A Little Farm with a BIG Flavor
Rooster Fricke’s pale blue shirt is pristine. Even though he has been bent over a hot stove melting chocolate for half an hour, not a drop of the brown goo has made it to his perfectly pressed and monogrammed cuffs. Once you get to know Rooster, this may not surprise you, as it is indicative of the meticulous approach he takes to his business. On this cold winter morning, surrounded by tidy pots and colorful dishes in his sunny Woods Hole kitchen, he is in complete control of his surroundings.
Rooster, whose given name is John, is not a chocolatier. His professional background is in engineering, but now he runs Nobska Farms, selling fresh chili peppers, hot sauce and other chili pepper products out of his backyard in Woods Hole. “I didn’t really choose chili peppers. They chose me,” explains Fricke. “It’s not like I went out and got an M.B.A. and did market research to see what would be the best thing to grow. It just kind of evolved.” If Fricke had done his research, he would have discovered that he is part of a growing national trend. In 2012 the market research firm IBIS World reported that the hot sauce industry is one of the top ten fastest growing product markets in the country.
Nobska Farms’ hot sauce is called “Rooster’s Rocket Fuel” and the 1.7 oz. “TSA-friendly” version is Fricke’s best-selling product. He also makes hot pepper jelly and a spicy chocolate, which is what he’s cooking up this morning. With an exactness that betrays his science background, Rooster carefully adds a tenth of an ounce of finely ground Bhut Jolokia, or “ghost pepper,” to Belgian chocolate to make his signature Ghost Chocolate bark. He’ll top it off with dried mango and toasted pumpkin seeds. “When I make my hot sauce I have to set up a camp stove on the back deck because the fumes are so powerful,” laughs Fricke, “but the chocolate I can make in the house.” He sells his products in Cape specialty stores, like Bean and Cod in Falmouth, and on his website.
Fricke was born in Texas, but moved around frequently because his father was in the oil business. It was his summer visits to his grandfather’s home in Alabama that gave him a deep attachment to the South. Rooster got his nickname from his grandfather, who used to ask, “How’s the big red rooster?” whenever he saw young John. The childhood moniker went public in 2012 when Fricke started his business and let himself be known as “The Rooster at Nobska Farms.” This year Rooster will grow over 80 varieties of chili peppers—more than 400 individual plants—all packed into 1/3 of an acre of land, alongside a chicken coop, a fish pond and a newly built 12 x 24-foot greenhouse.
Although India is the world’s largest consumer and producer of chili peppers, the plant originates in South America. Peppers have been part of the human diet for at least 10,000 years and are one of the oldest cultivated crops, along with maize and coca. When Christopher Columbus first tasted a chili pepper, he mistook its flavor for the spice trade’s coveted black pepper, and the misnomer stuck. Chili peppers are a genus of the nightshade family Capsicum, and are cousins of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. The fleshy pod is not only considered the fruit of the plant, but by definition is technically a berry.
Of course, chili peppers are most famous for their heat. Some of the peppers Rooster grows are classified as “super-hots”, with fanciful names like the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Zimbabwe Bird, Bishop’s Crown and Devil’s Tongue. His yard has an air of festivity to it, with peppers sprinkled throughout the plantings like Christmas decorations. Long and skinny, short and squat, red, yellow and green—peppers of all shapes and sizes surround him. “It’s not a stretch to say that chili peppers have taken over my life,” says Fricke with a smile. “I think it’s the excitement of the fruit itself. They are really beautiful.”
Chili peppers owe their heat to the chemical compound capsaicin, developed by wild peppers to keep away hungry predators. Capsaicin is also the primary ingredient in commercial pepper spray. When you eat a pepper, the capsaicin binds to pain receptors in your mouth, triggering a release of endorphins. This may be why humans often pursue hot peppers as a kind of pleasure-seeking activity. “I think some people don’t have receptors that are as sensitive as others, so they seek out the heat,” says Stephanie Walker, the vegetable specialist of New Mexico State University’s agricultural extension division. “There is definitely a small segment of the population that can’t seem to get them hot enough.”
