A Sweet Kinda’ Heat

Posted by William Dillon, Monticello

Have you ever heard of pepper jelly? If you’re from the south, that question might offend you. Pepper jelly is a preserve in jelly form that sits comfortably somewhere between a jam and a relish. It’s sweet, it’s spicy, and it’s versatile enough to add to just about everything.

Atop Thomas Jefferson’s mountain home of Monticello sits his 1000-foot vegetable garden, growing produce in timeless memoriam of the third president. Among the vegetables are a variety of heirloom peppers, ranging from Bull Nose, to Marconi Red, to the classic Cayenne. The peppers are harvested fresh from the garden and used in the making of pepper jelly – and it couldn’t be tastier! We went up the mountain to learn about some of the peppers that may soon be destined for Monticello’s pepper jelly.

First, Cayennes – a type of chili pepper believed to originate from French Guiana. They’re flowering plants that belong to the nightshade family – similar to jalapenos. Cayenne peppers are incredibly versatile, found in both savory and sweet recipes, and recently they’ve garnered a lot of attention for their positive health benefits.

Thomas Jefferson documented Cayenne peppers in his Garden Book, Notes on the State of Virginia, and in other writings. He first planted the Cayenne pepper in 1768 at Shadwell, his birthplace – just before his 24th birthday.

A little hotter than the Cayenne is the Texas Bird Pepper. In 1812 – 1813, Captain Samuel Brown, a Royal Navy officer, sent Thomas Jefferson seeds of this pepper from San Antonio, Texas. Captain Brown stated these peppers were as “essential to my health as salt itself.” The pepper, according to Brown, had important medicinal qualities in addition to its “fine aromatic flavor.”

In its native habitat, the Bird Pepper was known to pre-Columbian Native Americans as Chiltecpin (Chill-tech-peen). Originally, the Nahuatl Native American word meant ‘flea’ because of its small size and bite. In Mexico, the flavor is described as “arrebatado” which is an expression that means ‘although extremely hot, the sensation disappears easily and rapidly.’

Thanks to Brown’s gift, Jefferson went on to grow the pepper at Monticello and forwarded seeds to his friend Bernard McMahon, a nurseryman in Philadelphia, where it was popularized as an ornamental pot plant. The beautiful green leaves are wonderfully speckled with the red peppers, but don’t let their unintimidating appearance fool you. This pepper packs a powerful punch!

Next is the Fish Pepper – a form of Cayenne – which has beautifully exotic white and green variegated leaves and striped pods that ripen to the bright red pepper we know. The fish pepper can be traced to 19th century African-American gardening and culinary traditions, including being used as a seasoning for seafood, hence the name.

Fish peppers are brilliantly vibrant, grow in a canvas of different colors, and can be shockingly spicy.

What happens when you combine these fresh-picked peppers, sugar, and vinegar? It all turns into a deliciously sweet and mildly spicy treat.

You might be happy smacking some of the jelly on your favorite wheat crackers and enjoying a wonderful appetizer. But if you want to take it up a notch, we’d recommend adding a bit of soft cheese such as a cream cheese or brie. Cream cheese adds a slight tang to the sweetness of the jelly, while brie underscores the sweetness with a more mellow flavor and texture.

Finally, if you really want to wow your guests, consider combining crackers and jelly with a soft cheese, then topping it all with a charcuterie. It’s a uniquely delicious combination of sweet and savory, cool and spicy.

Don’t be afraid of the heat. It really underscores the sweetness of the jelly in a not-so overpowering way. In one word: delicious!

Be sure to pick up your jar of pepper jelly at the Shop at Monticello, or have it sent right to your door when you order it online. With the high demand for this yummy treat, we’re creating a second batch for release in September!