This week I’d like to write about how to choose the right wine to enhance the countless Italian dishes containing chilli as one of the main ingredients, along with many hot dishes of international cuisine such as Thai, Mexican and Indian.
Chilli is an ancient plant, used by the Maya in Mexico in the ancient world for food but also to treat toothache, as garlands around the neck to protect them from animals and from the evil eye. Also as a torture – you can imagine!
This plant arrived in Europe from Mexico with Christopher Columbus, returning from his second trip to the Americas in 1493. Initially it was used only as an ornamental plant, but being easy to grow and adaptable to different climates, it soon became popular. It was therefore also soon used in Europe as a preservative and as a medicine.
Then in 1644, the Neapolitan Antonio Latini for the first time included a spicy dish in a recipe book. Until the early 1900s, it was mainly used by the poor both because it was easy to grow and for its ability to flavour food at a much lower cost than spices imported from the Indies.
In Italy, the chilli pepper becomes the heart of southern cuisine, dominated by the Spaniards and especially in Calabria, around 1500. The region was poor and this plant was good for flavouring vegetarian dishes and dishes with poor ingredients at their base. In effect it became a vegetable that works like a spice.
Even today, spicy food in Italy is associated with Calabrian food, as the basis of traditional dishes such as Soppressata (the traditional Calabrian salami type sausage) or ‘nduja ( a spicy, spreadable pork sausage also from Calabria).
However, there are also exceptional traditional chilli-based dishes all around Italy, especially in the South, such as Sicilian stuffed peppers or Neapolitan friggitelli (wrinkled little green peppers with a distinctive sour taste that are very versatile to cook and can be fried, oven-baked, served with pasta or potatoes and also stuffed).
The seemingly endless adaptability of the chilli plant explains the enormous variety of forms it comes in. So much so that in 1912 American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville devoted his research to classifying the different plants based on their spiciness. The Scoville scale is constantly updated and today has about 3000 varieties.
Chilli is used in the kitchen dried, in oil, smoked, fresh, cooked, etc. and its properties expand outside the food sector. It is used as a slimming aid, because it is thought to accelerate the metabolism and increase the sense of satiety; to promote blood circulation; in personal defense products; to promote digestion; as a vitamin supplement (it is in fact, rich in vitamins, especially C and has 5 times the amount present in an orange). It is attributed powers of good luck or of chasing away troubles. And it is recognized as having aphrodisiac power as it has the ability to ‘set the body on fire’!
When it comes to wine pairing, there are four characteristics of chilli to keep in mind:
1. rich in mineral salts
2. strong sensation of pseudo-heat
3. olfactory intensity
4. persistence in the mouth
Therefore we need wines that are not excessively salty, not excessively alcoholic, which would amplify the pseudo-heat, with a good olfactory intensity and a good persistence in the mouth to balance the strong aromas of the chilli.
So I’d recommend wines depending on how hot your dish is:
MILD HOT: I recommend a Gewürztraminer from Trentino Alto Adige. A dry white wine, very aromatic, and of good intensity but not full-bodied and with low minerality, in order to compensate for the spicy aroma without covering it. I like the Südtirol – Alto Adige DOC Gewürztraminer Joseph Hofstatter. It is not expensive and easy to find abroad and online – a delicate and very good wine!
MEDIUM HOT: I recommend a Sicilian white wine, fresher in acidity and more savory than Gewürztraminer, with an intense floral and herbaceous bouquet. More intense aromas compensate for the greater spiciness. I really like Inzolia Menfi DOC Tivitti, Cantine Barbera, also quite simple to find online, low cost but very enjoyable!
VERY HOT: my choice this time is a Negramaro Rosè, a very versatile Apulian red wine that can also be drunk as an aperitif. It has a high mineral content, quite intense taste and smell, with typical notes of cherry and pink flowers, and medium persistence. I recommend the Salento Negroamaro Rosato IGT ‘Grecìa Rosè’ of Paolo Leo. It is a little more difficult to find it online and abroad than the others, but it’s well worth it!
Lastly, if the food is particularly fatty or oily, such as spicy sausages, you can risk more full-bodied wines, always taking into account the spiciness, so a Barbera for medium spiciness or a Cabernet Sauvignon for richer dishes.
Inspired by Agnese’s post, this week I made this super-hot pasta with broccoletti, pecorino and fresh red chilli. e-mail me for the recipe, it is very easy to make, a pasta with a twist …. delicious, ‘piccante’ – and aphrodisiac! To drink, a Negramaro Rosè, will be a perfect match.