If you can't stand the heat...

PUBLISHED: 17:13 04 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013

If you can't stand the heat...

If you can't stand the heat...

Chillies are the Marmite crop of the kitchen garden.

There was no lifelong ambition, or road to Damascus-style conversion behind Jane Eayrs Cotswold business, merely an impulse buy at Hampton Court Flower Show. Spotting some chilli plants, she fell in love with their colourful fruits and decided to get a couple. Four years later she and her husband, Tim Hand, have a thriving firm selling more than 30 varieties.

The couple had opened a small nursery 12 months earlier on what used to be their vegetable garden after selling herbsat Farmers Markets and from their farmhouse home near Winchcombe. I had always been interested in cooking and started growing a few of my own herbs, explains Jane. It just took off from there. With a range of around 250 herbs, they had no intention of branching out into chillies but customers kept asking whether there were any plants for sale. So, they planted a few seeds and gradually their addiction to these striking plants grew.

It has been, admits Jane, a steep learning curve, both in terms of cultivation and choosing the best types. We had no idea there were so many different varieties, says the former florist. We are working out which are the best ones, which produce the most. The range of chillies they sell is wide, from slightly peppery to mindblowingly hot. Eves Apple registers nought on the Scoville scale, used to measure a chillis heat, and has appleshaped fruits that turn scarlet. At the other end is Bhutjolika, one of the hottest chillies in the world at a staggering one million on the scale; a Scotch Bonnet, by comparison, is a mere 150,000. Regardless of their culinary qualities, many of the chillies simply make beautiful pot plants. We grow a few that are ideal for windowsills as they only grow about 10 inches tall, says Jane.

Among those is the dainty Aurora, while in contrast the Balloon Chilli is around 5ft tall. Not all chillies are red, or green either. Hungarian Black has mauve flowers and fruits that start off black, turning crimson red when they are ready, while Bulgarian Carrot has orange fruit and the Thai Twilight chilli has every colour of the rainbow from white and purple, to orange and red, all on the same bush. It looks like a Christmas tree. Some have beautiful foliage, such as The Fish, with cream and green leaves and fruit that is red when ripe, while Orange Thai holds its orange fruit upright.

As well as the addictive heat, chillies are believed to aid heart conditions, colds, poor circulation and digestion, and contain high levels of vitamins A, C and E, potassium and folic acid.

The couple raise about 500 to 600 plants a year, starting the seed off in February in propagators with about eight seeds to a five-inch pot. Once the plants are about four inches tall they are put into individual pots and are moved to their final containers when they reach about 10 inches.

Slow release fertiliser is added to the soil and the plants are given tomato feed when they begin to flower. They are moved out of the polytunnel once the temperature is above 10 degrees and given a sheltered site high winds and heavy rain can damage the plants. Slugs and snails can be partial to new growth and plants are also susceptible to red spider mite and aphids.

Only a few plants are overwintered in the house, as heating the polytunnel is too expensive but looked after correctly, a chilli will crop for three years.

The other side of the business deals with medicinal and culinary herbs and, again, there is a tendency towards the unusual. While there are pots of parsley, coriander and rosemary, the sales benches also sport old fashioned

There are a variety of flavours as well: Lemon Drop has yellow fruits with a citrus edge to them that goes well with chicken and fish and Habanero Chocolate tastes like Victoria plums. It is as hot as a Scotch Bonnet but its a heat that creeps up on you gradually. All of a sudden it hits you, smiles Tim. Even more dangerous is the innocent-sounding Spanish Spice chilli as nine out of 10 are beautifully mild with the 10th extremely hot. Its a bit like playing Russian roulette. The best way to deal with unbearable heat is to combine chillies with dairy products Spanish Spice is delicious filled with cream cheese and baked and reaching for a glass of milk is more effective than a drink of water.

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