TURNING UP THE HEAT ON CHILLIES
Chillies, it seems, are becoming all the rage. They’ve been grown in space and were briefly tipped as a cure for Covid. We explored the good, the bad and the ugly – and couldn’t help but get fired up.
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Geoff Little, big chief of the Westville Chilli Farm just outside South Africa’s spice capital, Durban, says that he sells at least half of his Carolina Reapers (incidentally the hottest chilly known to man) for revenge purposes!
“Many of my customers buy the Carolina Reaper to burn a mate who had made them a curry, brought it to work and nearly killed them. So, they put it in his food. It’s a hoot!” he chuckles.
Wise to the wiles of the ubiquitous chilli, Little has been growing and selling seeds, seedlings and plants for at least six years. He eats them, knows a lot about them, germinates them in a large purpose built wooden incubator in his office and then nurtures them to the point where he can package them and overnight them to almost anywhere in the country.
He also bears some battle scars. A run in with a bottle of hot chilli sauce that slipped out of his hand a few days earlier left him with an angry red cut on his arm – revenge from the cheeky chillies that he and other enthusiasts are yet to tame, perhaps?
Jokes aside, though, Geoff can lay claim to stocking the 20 hottest chillies in the world as part of his repertoire of 190 different chilli varietals.
The Carolina Reaper, he continues, is great for making hot sauces and good masalas but isn’t necessarily the best eating chilli. He far prefers the Seven Pot Chilli which hails from the West Indies and gets its name from the fact that a single chilli can turn out at least seven pots of very hot curry!
A brief chat with Geoff and his son and co-conspirator in this chilli growing enterprise, Greg, and you realise that chilli growing has as much to do with banter as it does with botany.
Geoff spotted a chilli plant at a local Spar and bought it en route to meeting up with his mates at a local pub. Over a well-chilled beer, he informed them that he was going to start growing chillies.
One of his buddies asked him if he was going to call his new enterprise The Westvillle Chilli Farm and, named on a whim, the budding little enterprise was soon well underway.
Chillies are not only a culinary delight (depending on your taste buds) but also delightfully ornamental and many are grown by avid gardeners simply for their brightly coloured and fascinatingly shaped pods. The fruits can go from white to purple, dark red and even chocolate and be cherry shaped, pumpkin shaped or even oblong.
Most change colour from an immature green as they ripen.
As it turned out, Geoff’s start-up plant turned out to be just that – more decorative than hot. What it did, though, was inspire him to not only find out more about these fascinating fiery fruits but also source unusual chilli seeds from countries as far afield as Australia, the Czech Republic, Peru, India and China.
A brief historical aside is that the chilli has been spicing up food for over 6 000 years and is probably native to the Americas. It was brought to India and Asia, where it played a big part in the development of regional cuisine, by Portuguese explorers. Christopher Columbus introduced it to Europe.
But, what has seen the chilli all but colonize the globe, is actually the internet which has linked enthusiasts across continents to the point where there are large global chilly groups on social media, chilly bloggers and online chilly businesses.
Geoff, alone, has over 4 000 followers on Facebook and follows at least 1 000 others.
This large international network helps growers find seed and exchange ideas on growing. “It’s a case of we’ve got this, you’ve got that, let’s trade,” says Greg.
Dig a little deeper and it’s something of a religion, Geoff concedes. “Some people are quite fanatical. They can talk for hours. But chilli people are really nice people. They come here and sit and talk about chillies. So, it’s always fun when someone pops in for a chat.”
REAPING WHAT YOU SOW
The main reason that they probably visit is because, while growing chillies is not necessarily difficult, actually germinating them is. Geoff harvests his seeds from chilli fruits, dries them and then soaks the seeds in a mild solution of cold tea in small shooter glasses to emulate the germination process that begins in the stomachs of birds that are the main sowers of chilli seeds. They are then planted.
The good news for our feathered friends is that they don’t seem to have taste receptors in their beaks and don’t feel the heat.
The hotter the chilli, the higher the temperature needed to germinate it which explains the incubator in Geoff’s office. Lights shine down on the emerging plants despite the hot Durban temperatures outside.
The littlies are eventually potted and placed on Geoff’s patio table and then transferred into full sunlight as they grow.
That’s about the sum total of the chilli growing secrets that the Littles are prepared to share.
There are 4000 varieties of chillies which are part of the nightshade family and related to brinjals and tomatoes. Chillies not only come in different shapes, sizes and colours but different levels of heat.
Capsaicin is the chemical in chillies that causes that infamous burning sensation.
The heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). This was a scale created by pharmacist and researcher, Wilbur Scoville, in 1912, to measure the heat factor in chillies. The mildest are sweet bell peppers measuring 0 on the scale, jalapenos from 2,500, the habanero from 150,000 – and, so it goes, until you reach the official hottest chilli as registered by the Guinness Book of World Records, the Carolina Reaper, which registers over two million on the Scoville scale.
