Feeling the burn…West Dean Chile Fiesta, Chichester

Food & drink
West Dean Chile Fiesta Chichester

Chile Peppers are one of those vegetables (actually berries!) that seem to provoke either unbridled masochism or abject terror.

I like a bit of both personally.

But like wine (my other passion), there is a breathtaking and intriguing array of varieties as I discovered close up on a recent visit to the annual ‘Chile Fiesta‘ held near Chichester on the UK’s South Coast. Every imaginable shape, size, colour and heat strength was represented at this celebration of the capiscum in a display of three hundred varieties of chile. The event has grown from a single day, centered in the cloistered walled gardens of West Dean College, to three days filling several fields.

There seems to be an increasing number of people who like it hot…

I love to grow my own chiles – either from seedlings commonly available from most garden centres (Jalapeno, Apache), or the weird and wonderful, from seed (such as the Bolivian Rainbow or distinctly pornographic Peter Pepper).

Basically, wherever you are, you can grow them like tomatoes (they can handle the soil drying out a bit better).

Oh… and they love heat. Funny that.

There are a hundred and one ways you can use chiles, but here’s my even simpler variation on a simple classic from ‘Too Many Chiles‘:

Fresh Salsa
1 medium red onion
2 large tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
Handful of fresh coriander leaves
Good squeeze of lemon or lime juice
Chiles (quantity and strength to match your tolerance… or your guests!)

Dice or slice your ingredients (chop more finely if you want a dip). Stir well and leave to marinate for at least an hour.

Add fresh coriander just before serving.

By the way, the active hot ‘chemical’ in a chile (capsaicin) is an oil, so if your mouth is in pain, forget water (Remember.. from school? Oil and water don’t mix…) Instead, go for yoghurt, bread or sugar. And if you are preparing chiles, avoid touching ‘soft tissue’, e.g. eyes, nose.

So maybe you’ve been very successful in your growing and now have a chile pepper overload?

How do you preserve your stash?

I tend to go for freezing or drying. There’s an easy rule here. If the chile feels light and a bit wispy in your hand, it’ll dry (thin skinned). If it feels chunky and a bit weighty, freeze it (thick skinned). For the latter, I’m lazy – rinse ’em, pat ’em dry, stick ’em in a bag and freeze ’em. For the light wispy ones, chuck them on a wire rack and watch them shrivel. Great for homemade chile flakes or powder.

And my final purchase of the day at the Chile Fiesta?

Chile Chocolate, made with the deadly Naga Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost Pepper. It had only 0.3% of this excruciating chile, but it made me weep like a lost child. Ah! Is such satisfaction to be had anywhere else?

Check out these sites for more Chile related info:

Hot-Headz | Scorchio | Cool Chile Co | Pepper Joe | CocoaLoco | chileseeds.co.uk

Alex eats chiles by night and sells great wine on the internet during the day running Waitrose Wine Direct. He lives in South West London with one wife, three kids and far too many guitars.