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Chillies: Britain's harvest raises fans' temperatures

Do you match chilli types correctly to your cooking for both heat and flavour?

Britain's chillies are almost ready for harvest, and the fiery foods have never been more in demand.

Once the preserve of hotter climes, a dazzling array of chillies are now grown in Britain: from the mild Hungarian hot wax, to Mexican poblano and the super-hot Dorset naga, dubbed "Britain's hottest".

With such choice available, producers are calling for cooks to start embracing the variety of flavours they have, not just the "heat factor".

"Twenty years ago when we started it was a crazy thing to do," says chilli farmer Joy Michaud, describing setting up her business with her husband Michael in 1994.

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"People didn't eat chillies. People didn't know what to do with them. It was a very exotic thing."

Now the Michauds breed chillies and sell seeds and plants online via their company Sea Spring Seeds based in Dorchester, Dorset, and have seen a big increase in interest over the years.

"In the last 20 years British diets have changed," says Ms Michaud.

"And now it's still a new crop, there's still a lot to learn, but there are a lot more growers around."

Originating in South and Central America, chillies were introduced to South Asia in the 1500s. Today India and China are two of the largest chilli producers in the world.

In Britain, the chilli industry is small-scale but has expanded significantly, thanks to new-found tastes.

"In the old days people used to ask for green and red chillies and that was it. But now they actually are asking for varieties of chillies.

Chemical attraction

Sparkler chillies

Andrew Jukes, chemical analyst and chilli heat tester at the University of Warwick says:

"Chillies are the UK's hottest crop. They are generally considered beneficial. Capsaicin (the chemical that causes the heat) is a known blood thinner so can increase blood circulation and reduce the risk of strokes.

"Positive effects on cancer, pain relief and relaxation are also claimed. There are small risks from eating very hot peppers but you would have to be pretty determined to cause them. The most likely problem is indigestion

"There is a world wide quest to breed the hottest chilli, not least because it is an excellent marketing tool. However heat is very variable and varies considerably between peppers on a single plant."

"They're asking for nagas; for Scotch bonnets, for jalapenos and are asking for them by name," says Joanna Plumb, who grows chillies and makes sauces at her business Edible Ornaments in Chawston, Bedfordshire.

She attributes people's wider knowledge of chillies to a growth in travel and increase in restaurants using authentic chilli recipes.

A big part of chillies' appeal is their heat, caused by the chemical capsaicin.

So-called "chilli heads" or "heat geeks" seek the eye-watering thrill of eating the hottest varieties.

"I think there's a lot of macho men out there and they like to eat chillies in front of you to show that they're hard. It's like a man test almost," says Ms Plumb.

The Clifton Chilli Club in Bristol attracts its fair share of "chilli heads". Founder member "Chilli Dave" describes sampling a super-hot one.

"Firstly it hits you in the mouth and this can vary from instant to a few seconds which we call a 'creepy uppy'," he said.

"The capsaicin oil from the chilli then coats your taste buds and tricks your mind to thinking your mouth is on fire... this is the plant's self-defence mechanism at work."

Habanero Lantern-shaped habanero chillies are usually very hot with a fruity flavour
Poblano A Mexican favourite, poblanos ripen to a dark brown and when dried are called anchos or mulatos
Lemon drop chilli The lemon-drop chilli is very hot with a distinctive lemon taste and smell
Cayenne Cayenne chilli peppers are often dried and ground to make a powdered spice
Hungarian hot wax chilli Hungarian hot wax is "a great one for a beginner because it's so versatile" says Sarah Wain, chilli gardener at West Dean College

But sometimes there is worse to come after you swallow the fruit, he explains: "As you swallow a super hot chilli it can make your stomach cramp.

"This again is your body reacting to the chilli and in some cases it can cause severe cramp and pain and even to the level of the body rejecting it."

The club, formed in 2009, celebrates all aspects of chillies and not just their heat.

But the burn of eating the hottest types is worth it for some fanatics because of the endorphins release "which makes you feel a little euphoric after".

