You could say that Italy can be hot and fiery. We have the active volcanoes; Vesuvio, Stromboli and Etna, we swelter in the energy sapping summer heat and then there’s that Latin temperament. But I’m talking about neither of these, today the subject is peperoncino, the generic name for Italian chillies.
Every restaurant table will have a pot of oil with chillies suspended within it for drizzling over your pizza or pasta and in summer when they’re in season you’ll find fresh chillies with tiny pairs of scissors on the table too.
It would be foolish to suggest that every Italian partakes of this fiery condiment as I know a handful that are not keen on the hot pepper sauce, but that said I have friends from Calabria that adore the stuff, so much that I’m sure these crazy Calabresse would have it on their breakfast cereal if they could.
Here in Abruzzo this chilli oil is known as Olio Santo (Sainted oil) and it’s literally hot chillies steeped in olive oil. Everyone has their own method of making olio Santo and a search on YouTube will bring up a plethora of instructional videos. Most recipes use dried and crushed chillies, whereas my method uses fresh chilli; also I have to admit that my method was taught me by a Neapolitan friend and so my recipe is from Napoli not Abruzzo.
The oil will last from season to season if kept in a cupboard out of direct sunlight which will break it down. I make mine in a recycled jar no fancy oil bottle for me. It’s not the prettiest container in my larder but it does the job perfectly.
This recipe is really very simple and the ingredients are:
Olive oil, not extra virgin, save that for your salad and bruschetta just normal olive oil will do.
Chillies, I use around 20 to 25 for a small (250 g) jar.
To make the oil, chop the chillies and then steam them for 5 minutes and then add them to the jar and fill with oil – simple as that. (Steaming the chillies brings the heat out faster and infuses the oil in less time that using dried chilli). Leave it to stand for around 2 weeks before using and occasionally agitate the jar.
The oil will keep for 12 months and you can top up the oil if it starts to run low, it’ll lower the heat however, and be sure to shake the jar to mix it.
After a few weeks the colour will change and it’ll take on a spicy yet funky aroma. Once you’re chillies are ripe the following year, make more and after 2 weeks dispose of the old oil and start using the fresh batch.
It develops throughout the year and gets hotter, last year I grew some Scotch bonnets and added a couple to the mix and this year the olio Santo is as hot as Hades; fabulous on linguine con cozze or a bacon sandwich.