, remove the stem and seeds (this is what makes difference between the finest and common paprika). For a coarse paprika, grind the flesh in a food processor; for a fine paprika use a mortar and pestle. Store the spice in a sealed container.
On a recent visit to the United States, Dr. Csillery was surprised to find that Americans know little about another traditional way of using fresh sweet red peppers. It is what Hungarians call ground pepper flesh. Seed and stem sweet or hot red peppers and put them though a meat grinder. Then mix in about 20 percent pickling salt by volume and use it as a seasoning in soups and stews. There is always a jar of this next to the stove in any Hungarian kitchen.
The Hungarians also have their own version of salsa, which they call Lecso. To make it, chop two sweet or semi-hot stuffing peppers (stems and seeds removed) and one medium onion and cook on a hot, oiled frying pan. Add a diced medium tomato. Continue cooking until the peppers are tender. Add water if the mixture gets too dry and salt and pepper to taste. Hungarian Lecso is eaten with hot or cold cooked meats or as a side dish with good Hungarian bread. Sometimes a few eggs are added to the Lecso in the frying pan to make a quick meal.
Start your seeds about six weeks before the average daytime temperature is above 65° F. Sow them in a high-quality soilless mix in a shallow starting tray about three seeds to the inch. Cover the seeds with an additional 1/4 inch of soilless mix. Pepper seeds like a warm environment (65° to 80° F) to germinate and they do not germinate evenly. Emergence will take 7 to 15 days. The young plants need to be kept continuously moist.
After 15 days, thin enough to give each plant about a 2- by 2-inch area. If your plants start getting too large too fast, transplant them into 5-inch pots so as not to hold back their growth.
Weather conditions will affect your crop as well. Temperatures below 55° F and above 90° F can cause the blossoms to drop, resulting in late and light crops. Avoid planting until nighttime temperatures seem stable and are above 55° F.
Peppers will tolerate a wide range of garden soils. If you are in a short-season area, plant them in a well-drained, light, fast-warming soil. They like a fairly rich soil, so before transplanting work about 6 cubic feet of compost into the top 6 inches of soil per 100-square-foot area. Space transplants about 18 inches apart with 36 inches between rows. Feed every 10 days with a liquid fertilizer, such as 20-30-20. Hungarian spice peppers are quite tolerant of drought stress. They are a good choice if you have light, dry soils and you cannot water them frequently.
Peppers are susceptible to a wide range of viral and bacterial diseases and insect problems. To reduce virus problems, control aphid populations. Trials have shown that aluminum foil under the plants is very effective (but expensive) in keeping aphids away. Rotenone also controls aphids as well as other insects.
Bacterial problems are more difficult to solve. Rotation is the best protection for the home gardener. Avoid planting peppers and tomatoes on the same land for three years. Also, limit your watering to one good heavy soaking a week rather than encouraging a damp microclimate with daily watering.
The European corn borer is another common problem for pepper growers. These worms bore into the pepper where the stem attaches to the fruit. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a good control. It will also help with other worms, such as tomato hornworm. To control cutworms, place cardboard collars around the stems.
Peter Kopcinski is a seedsman and plant breeder currently based in New Jersey.
Photography by National Gardening Association