For James Barber, Sunday afternoons were always for family when he was growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. The weekly dinners, where the extended family would tuck in around the basement dining table, always featured the same first course: loaves of crusty bread and an oversized bowl of his grandfather’s hot peppers. Upon relocating to New England after college, Barber was shocked to experience a dearth of hot peppers available at delis and markets in the area. “Out here, ‘hot peppers’ are either sliced up jalapenos or nothing more than a relish,” Barber states. So, in the name of wanting something done right, he began making his own. Along with partner Chris Carlson, Barber is now making those peppers for all to enjoy and bottling them as Caprino’s Peppers.
The two work together at The Woodlands at Pleasant Bay, an assisted living community in Brewster, where Carlson is the Culinary Director and Barber is the Director of Sales. There the venture was launched when Barber brought Carlson a jar of his peppers to try. “I burned through a whole pint and started pressuring him for more!” Carlson laughs. Carlson’s experience in the restaurant communities in Boston, Cambridge and Cape Cod came to the fore when tweaking the family recipe. As Barber states about his own kitchen skills, “I can order a meal. I’m just a hack that made peppers out of my house.” So the partners combined their abilities to perfect not only the recipe, but the process.
Caprino’s Peppers, named after Barber’s two children Capri and Marino, is a blend of cubanelle, Hungarian wax, red cherry, habanero and jalapeno peppers. They’re sliced, unseeded (for the most part), and left to marinate for 24 hours in a bath of water and vinegar. Next, much of the water is squeezed out of the peppers by putting them under 30 pounds of weight for another 24 hours. This was an area of experimentation for Barber and Carlson. “The water content is what gives the peppers their crunch,” Barber explains. “You don’t want them almost raw, but they definitely should have some amount of crunch to them.” After pressing, the peppers are jarred in canola oil with fresh garlic and oregano. The whole process requires 40 pounds of peppers and roughly seven hours of labor over the course of several days to make one 50-bottle batch.
It’s one thing to make the peppers in your own kitchen for friends and family. If you want to sell them commercially, however, then a commercial kitchen is required. Lee Hill of the Cape Cod Culinary Incubator was instrumental in helping the men make the necessary contacts, and at a Barnstable Village Association gathering they met and hit it off with Susan Finegold of The Barnstable Restaurant and Tavern. Finegold’s husband, Chef Bob Calderone, offered the pair the use of the Tavern’s kitchen for their process. “That’s the best part of the whole thing,” Carlson says. “Hanging out on Saturday mornings and it’s just Bob and us, while we bottle and he preps for the day.” Carlson enjoys reminiscing with Calderone about shared friends and experiences from the Boston restaurant scene, of which both were a part.
This past summer, Caprino’s developed a loyal customer base at the Barnstable Village Farmers’ Market. Sales took off once the duo realized that handing out samples helped immensely as the peppers sold themselves. “One guy would come back for three jars every single week,” Barber recalls. The Orleans’ Winter Market is in their sights, along with bigger things. “We’re looking to be certified for wholesale by the start of 2017,” Barber asserts.
Since the peppers are perishable, Caprino’s Peppers can only be sold retail. To be shelf stable, a new process that includes boiling the actual jars of peppers needs to be refined. As Carlson points out, “We have to test the boil method to be sure the end product is the same.” After approval, Barber and Carlson can make the leap and sell their peppers to grocery stores, delis and restaurants with two different offerings of hot and mild.
Whether on sandwiches, meat, fish, pasta dishes or simply with a hunk of crusty bread to dip in the oil, Caprino’s Peppers is a great accompaniment. The forward trajectory continues toward what the two hope to become: The Pepper Kings of Cape Cod. With the perfect combination of flavor, texture and heat, there’s no reason to think that Caprino’s Peppers won’t be considered just that someday very soon.