Blog post – feeling hot, hot, hot at the Chilli Fiesta!
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a big garden and with parents who were mad-keen on gardening and growing their own fruit and vegetables. My parents had all manner of produce in the garden, from aubergines and broccoli to rhubarb and spinach. And chillies. My mum loved to grow chillies, and her finest hour was the naga chilli plant she grew from seed on the kitchen windowsill.
So when I was approached by the Royal Horticultural Society at Great Hyde Hall, near Chelmsford to take part in their Chilli Pepper Weekend, I felt Mum would have approved. The RHS have recognised the rocketing trend for home chilli growing in the last few years, maybe due to the interest in world cookery so it was a natural fit to have some live cooking demonstrations as part of the weekend’s festivities. I adore chillies; there really is no good replacement for fresh chilli in so many dishes, nothing that can give the same punchy flavour, aroma and fragrance – it’s not just about heat.
When planning my menu I made contact with Alan Lodge of Battlebridge Mills Garden Centre who specialise in growing chillies and have won many RHS gold awards for their chillies over the years. I asked for a range of flavours and heat levels for the dishes I wanted to make and Alan recommended the delightfully named Green Gusto, Hot Lemon and the more prosaic, Indian chilli. I caught up with Alan at the festival and quizzed him about his chilli obsession.
Apparently it was the food that came first, he loved cooking and eating Indian food and other spicy dishes which led him to invest in his first box of mixed chilli seeds and once he had lovingly nurtured these to fruition, he was hooked. The garden centre now stock hundreds of varieties of chillies from mild to very hot and Alan had on display some crackers I’m sure you’d be familiar with; habaneros, jalapenos, scotch bonnets, Trinidad scorpions and of course the wonderful naga chilli. But there were so many I hadn’t heard of, including the one that Alan confessed was his favourite when I asked him – but, hang on, isn’t that like having a favourite child? The Fattali chilli was the one he named – I admit I’d never heard of it but the fat orange wrinkly fruit looked fairly impressive!
Alan and his team ran a chilli challenge at the festival, where volunteers, having signed a disclaimer, were challenged to eat a slice of 5 different chillies, the super, jalapeno, habanero, hot lemon and the fattali, which ranged from quite hot to extremely hot. Glasses of milk were provided but drinking it would signal the end of that contestant’s journey. I did not participate, mumbling excuses about needing to protect my chef’s palate. There was talk about Scoville Units, but to be honest just watching the reactions was enough to see the incremental levels of pain being experienced by these brave souls. 7 out of nine reached the end of the challenge, much to the delight of the crowd!
And in the truly beautiful setting of the gardens at Hyde Hall, to packed marquees in my little field kitchen I demonstrated how to make two cocktails made with chillies, Fire & Ice – inspired by the late, great Keith Floyd – and a chilli rum punch, baba ghanoush made with roasted aubergines, Bengali fishcakes and griddled pineapple with chilli syrup. My plan was to try and show people that chillies can be used in less than obvious ways. The flavour of chilli, when balanced with freshness of mint, sugar and lemons makes a fabulous foil for clean, crisp vodka. Or a winter warmer you’ll love, rum with chilli, lime and ginger beer fiery but oddly soothing. Great if you’re fighting a cold.
The food went down a storm, particularly the cocktails, and I think I convinced a lot of people of the Bengali trick of using salt and chilli to make fruit taste amazing. Thinly sliced pineapple, cooked on a griddle pan to encourage the natural sugars to caramelise with those pretty charred lines, arranged on a platter and soaked with spicy and sweet syrup is a truly beautiful thing to grace any dinner table.
I’m looking forward to trying out new dishes with all the lovely chillies I bought, and am very tempted to buy even more chilli plants for my windowsills because they are beautiful to look at – and useful too!