Before I go into the wild pepper and some great local varieties that belong to the C. annuum species, I feel compelled to say something about the iconic pepper of the Yucatan peninsula, the habanero.
The habanero belongs to a different species, Capsicum chinense, and when you bite into one, you can tell it is miles apart from the comparatively milder C. annuum varieties. Comparing their relative pungency, the habanero is approximately 50x more pungent than your average jalapeño (Habaneros have been measured at 300-500,000 Scoville Units, compared to 5-10,000 for jalapeños). I "sample" all the peppers we encounter in the field and this time I was a bit timid when it came to biting into the pepper. I think I got lucky and didn't hit a real firecracker here, but it was still hot.
A relative newcomer to the peninsula, the habanero was introduced in post-conquest. Of the important peppers cultivated here, it is the only not to have a Mayan moniker. The others (which I will discuss later on) have names such as maax (pronounced mä sh), x’catic (shkätek) etc. However, the popularity of the habanero has increased and surpassed these local varieties, with a huge international market and following. Whereas these other local varieties have certain dishes and specific culinary uses, the habanero is solely used in salsas.
The demand internationally for habanero products has increased and the Yucatan ships thousands of tons of habanero paste and powder for culinary use all over the world. The following photos are from a habanero processing plant that I was able to visit. This one plant exports over 500 tons of habanero paste and powder every year.
In this photo, these ladies are sorting the habaneros by color and destemming them as well.
The immature habaneros are green, then turn a red or orange color depending on the variety.