The art of growing chillies

If you want an insight into the true character of a man, give him a super-hot chilli to eat. You know: one of those Dorset Nagas or (god forbid) Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, currently the hottest chilli in the world. If he’s really stupid, he’ll actually eat it. Then he’ll cry.

I say ‘man’ advisedly, as it does seem to be almost exclusively men who want to neck a million-plus SHU pepper (that’s Scoville Heat Units – the unit of measurement for capsaicin, the stuff that makes chilli peppers hot), just to see if they can. I do sometimes wonder if they’ve ever watched any of those YouTube videos in which people who thought they were hard enough are reduced to gibbering, gasping, sobbing, choking wrecks. More masochism than macho, but then the world of the chilli-head is a strange one.

Anyway, I am a complete wuss and find anything much above, say, 10,000 SHU pretty unpleasant (so a cayenne or jalapeno is about my limit). The current record (that Butch T) stands at 1,473,700 SHU. So as you can see, I’m a total lightweight.

But I do find chillies pretty.

The green ones are the mildest, with only the slightest tang to them: in fact I found they weren’t much hotter than a regular green pepper. Flushed purple, they start to have a little more bite: but it’s once they turn that fiery red that they really do their thing.

The nice thing about medium-hot chillies is that they keep their flavour, a rich sweetness you can still taste even through the kick of capsaicin. The hotter you get, the stronger the explosion in your mouth, until it eventually kills off any hope you ever had of tasting anything: yet another reason why I’ve never quite understood the point of eating a Bhut Jolokia, say (1,041,427 SHU). Unless it’s to give everyone a good laugh on YouTube, of course.

I think I’ve finally cracked growing them this year, too. Chillies like heat as much as the people who eat them: so I’ve given my little chilli plants the hottest growing season I could possibly manage.

It started with germinating the seeds, nice and early to give the plants time to mature and ripen fruits. So at the beginning of February I sowed them in my gorgeously decadent thermostatically-controlled propagator, set to 25°C: a sunny windowsill would do, but bring them into a warm room at night so they don’t get chilled. Constant warmth is what you’re aiming for.

Then I made sure they never left the greenhouse. Yes, you can grow chillies outdoors: they’ll survive. But they won’t fruit unless it’s a really good summer, and even then the fruits won’t reliably ripen. Grow them under glass, though, and they can luxuriate happily in the heat all day long.

I keep forgetting to water chillies in containers. This isn’t quite so much of a problem as for other plants, since overwatering chillies just makes them grow lots of leaf instead of fruit. You treat chillies mean to grow them well: let them just get to the point where they’re almost wilting, then soak them once and repeat. They don’t need a lot of feeding, either: the occasional dose of comfrey or liquid seaweed in the water, and that’s it.

But even so, container grown chillies always seem to pine a little under my erratic care, so this year I planted mine in the greenhouse border in a nice long row at the feet of my cucumber plants. They’ve been joyously happy: a combination, I suspect, of just enough water after the cucumbers had finished with it, plus a little trickle-down from the liquid feed I was using on the greenhouse borders anyway.

So what with all that, and our exceptionally good summer this year, I’ve got the biggest, most fruit-laden patch of chilli plants I’ve ever managed, and for the first time there’s been enough sunshine and enough good growing time to ripen the fruits to properly red.

They’ll keep us going for months if I dry them, as they hold their flavour and spiciness perfectly strung up in the kitchen, as well as their colour - there’s nothing like a string of home-grown chilli peppers hung artlessly from a shelf for Nigella-level Domestic Goddess credibility. So I’m looking forward to a winter of warming chilli con carne eaten with big floury tortillas and a nice dollop of guacamole and sour cream on the side. Now that’s my kind of chilli-eating challenge.