Many people incorrectly believe that it is the seeds of a chili pepper that contain the heat, but in fact it is the thick yellow placenta, or inner membrane, that holds the capsaicin; the deeper the yellow, the hotter the pepper. “The very, very tip of any undamaged chili pepper is safe to eat without fear,” Walker advises, “but if you wander from there it can be dangerous territory.” Capsaicin is not soluble in water, but does break down when paired with fats, especially dairy. One way to beat the heat is to have chili peppers with cheese, like cream cheese or Brie. “Or ice cream!” suggests Fricke, who is working on a “hot” hot fudge for a sundae topping with a kick. “Pairing peppers with fat content allows for the flavor to come out instead of the heat.”
The range of capsicum heat is measured on the Scoville scale, created in 1912 by American chemist Wilbur Scoville. He developed a method to measure the amount of capsaicin present by diluting the pepper in sugar water until the heat was imperceptible. The more sugar water it takes to expunge the spiciness, the more powerful the heat in the pepper, and the higher the Scoville number. A jalapeño, for example, requires between 2,500-5000 drops. Tabasco takes 30,000-50,000. The current world champion hot pepper, the Carolina Reaper, approaches a heart-pounding 2.1 million. Today scientists use the more reliable method of high-performance liquid chromatography to measure capsaicin, but the results are still defined in Scoville Heat Units, or SHUs.
Paul Bosland, whose Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico, discovered the Bhut Jolokia—the first pepper to surpass one million SHUs—claims that the distinction between the hottest chilies can be hard to perceive. “Once you get over 100,000 SHUs, you can’t really tell the difference in your mouth,” he insists, “but it’s a fun way for gardeners and hobbyists to get involved. I expect a three-million pepper any day now!” Although Fricke grows and sells some of the hottest peppers in the world, his favorite is the Charleston Hot, a comparatively mild pepper that weighs in at 75,000 SHUs and, depending on who’s eating, can be sliced into a salad without too much drama.
With the addition of the greenhouse last summer, Nobska Farms can now supply organically grown fresh chili peppers year round to local restaurants. One of Rooster’s biggest local fans is Stephanie Mikolazyk, head chef of Quicks Hole Taqueria in Wood Hole. Quicks Hole’s most popular salsa is called “Knock Your Socks Off” for a reason—it contains one each of Rooster’s super spicy Bhut Jolokia and Devil’s Tongue chili peppers. “As soon as you put one of these in the salsa—wow!” extols Mikolazyk, “It’s amazing!” She does take precautions, however, always wearing gloves and sometimes even a face mask when working with the chilies. “I dice the pepper superfine so no one gets a surprise when they put it on a tortilla chip,” she assures me, “although the dish washer has to be careful when he puts the cutting board into the machine.”
Down the street at the newly opened Quicks Hole Tavern, more fresh peppers have made it onto the menu, starting with Mikolazyk’s own creation “Pig’s Candy”. It’s a slow-roasted spiced pork belly appetizer that draws on a dried pepper called Aji Brazilian Starfish for spice. The tavern menu also features fresh chili peppers in the pickled vegetables and the chicken wings. Recently, Rooster introduced her to a yellow pepper called the Aji Limon, which has just the right citrus tang to add some spice to the crab cake sauce. With Nobska Farms churning out fresh chilies in the dead of winter, Mikolazyk can have locally grown peppers on the menu all year long.
That’s the plan for the new head chef at Añejo, on Main Street in Falmouth, as well. Ben Phipps took charge of the kitchen at the popular Mexican restaurant last fall and is getting up to speed on the local chili offerings. He uses Nobska Farms’ chipotle dry rub for his Pollo Asado, and, like Mikolazyk, is also an admirer of the Aji Limon. “I like the dried chilies because they are more mild and I can regulate the heat,” he explains, “but the fresh Aji Limon is a real face-melter!” He plans to add it to the ceviche come summer.
