“The Jimmy Nardello plants are BEAUTIFUL,” reports farmer Kate Donald of Stout Oak Farm in Epping, NH.  Kate is one of almost fifty New England farmers growing Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Peppers, along with eleven other varieties of heirloom vegetables, as part of the RAFT Heirloom Vegetable Grow-Out.   If the weather cooperates, Kate’s peppers will soon be blooming and then setting tiny green fruits that will mature into long, fire-engine red, candy-sweet peppers.

Peppers turn from green to red as they mature

RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) is an alliance that brings farmers, chefs, and consumers together in order to raise awareness of agricultural biodiversity, increase markets for heirloom varieties, and build community between chefs and local farmers.

The RAFT Grow-Out operates on an “eat it to save it” model: if heirloom varieties are to survive, farmers need to be willing to raise them, which means that people must want to eat them.  If no one wants these unusual varieties of vegetables and breeds of animals, they may well go extinct.  Eating endangered species in order to save them seems like an unusual concept, but the idea is taking off as programs like the RAFT Grow-Out prove successful.

The brilliant color and sweet flavor of Jimmy Nardellos is adored by chefs

Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Peppers are a perfect example of such a success story.  The sweet, fruity red pepper, brought to the U.S. by an Italian immigrant in 1887, is on the Slow Food Ark of Taste’s short list of endangered species of foods.  But, in last year’s RAFT Grow-Out, Jimmy Nardello’s Peppers proved a huge success with both chefs and farmers.  “I worship them,” proclaimed chef Evan Mallett of the Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth, NH. “You can do so many cool, awesome, wonderful things with Jimmy Nardellos.  They’re brilliant in color and flavor.”

Jimmy Nardello pepper jam tops a house-cured soppresata prepared by chef de cuisine Beau Vestal of Providence's New Rivers in last year's RAFT Grow-Out

As chefs like Evan clamor for the peppers, farmers like Kate will continue to grow them, and with any luck, Jimmy Nardello’s Peppers will no longer be endangered.  The peppers may be taken off the roster of vegetables in next year’s Grow-Out in order to make room for other lesser-known varieties.

Stay tuned for more updates throughout the season on RAFT vegetable varieties, farmer and chef participants, and special events!