Continuing our celebration of West Country growers and producers, we asked roving reporter, Mr Toad, to hop along to a South Devon farm where things can get hot especially when it’s chilli.
South Devon Chilli Farm, on the outskirts of Loddiswell in the heart of the South Hams, has become something of a mecca for all those with a passion for peppers. From hobby gardeners to farming chefs, the chilli nursery is now a thriving enterprise with a fleet of polytunnels, a growing list of homemade recipes, and also, its very own farm shop.
Heather Waters, one of the chilli farm’s founders and aficionados, took time away from the piri piris and jalapenos to give us an insight into how the magic happens…
Q & A with the South Devon Chilli Farm
Mr Toad: Hi Heather, thanks for taking some time away from your duties on the farm to answer my questions.
First off, where did the idea for a chilli farm spring up from?
Heather: It started as a hobby and a love of spicy food, and then became a challenge to try and grow our own chilli plants in a small back garden greenhouse. It proved a real success and we ended up having so many we had to cook them up to preserve them. At around the same time, farmers’ markets were beginning to establish themselves and we decided to rent a stall to see if there was an interest in our chillies and chilli preserves – there was! It kind of grew from there, so to speak, and eventually we were given the opportunity to buy some land and set up our own farm.
Mr Toad: What can we expect from a visit to South Devon Chilli Farm?
Heather: It depends when you visit us, but generally, all year round we have samples of all our preserves, sauces and chilli chocolates available to try in our shop. Our café, which also stays open throughout the year, has lovely views over the South Devon hills and a menu catering for all tastes, some things spicy, some things not. Along with traditional Devon cream teas and cakes, we also have a savoury cream tea with cream cheese and our deliciously addictive chilli jam.
From Easter time onwards, we have chilli pot plants for sale, then later in the year from June to December, we have fresh chillies to buy plus the opportunity to walk our fascinating Chilli Show Tunnel where you’ll find more than 200 varieties on display. For children, we have a play tractor, a twisty swing and some activity sheets. We have plenty of space to enjoy a wander, and also a ‘viewpoint walk’, which is great if you have your dog with you.
Mr Toad: Could you describe six months in the life of one of your chillies?
Heather: If we look at the popular tapas chilli Pimiento de Padrón, it will start life as a seed and germinate into a tiny seedling sometime during January or February, pushing up through the seed compost and keeping lovely and warm in a heated propagator inside our double-skin polytunnel plant nursery. After a few weeks, when it has true leaves, the seedling will be pricked out into its own small plant pot where it can grow up and out into a strong, healthy plant. When the soil temperature in our crop tunnels has warmed up sufficiently, the mini Padrón plant will be transferred into a planting hole in the ground: now it has lots of room to spread its roots and provide a solid base to allow the plant to grow up to two metres high. With enough sunlight, nutrients and water, the Padrón plant will begin to produce beautiful flowers between the months of April and May. Each flower will then turn into a small light green chilli. From June onwards, the Padrón plant will have its chilli fruits picked by hand and packed up to be sent out in the post or delivered to our onsite café to be cooked up for lunch.
Fried in a little olive oil they make a wonderful tapas dish – mostly mild in heat but with the odd one being extra hot which is why it is often referred to as the ‘Russian roulette chilli’.
Mr Toad: How many different varieties of chilli do you grow? Have you coined or invented any of your own?
Heather: We grow over 200 varieties of chilli in our show tunnel, the type and number varies each year. Occasionally, we accidentally produce an unusual variety which surprises us with its look, heat or flavour and we give it a name to suit it – but generally they are one-offs and we don’t grow them commercially.
Mr Toad: What’s your hottest chilli, and which chilli has the strangest name?
Heather: The hottest chilli we grow currently is the Carolina Reaper which has been measured at over two million on the Scoville heat scale – for comparison, a typical supermarket jalapeno chilli will register around 7,000 on the Scoville scale.
There are so many chillies with strange names, which is one of the things we love about them – how about: Ring of Fire, Hot Banana, Nepal Snakebite and Ghost.
Mr Toad: Are there any chilli growing proverbs you swear by?
Heather: Don’t over water!
Mr Toad: Have your chillies ended up in many restaurant kitchens?
Heather: We have supplied chillies to celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein.
Mr Toad: Is it true that award-winning actor, Gillian Anderson, is a big fan of your chilli chocolate?
Heather: Yes, she loves our chilli chocolate! This is what she had to say about it: “the best chilli choc I have ever tasted, and believe me, I have sought it out and been gifted it all around the world!”
Mr Toad: What are the biggest challenges you face as a West Country chilli grower?
Heather: The weather is one of our biggest challenges; the climate is generally milder in the West Country, but we still get unexpected frosts and although we grow in polytunnels and are protected from rain, lots of wet weather can encourage the growth of mould towards the end of the season.
Mr Toad: Have you any plans to expand your already exciting range of chilli-based products?
Heather: We are always looking at new product ideas, new flavours and new ways to incorporate chillies into everything!
Thanks so much to Heather from the South Devon Chilli Farm. We wish both her and her colleagues a ‘fantástico’ chilli season.