For a long time I have wanted to share a gem of knowledge with those that haven’t yet enjoyed it, ‘Peppers – The Domesticated Capsicums’ by Jean Andrews.
This is a must for all chilli lovers, and I guarantee that at least 90% of the information in this book will not be found in any other chilli guide you may come across. This isn’t really a guide to growing, though if you are a grower you will find the section on plant biology and agronomy very helpful, nor would you describe it as a recipe book, though there are recipes in the final chapter ‘Preparing and Serving’. It mostly deals with the history and geography of peppers, which for me is the most interesting part. There is also 32 full sized colour plates of different varieties, all taken from water-colour paintings.
The main thing that sets this apart from any other chilli book that I have come across, including my own, is that it is written as a scientific paper, with every fact verified by a reference to another text, either another scientific paper, or an historic document. The book is out of print now, but a second hand copy is fairly easy to come by through Amazon sellers, just make sure you wait for more than one copy to come available otherwise you might be paying over the odds. A book like this should be popular, but maybe as it isn’t presented in a modern trendy style, with zappy minimalist illustrations and a bang-on-trend colour scheme, publishers aren’t interested in keeping it going. In fact it gives the impression that it is much older than it is, it was actually published in the mid 1980s but the layout says otherwise.
The chapters of the book are:
Historical Background. Pre-Columbian Domestication, Early European Observers, Review of the Literature, Diagnostic Descriptions, Biology, Agronomy, Economic and other Uses, Thirty-Two Cultivars, Preparing and Serving.
The gems for me are the detailed referrals to the notes and diaries of botanists who traveled with the Colombian conquistadors in South America from about 1500, and other travelers right up to 1737 when Linnaeus finally decided on his binomial Latin nomenclature and named the genus Capsicum. He listed two species at that time, ‘annuum for a herbaceous annual, and frutescens for a shrubby perennial’. There are numerous references to first hand evidence as to how the Incas and other tribes revered and used peppers before they were ever taken to other parts of the world. The name Capsicum, was first used by a chappy called Josef Pitton de Tournefort, in 1719.
Prior to that, a Jesuit Priest Father Jose de Acosta (1539-1600) wrote ‘….in the language of Cusco, it is called Vchu, and in that of Mexico it is Chilli….’ (sorry to disappoint you American ‘Chile’ fans), which leaves me wondering when the word ‘chile’ came about.
The theme of scientific reference and accuracy is carried over into the section which describes the 32 illustrated varieties. Some of these are relatively recent, such as the Fresno, released by the Clarence Brown Seed Company in 1952. This list of varieties is obviously only the tip of the iceberg, and probably not the best list of 32 for the modern enthusiast, but it is nice that these are at least documented thoroughly.
In summary, though this might be too much for some people, I’d say this is a fantastic second chilli book. And if you are really interested in learning the detailed history and botany of chillies, then this should definitely be on you Christmas present list.