Recipes and Stories

10 August 2015: Bird Peppers and Pepper Sherry

August 10, 2015

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Savannah Cooking, Savannah, Pepper Sherry, Bird Peppers

Pepper sherry and a crystal bowl of the fresh peppers, both of which were once essential condiments on Savannah tables. Photography by John Carrington, from my Savannah Cookbook, published in 2008
Once upon a time, a pot containing a pepper plant that produced tiny, innocent-looking peppers no bigger than small peas could be found in almost every Savannah courtyard. Known as “bird peppers,” they only looked innocent: they’re among the fieriest of all the hot pepper clan. Everyone grew them because they were a fixture in Savannah dining rooms. The fresh peppers were passed in a small bowl to be used as a condiment for soup.

But they were also used in an infusion with sherry to create a lovely condiment known simply as Pepper Sherry. Whether it was in an elegant crystal cruet or just a re-used soda or condiment bottle, this fiery, amber liquid graced almost every sideboard in town, from the humblest creek-side dwellings to the most elegant of townhouses downtown.

Pepper Sherry isn’t unique to Savannah, of course; it was common wherever British Colonials settled in the subtropics. But Savannahians made it their own and it was so essential that brides were given a jar of it at their marriage. Whenever the menu included turtle soup, creamy crab soup, crab stew, or Savannah’s unique variation of Southern vegetable soup known simply as “okra soup,” you could be sure that this condiment would always accompany them.

It was so commonplace in fact that recipes for it were not written down and are never included in old Savannah cookbooks—even the ones that mention it. Unhappily, in the last half-century this lovely condiment fell out of use and all but disappeared. When I started working on my Savannah Cookbook, I could find neither a recipe nor a single person who could quite recall the proportions.

Then, as luck would have it, one afternoon I happened to mention it in passing to Ashby Angell, a fine gardener, who was coaching me on growing bird peppers. Suddenly her eyes lit up as she remembered that she’d been given a jar of the stuff. Sure enough, it was still in the back her pantry, and though it was more than twenty years old and had barely been touched for most of those years, it was not only still edible, but absolutely delicious. Best of all, because it was mostly untouched, it was essentially a recipe in a jar.

Pepper Sherry

The heat intensifies as the infusion sits for the first few months. If you want to keep it milder, strain out the peppers after about two-to-three weeks.

Makes 1 cup

1/3 cup bird peppers or ½ cup other small hot peppers
1 cup medium dry sherry (amontillado)

1. Rinse the peppers in cold water, drain, and put them in a heatproof bowl. Bring 1 cup of water to a rolling boil and pour it over the peppers. Let stand 1 minute and drain.

2. Put the peppers in a clean cruet, jar, or bottle that will hold at least 1½ cups. Pour the sherry over them, stop or seal it well, and steep for at least 24 hours before using. I find it helps distribute the peppery oils if you gently shake the cruet after 24 hours.

Recipe and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd Edition, Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved