BY MEGAN HILL
Charlie Bodony’s spice business began as part experiment, part backyard hobby, and part homage to his Transylvanian heritage. Bodony grows the peppers for his blossoming company, Some Like It Hott, in his Port Townsend backyard. There, in two greenhouses behind the garage, is where the magic starts.
The green tangle of jalapenos, habaneros, poblanos and other chilies in his greenhouses represent the 10 or so varieties that were culled from the 265 he started with in 2005. “We’ve chosen ones that grow well here and that produce well,” he says. Part of the reason that any grow at all in Western Washington is that the greenhouses reproduce the tropical growing conditions the peppers need to thrive. When I visited on a mild summer morning, the temperature was 88 degrees, and it can get as hot as 115, he says.
The line of spices includes a milder poblano, a one-star he’s nicknamed “extra bacon.” He makes a green jalapeno( a three-star), and a smoked Piment d’Espelete from chilies found in the Basque region after one of Columbus’ sailors brought back seeds from the New World in 1523. The unsmoked serrano is three stars. The paprika verde, paprika ’10, and Fuszerpaprika (meaning “fire pepper” in Hungarian) are a six, seven and eight star respectively and are all blended from a jalapeño/habanero hybrid and diavoletto and fatalii chilies.
Bodony says the fatalii is the “mother-queen of all chilies.”
“The fatalii is one of my favorite chilies. They’re sweet and seductive and robust. You cut up one of them and you can smell them 20 feet away. No other chile comes close.” It’s prettier than most other chilies, with a long, delicately twisted shape. It’s also ranked as the sixth hottest pepper in the world, in the same range as more well-known chilies like the Scotch bonnet.
Though Bodony has some pretty hot blends, his aim isn’t to set your mouth on fire. “Especially with the paprika, it builds and burns and gets back in and you get this whole glow going on,” he says. “It’s a pan-spectrum heat. It’s not assaulting one place in your mouth. You’ve got a lovely flavor and the heat just starts to build all over the place. That’s what we go for.”
Some Like It Hott has been discovered by Seattle chefs at Agua Verde, Portage Bay Grill, and Elliott Bay Café. The Herbfarm in Woodinville bought an ounce of every blend. And he’s had customers order online from Solvenia, Maui and Mexico.
“We’re growing chilies in Port Townsend and selling them to Mexicans. Figure that one out,” he says. “They’re selling like hot cakes.”
Bodony plants the peppers at the end of January or the beginning of February, and harvests from August until early December. After they’re harvested, the peppers are dried in a former goat shed he’s turned into a kitchen. “The dryer is the backbone of this whole operation,” he says.
Before they’re dried, over half of the peppers are smoked in an alder wood-fired smoker that’s given his products their trademark flavor. He uses green alder chips that grow like a weed in Port Townsend. “We usually use it within a week of it being cut down, so it’s really fresh, really wet,” he says.
The peppers are cold-smoked for twelve hours, meaning the temperature in the smoker never rises above 100 degrees. He keeps it at about 85 degrees, which requires checking the temperature every 30 minutes.
Processing the peppers wraps up in January and February, and by then it’s time to start planting again. He says, “It’s a full time job that’s got me hopping 15 ways to Sunday.”
Bodony grew up eating food laced with spice. His parents immigrated to Chicago from the Transylvania region of Hungary, where paprika (which in Hungarian refers to any chile) is common in local cuisine. “My mother taught me to cook,” he says. “About the time I was 12 I was hovering around looking for food, and she says, ‘Here, stir this. Don’t stop ’til I tell ya.’ Well pretty soon I had figured out what I was stirring and why and how. I ended up taking home ec in high school and I got straight As and they were blown away. I came in with my own recipes.”
He moved to the Pacific Northwest from Chicago in 1984.
“I have a brother that used to live here and I came to see him and fell in love with the place,” he says. “I went back to Chicago, tied up my affairs, and moved here in ’84. Packed everything in my truck and said, ‘Goodbye, I’m not coming back.'”
When Bodony was laid off from his day job as a machinist in 2007, his newfound free time was used to take business classes to better manage his burgeoning spice company. He’s also had to learn a lot about growing and drying chilies, but he’s found plenty of resources.
“There’s a lot of history to tap into around chilies,” he says. “I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve just been picking up everything I can.” One of his major resources is the New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, but perhaps the strongest influence on his work is his heritage.
“My mom and my grandmother watch over me fairly closely. They’re both deceased. If I want to know how to cook anything at all I just have to shut up and listen and they’ll tell me,” Bodony says. “The veils between the worlds are much thinner than we guess.”
Whether there’s something transcendent here or not, the company’s growing fan base proves one thing is certain: This stuff is tasty.
Charlie Bodony sells his spices at the Port Townsend Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Chimacum Farmers Market on Sundays. His spices are also available for purchase on his website: www.aldersmoked.com