It seems hard to believe, but it wasn't so many years ago that red bell peppers were a rarity in the grocery store. You could find them only during a two- or three-week period each year, and you paid luxury prices for the privilege.
Now, of course, red bell peppers are available year-round, and if they're not dirt-cheap, they're certainly reasonable. For that, you can thank Israeli scientists.
In the past, red bell peppers were green bell peppers that had reached the final stages of maturity. As such, they were prone to a couple of notable shortcomings, not the least of which was that they had an extremely short season and shelf life. Their flavor was good, but their flesh was weak and prone to spoilage problems.
Today's red bells, in the parlance of the trade, are "bred to be red." They turn colors much earlier and, once picked, they stay firm and crisp much longer--up to two weeks. The trade-off is that the flavor is not the same. The new varieties are sweeter, without the earthy undertones of the old-time reds.
These new peppers are the fruit of patented seeds, meaning that each pepper can be sold only by the company that paid for its development.
The first of these name-brand peppers was Le Rouge Royale, which was introduced by Indio-based agricultural conglomerate Sun World International in 1983. The product of Israeli scientists at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Le Rouge is a cross of a regular blocky pepper with Bulgarian and cubanelle peppers.
"A blocky red bell is a green bell that is senescing; it's at the end of its life cycle," says Franz De Klotz, product manager for Sun World. "Once picked, a blocky bell doesn't have a lot of shelf life. Le Rouge is bred to be red at peak maturity. That means you have another seven to 14 days of shelf life after it has been picked."
Sun World isn't the only company with its own pepper. There are three or four others on the market these days, all developed by Israelis. One of the peppers belongs to Frank Capurro & Son and is sold under its Topless brand.
"We sell more red peppers than green and yellow combined," says Grant Oswalt, sales manager for Capurro. "It has turned into a good deal for us. We're selling 4,000 to 5,000 cases a day, and that's consistent volume. If anyone had ever told me that we'd be in this position with red bell peppers when I started out, I'd have told them they were crazy."