“I sold over 1 000 reaper plants last year. I sell five times more reapers than all the other chillies together. I keep some of the reapers that I harvest from my own trees in my freezer. I give them to my mate once there’s a kilo and he makes a masavaroo. Hell, its hot, but its lovely – half reaper, half cayenne,” Geoff says.
During a brief tour of his suburban chilli farm, he points out the most characteristic types. There’s the Black Pearl, which shares its name with pirate Jack Sparrow’s ship. It has a bright red berry-like fruit and deep purple leaves. Then there’s the Mozambique Peri Peri that hails from river beds across the border.
FEELING THE BURN
One of the most distinctive things about chillies is their highly descriptive and entertaining names. Leaf through Geoff’s chilli Bible – better known as his catalogue – and you find the Fury Chilli, the Medusa, Thunder Mountain Longhorn, Trinidad Scorpion, Devil’s Tongue, Bulawayo Bullet, Thai Dragon, Star Scream, Purple Tiger and more.
Finally, there’s the well-known local, the bird’s eye chilli, which Geoff describes as a “cheeky little bugger”. They register from 50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale.
“The hotter chillies are up to six times more than that. I can’t even eat the hottest chilli,” he admits.
Son Greg chips in: “His tolerance has gone up over the years but he still can’t eat a reaper.”
It comes as no surprise that neither father nor son are lured into one of the most inexplicable rituals associated with the so-called religion of the chilli – chilli eating competitions.
Some of his customers are and, eyes streaming and mouths burning, make their way through a list of chillies that get hotter and hotter as they go. Those that can bear the burn long enough to shovel down these scalding fruits win prizes the world over.
Quizzed on why anyone would put themselves through this, Geoff replies that he doesn’t know but concedes that there may be an element of heroism in the process.
“I think some people are addicted to the feeling of the burn and the heat. Some guys salivate when they just look at chillies,” Greg adds.
It seems that he isn’t far wrong. Studies the world over have shown that those who enjoy the hottest chillies also tend to be the ones that indulge in extreme sports. There are numerous psychological studies of chilli eaters, too.
Blogger Scott, otherwise known as The Chilli Expert, probably explains the process best.
Capsicum triggers a neuro-receptor which is otherwise activated by high temperatures, certain acidic compounds and the chemicals which give other treats like mustard and horseradish their characteristic kick. This is aimed at chasing off anything – or anyone – who might eat the pods.
So, why do we insist on eating a plant which clearly doesn’t want us to?
“The answer may lie in our uniquely human capacity for thrill-seeking. Much like riding a rollercoaster, jumping out of a plane (typically with some sort of parachute, just to be sure), and even watching horror films, we love to make our bodies feel like they are in trouble whilst being able to rationalize that we actually aren’t.
“In much the same way, although chilli peppers quite literally trick the brain into thinking that your mouth is experiencing a massively high temperature, the fact that we aren’t means that there’s a certain element of enjoyment to be gleaned from this kind of minor death-defying,” he suggests.
For the slightly less adventurous – including Geoff – the quest is to find products that use the heat, spice and flavours to their best advantage.
He says although he has made his own sauces, he no longer takes the time simply because many of his customers bring him theirs when they come to buy plants.
“At one point, I had 27 different types of chilli sauces in the fridge,” he laughs.
HOT ON HEALTH
The good news is that there is some gain to go along with the pain when it comes to consuming chillies, according to our doyenne of healthy eating, Cindy Bottomley.
“Capsaicin in chillies is what causes the burning sensation as well as most of the health benefits. That burn triggers your body to release endorphins which help to reduce pain and make you feel happy. So that, possibly, solves part of the question about why we keep going back for more. It hurts but it feels good,” she says.
The whole fruit is jam packed with nutrients, including the seeds. One of the main benefits of eating chillies is that they are high in beta-carotene and vitamin C. They are also rich in bioflavonoids and have been found to be effective in lowering cholesterol and contain vitamin B, iron, copper and potassium.
The reason you start sniffing and your eyes start watering is that, apart from the burning sensation, chillies thin out mucous so they help ‘open things up’, Cindy continues.
Medical researchers have also said that other benefits that come with chomping these fiery fruits include lower blood pressure (presumably once the burn subsides) and some antimicrobial effects – so, while they may be good for relieving cold symptoms and were even, it one point, briefly put forward as a cure for Covid, it’s unlikely that they are likely to be the next big healthcraze. What they could do, however, is upset or even burn your stomach so, healthy eating aside, the best approach is always to strike a sensible balance.
He says he has never yet tasted a bad chilli sauce. “It’s quite basic – vinegar, garlic, chilli – you can’t get it wrong …”
Well, unless you add too many chillies, Greg suggests.
Things are also hotting up in the kitchen this week. Chef JP’s blog will share some secrets on cooking with chillies as well as some spicy and flavoursome recipes. Watch out for it on Friday …
To get some chilli catalogues or to buy some seedlings,please contact Geoff Little on firstname.lastname@example.org.