Fricke’s business is increasing rapidly, with sales of his fresh peppers and retail products expanding both locally and online. He expects to double his 2013 sales this year. As the retail side grows stronger, he has started to devote more time to the other side of the company that he calls “Farming for the Future.” Disturbed by recent U.N projections of the world population reaching 9.6 billion by 2050, and the need to double or even triple food production to support that number of people on the planet, Fricke realized his inner scientist was hankering to take on the big question of food sustainability. “What do we do about feeding the world?” he asks. “Here we are, little Nobska Farms growing our chili peppers, but I think we can have an impact by making it so that we can increase the yield for people who want to grow their own food.”
Fricke sees his operation as a “research platform for high-intensity urban farming” and has started experimenting with aquaponic growing practices in his greenhouse. Aquaponics is different from hydroponics, where plants grow in water instead of soil. Aquaponics combines hydroponics and aquaculture, with plants and fish working together in a symbiotic system. In Fricke’s aquaponic setup, the plants grow in gravel beds that are connected to a 100-gallon tank of goldfish. The fish produce ammonia as a waste product, which is then pumped over to the grow beds and converted to nitrates by bacteria. The peppers use the nitrates as fertilizer, and as they extract the nutrients from the wastewater, they clean it up for circulation back to the fish tank. It forms a closed loop and requires no chemical pesticides. “The water for the fish has to be pristine,” explains Rooster. “You can’t use pesticides in aquaponics because you would kill your fish!”
Perhaps the biggest selling point of aquaponics is that it uses 90% less water than conventional growing methods, and in a world of increasing drought and water scarcity, this will be a key benefit. Also, with its tightly packed growing beds, you can grow more plants in less space. Rooster expects he’ll have 240 chili plants in less than 400 square feet when the current system is at capacity. For now, he plans to have a small home indoor “kitchen garden” kit available for sale this year. The kit can be used for other easy home crops like lettuce and spinach as well. Although the current setup requires electricity, Rooster dreams of using thermal banking to cut down on energy use in the greenhouse and eventually getting Nobska Farms off the grid. “Ultimately we want to make it so that we don’t rely on natural resources, unless it comes out of the sky. Sun and rain, we want to use as much as possible,” explains Fricke, “We’re dreamers, but it is being driven by a real practical need.”
For Rooster, aquaponics opens up the potential for not only a new product, but also a new approach to agriculture, providing people with another way to grow their own food, no matter where they live. Fricke envisions a return to the Victory Gardens of WWII, when more than 20 million home gardens supplied 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. “I think it’s fun helping people think about farming the way people did 100 years ago,” he says. “There is an opportunity now for us to rethink what we consider farming and that it is not just big agricultural in the Midwest somewhere. There is nothing more local than growing food in your backyard!”
From hot sauce to home gardens, Rooster Fricke is having the time of his life in his new career. And who knows? He just may save the world—one chili pepper at a time.
The chili plants are in their prime starting in late July through October. Items can be purchased at the farm and at farmers’ markets. Email Rooster@NobskaFarms.com to schedule a farm tour.
A haiku by Rooster Fricke
Ooooh! It’s way too hot.
I will not do that again.
Until the next time.
QUICKS HOLE'S "KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF" SALSA
6 pounds diced Roma tomatoes
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 Bhut Jolokhia pepper
- 1 Devil’s Tongue pepper
- 2 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1 red onion diced small
- ¼ cup fresh lime juice
- salt and pepper to taste
- Combine all ingredients together for a fresh and flavorful salsa.
Julie Mirocha is an expatriate Cape Codder currently living and eating in the San Francisco Bay Area. She looks forward to returning to her home in Falmouth as a summer resident, and will continue to explore the world of local food, near and far.