I break into a smile each time I hear myself saying “Cruschi”. It’s a quite crazy word for a very real gastronomic treat. Said by the peoples of Lucano, it sounds like “Crusshh-ski” – put a question mark at the end and, Bravo, you’re in for a Basilicata treat.
Cruschi are what one calls a fried, dried Peperoni di Senise – a pepper that is said to have come to Southern Italy with the Spanish who brought it there from the Antilles. The soil and climate in Italy’s ‘Instep’ – that space between the Toe and Heel – is perfect terroir. This is Basilicata. More accurately for the Peperoni de Senise’s IGP status, the lands between the Agri and Sinni rivers where you’ll find the historic hilltop town of Senise.
I’ve never visited Senise although I have found myself in Basilicata on a solo road trip around the South in the winter of 2003. That was the trip where I spotted a lone hungry wolf walking a headland early one morning as I drove along a snowy valley road under a bright blue sky, myself also in search of foods I’d never seen. That was the day I was introduced to Lampascioni -the intriguingly flavoursome, if expensive, little wild bulbs of the hyacinth family, so often mistaken for onions and even labelled as such.
My guide to Peperoni di Senise has been Malcolm Gilmour, the English half of the Gallucci & Gilmour food importers who’ve made it their business to source and bring us ingredients from Basilicata and the Italian South. They are a rare find in a sector largely, with a few exceptions that I know and have dealt with, littered with complacency and culinary black holes.
“Cruschi are special. When we visit my wife’s home and pretty much anywhere in Basilicata, we are about always offered Cruschi as an apèritif,” explains Malcolm.
What’s special about these peppers, apart from their flavour, is their thin skin – this means they dry quicker in the late summer sun and cook quicker when dropped into hot EVOO. Harvesting begins in August and the fields are picked over several times to make sure every last Peperoni is taken. Their IGP status insists that harvesting is by hand and it’s back-breaking work out in the fields under the unyielding Mediterranean sun.
Once picked the fresh Peperoni are threaded on fila and then onto ristras for drying. Then they are hung outside the houses, in drying sheds, on windowsills, in porches and elsewhere to let the sun do its job. Most production is in the provinces of Matera and Potenza, but IGP relates to those grown around Senise itself. The altitude is perfect for the task. By late autumn/early winter, the freshly dried Peperoni are ready for the pan.
“Everywhere you go in Basilicata you’ll see strings of the deep red drying Peperoni di Senise. Visit someone’s home, or a bar or restaurant, and you’ll be offered ‘Cruschi’ – they figure big in the local dishes, from pasta to potato, fried eggs and fish, especially bacalau,” enthuses Malcolm. “The local sheep’s milk Pecorino Lucano is a popular apèritif with broken fried Cruschi and a glass of icy white wine.”
They are also dried and ground to form ‘Za-feran’ – something like Pimenton of Spain – but different in flavour naturally enough as they come from a different pepper – Pimenton from the bell-shaped Nora variety and Peperone Dolce in Polvere from the Peperoni di Senise. This is in every kitchen, from palazzo’s to farm houses – labelled as Peperone Dolce in Polvere the name is self explanatory really, polvere meaning powdered.
‘Za-feran’ is a none too subtle word play on Zafferano, meaning of course Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice – gram for gram more valuable than gold. Za-feran certainly colours the food.
The powdered peperone is used a condiment to boost flavours of everything from soups and stews, to pasta and potatoes. As with pimenton, which we introduced to so many of the UK’s food press back in the early 80s, the cook gets the enticing red-gold colour and flavour with a hint of spice.
My ignorance of the region continues to shine through, but with my writing colleague as knowledgeable about wine as Keith Reeves, I never have to drift far for answers. I’ve yet to taste Aglianico – the big red wine from Basilicata. Keith, who’s idea it is to publish ‘In Search of TASTE’
(due for launch this year with me as Food Editor), has and his enthusiasm is infectious.
“Few will have heard of, let alone tasted, the robust wines made from the Agliniaco grape,” sets out Keith.
“Rumoured to be of Ancient Greek origin – this grape, with its late ripening charms, flourishes amongst the gently cooled micro climates of an otherwise arid landscape.
The variety reaches its apogee in the quality wines of Taurasi (Campania) and Aglianico del Vulture (both with distinctive DOC’s) and is widely regarded – amongst the Italian culturati – as the Barolo of the south.”
“The wine is inky dark, densely fruited with the telltale nose of struck graphite. It needs ample time in cask and bottle to soften its mouth puckering tannins and release its luscious ruby fruit,” he says.
“When patience has been its guardian, we are fortunate to discover one of the finest reds the Ancient Roman lands of Enotria have to offer.”
All this because a charming and exciting new importer tracked me down through www.garethjonesfood.com. Cruschi thrills me. The prospect of opening a whole new treasure trove of gastronomy from the Italian South - Blue Collar Gastronomy all the way – excites me the more.
One closing note is the reminder that in these poor lands of the South, grated Parmesan is something Italian Lotto winners or those from Rome northwards might enjoy. Down there and over into Sicily, toasted breadcrumbs made from staled bread are the topping for pasta.
Stascinati with breadcrumbs and peperoni ‘cruschi’ would be on the table should you visit the home of ‘Narda, mother Claudio Gallucci. This is a slight exaggeration because ‘Narda also grates the region’s speciality Cacioricotta cheese on top at table.
Peasant food might be time consuming and expensive to us in Northern Europe – but most times, and here specially, it’s always worth adding to the Blue Collar Gastronaut’s repertoire. Peppers draw us in wherever they come from – the Mexican cooks and writers make them almost an art form. Cruschi is in this league, with Spanish roots as well.
Simply click onto www.gallucciandgilmour.com/product-category/dried-goods/ and quote the discount code which is garethjones1 for your first taste of Cruschi.
PS: ‘In Search of TASTE’ is still looking for investors, starting with packages for as little as £5k.
STOP PRESS – a sizeable tranche pledged / confirmed to the magazine since this article was published. For more details, or an on-line Business Plan, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org