The garden Godzilla had insinuated itself into my dinner
The Irritations of Modern Life: 2. peppers
I exempt chillies from these strictures. Chillies add heat and interest to food. Besides, they have different flavours, ranging from bitingly acid to smoky. Peppers have only one flavour: monotonous, acrid and echoing hours after you've eaten them. Somebody must like the taste of these sinister denizens of the vegetable kingdom (they're members of the nightshade family, don't forget), for you can't avoid them.
Recently, at the theatre to see Cheek by Jowl's glorious production of Much Ado about Nothing, we thought we'd have a sandwich with our pre-performance drinks. The choice was between ciabatta with a nicoise filling - certain to include peppers - and sliced malted grain bread containing "roast vegetables with soft cheese, pesto and watercress". No prize for guessing which "vegetable" overpowered all the others, beating into submission even an imaginative slice of grilled aubergine.
Supper later at one of my favourite post-theatre restaurants, Bank in the Aldwych. Not very hungry after my half-sandwich, I ordered "dressed crab with avocado and pepper dressing". I checked with the waiter, in the hope that the pepper in question was black. Bad luck. There was "some red pepper" in the mayonnaise dressing, but he'd bring it on the side so I wasn't forced to eat it. Not replaced in its shell as I had expected, the crab appeared as a wee, truncated creamy white cylinder, flecked with infinitesimally small particles of Chinese red. The Godzilla of the kitchen garden had insinuated itself into the very fabric of my dinner.
Earlier last week I had lunch with some winemakers in a vineyard near Montpellier in the south of France. The wines were superb, and the food on the buffet in the marquee looked terrific. However, the highly-coloured jewel-box effects of the savoury pastries, quiches, terrines were achieved at the expense of comestibility, by employing fruit-gum-coloured slivers and shapes of the foe in virtually every dish of the generous spread. I did not despair of lunch, as I could see the main course was a protein- heavy barbecue, carnivorously pepper-free, with juicy, rare steak, lamb cutlets and meaty sausages. I was wrong to hope. The grilled chicken leg I cut into rested on, and had been infected by the flavour of, its bed of ratatouille, whose main ingredient was the vegetable mugger.
Who will rid us of these pestilential peppers? We need a foodie hero. Elizabeth David knew their dangers, and warned that they were perilous if not peeled. However, they posed little threat to her cooking or to civilisation when she published her first book, Mediterranean Food, in 1950, for rationing was still in force. Lemons were uncommon, aubergines, courgettes and peppers positively rare. And the peppers Mrs David knew were knobbly, sun-ripened Spanish, Italian and French specimens, "grown for flavour" (as the supermarkets now have the cheek to say of their more expensive tomatoes).
For a brief moment in the summer, fruit and vegetable wholesalers can sometimes buy a few boxes of Mediterranean or north African peppers, but our year-around supplies come from the dastardly Dutch and we all know what they grow vegetables for. They grow them for long-keeping, to appear blemish-free and completely regular in shape, and to be as nearly as possible all the same weight. They have managed to breed out of their peppers any vestige of the original flavour of the species Capsicum annuum, leaving behind only whatever it is that makes human beings burp all night after they've consumed the merest molecule.
What's needed is a consumer rebellion. We do not need to eat peppers with every meal just because they are there. We must make it clear to professional cooks that this vegetable is not even to be considered edible in its raw form; cooked, it can be eaten in very small quantities, provided that every bit of its leathery skin has been removed. It is permissible (though naff) to use it for its colour, as a garnish not intended to be eaten. But no person of sensitivity should be expected to eat peppers more often than he or she would foie gras or truffles. We cannot make peppers extinct, but at least let's make them scarce.
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