Chilli Fiesta at West Dean Gardens
The last time I went to the Chilli Fiesta at West Dean Gardens near Chichester was about 8 or 9 years ago and the event was mainly about displaying their extensive display of chilli plants but with a few stalls on the side selling hot sauces, dried chillies and seeds. I think there was just one stall selling hot and spicy food to eat there and then. What a transformation the Fiesta has gone through. The car park looked like it covered half of West Sussex! And, after I had queued for ages to get in, I couldn’t even see all the 100+ stalls and had to cross into another field to find the rest.
If you went to the Fiesta hoping to get yourself a mammoth hot food tasting you would not have been disappointed. I can hardly believe there are so many hot sauce makers in Britain. Every one had tastings of their products so you could really have messed up your taste buds (and your digestion) by the end of the day. I was quite careful until I came across an old internet pal of mine – Stuart McAllister of Hot-Headz. Then I simply let Stuart guide me as to what I should taste. His top recommendation was Hot-Headz own Naga Bhut Jolokia Chilli Sauce. Wow! Although the sauce is naturally extremely hot (as you’d expect from that particular chilli variety) the fruity flavour of the chillies shines right through the heat. I went away clutching a bottle.
When lunchtime came round there was so much choice I could hardly make up my mind. There were plenty of curries on offer and food from Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and just about any country with a tradition of spicy food but in the end I decided to go Mexican. Good choice. My chicken fajitas from a catering outfit called Mexi-Wraps were delicious and even their salsa was quite soothing after Stuart’s naga sauce.
To walk off my lunch I took a stroll through the greenhouses which hold West Dean’s chilli collection. It never ceases to amaze me how chillies come in so many different colours, shapes and sizes. There was everything from small compact plants to huge great monsters all bursting with ripe chillies. West Dean were selling a large selection of chilli plants themselves and there were numerous other growers with stalls where you could pick up ready grown chilli plants. If you were thinking more about next year then there were seeds companies too and I bought myself a pack of seeds for a chilli called Punjab from Simpson’s Seeds whose owner Matthew was sporting a natty line in chilli clothing himself. I am hoping Punjab will produce the long thin chillies you often see in Asian grocers and which I probably use more than any other chilli in my curries.
I made sure I was at the demonstration area at 2 o’clock on the dot as I particularly wanted to hear Joy Michaud of Peppers By Post talk about choosing and growing chillies. She is a true expert on the subject and she fielded the audience’s questions with thoughtful and knowledgeable answers. You might have heard of Joy and her husband Michael as they have been in news recently. It is the Michauds who bred the famous Dorset Naga chilli which has been certified by independent tests as the hottest chilli in the world. When Joy brought out a Dorset Naga plant in full fruit deep intakes of breath could be heard from the audience as if she had just produced a religious relic. There followed many questions and answers about how they bred the variety and how you look after it. Sadly, by the time I got to their stall, all the Dorset Naga plants had been sold but I did manage to buy some beautiful shiny Poblano chillies (at completely the other end of the heat scale) to make my own fajitas when I got home.
In the short time I had left I had a look out for some of the more unusual chill products available and I spotted chilli chocolate, chilli ice cream, chilli fruit juice and even a chilli beer. I only tried the chilli chocolate I’m afraid so I can’t report on what chilli beer tastes like. Even a long standing chilli-head like me has to draw the line somewhere! Then all that was left was for me to buy myself a cool chilli apron although my natural reserve stopped me going for a loud chilli shirt and or a huge sombrero like many in the crowd had done.
If anyone ever tells you that the British only like bland food all you’ve got to do is tell them about the thousands of people who tasted hundreds of hot and spicy products at the Chilli Fiesta to prove how wrong they are. Roll on next year.