Hot crop:

Pumpkin chillies
  • Chillies are part of the genus Capsicum. We eat from around five domesticated species of Capsicum.
  • The food was eaten for thousands of years in the Americas before the 1500s, when Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced them to South Asia along the trade route.
  • Chillies are hot because they contain capsaicin, found mainly in the interior of the fruit.
  • Some found in Laos are so tiny they are known as "mouse dropping" chillies.

The heat in chilli peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the official heat scale developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912, which measures the degree of sugar water needed to dilute a chilli extract before it loses its heat.

A sweet pepper scores 0, the New Mexico chilli 1,500 SHU, Jalapenos measure about 5,000 and at the other end of the scale the Michauds' Dorset naga, which they developed, reaches more than 1,000,000 SHU.

But producers want people to enjoy more than just the depth of heat.

"I hope that in the future people will enjoy chillies for the flavour, not just the heat," says Ms Plumb.

"It's like wine, when people buy a bottle of wine they don't ask, 'What is the alcohol content on this?', they think about what they're going to pair it with."

Each year chilli farmers sow their plants in the depths of winter, around January or February. The crops have to be artificially heated and are usually grown inside polytunnels and greenhouses to absorb all the light they need.

Harvest time is in July and August, when the productive plants start bearing chillies right the way through until November or December.

Fresh chillies are picked by hand, and once they've grown, both the ripe red and unripe green ones are ready for harvesting.

Welcome to the family:

Capsicum (red peppers)
  • Capsicum annum is the species to which all modern sweet capsicums and most of the hot species belong
  • Capsicum fruits have been eaten by humans for at least 10,000 years. All are native to the Americas
  • Capsicums are a genus of the family Solanaceae, and are related to tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines and deadly nightshade
  • Black pepper (Piper nigrum) belongs to a different, distantly related plant family Piperaceae

"There are no rules about when you pick a chilli, you just pick it as you like it. Of course as they get riper, they will get hotter, and the flavour changes," explains Ms Michaud.

This year a cold April and May delayed growth by around a month. Thanks to a good summer the sunshine-loving fruits have finally arrived in abundance, but farmers say the total chilli amount picked will be lower than usual.

The need for British chillies to be grown inside means the fresh chilli industry is likely to remain small, says Mr Michaud.

He says this seed-selling branch of the industry has seen a "huge increase" but believes "it will soon plateau out".

"Gardeners need a greenhouse, tunnel or conservatory to grow chillies, and only a small proportion of them have one," he says.

But Britain's "chilli culture" appears to be thriving, with festivals celebrating chillies from around the world popping up around the country.

Earlier this month, the Britain's largest and original annual chilli festival held at West Dean College in West Sussex attracted a "record-breaking" 22,000 visitors.

"They're fabulous things to look at, let alone eat," says West Dean College garden supervisor Sarah Wain.

"Once you train your palate to accept it and enjoy it I think it gives you an endorphin rush.

"After a while stuff tastes bland and… you get your chilli kick from [adding] it."

Pick the perfect pepper:

Chilli Tastes: Looks: Used in:

Habanero

Very hot. Rich flavour

Lantern-shaped, orange pods

Salsas, chutneys and Caribbean cuisine

Ancho (or poblano)

Fairly mild to hot when ripe

Like a heart-shaped fruit

Used green or dried in sauces

Cayenne

Pungent and hot

Thin, with pointed pods 10-30cm in length

Hot sauces or to grind into cayenne pepper powder

Serrano

Hot with an acidic taste. The ripened red fruit is sweeter than the green

Small, tubular pods. Usually eaten while still green

Excellent for making fresh salsa and guacamole. Good for pickling

Chipotle

Smoked, dried version of jalapenos

Black-red or light brown

Commonly used in Mexican cooking and chilli sauces

Hungarian hot wax

Mild

3-4in fruits; scarlet when ripe

Good for grilling and stuffing or adding to salads

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