Chillies were one of the earliest plants to be cultivated and domesticated. Archaeological evidence suggest they have been used as a food ingredient for at least 8,000 years. Chillies were common in the diets of the Incas, Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs among others.
In 1492 Columbus ‘discovered’ chilli a spice that would rival black pepper. He wrongly thought that chilli was from the same family as black pepper and proceeded to call them ‘peppers’. By 1650 the cultivation and use of chillies had spread throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.
There are many hundreds of different varieties of chilli, ranging from sweet and mild to fiery hot. Most chillies are green in colour while they are growing and still unripe. When they reach maturity most are shades of red, orange, yellow or brown. Chillies can be used from green and unripe through the different stages of ripeness to maturity.
Even if you don’t like eating chillies they look a treat in the garden. They tolerate a wide range of conditions.
- The annuum varieties prefer hot dry conditions.
- Chinense and pubescens varieties will tolerate a little shade.
- All varieties like well-drained soil and organic compost.
- pH between 6.5 and 7.5 is best for most varieties.
- Fertilise with a pelleted organic fertiliser (apply every 4-6weeks).
- Growing chilli from seed is best done after winter, the seed will germinate in around 8 days, when soil temperature reaches 18C
- Chillies cross pollinate quite easily, so if you are growing a few different varieties you are likely to end up with all types of weird and wonderful chillies.
- They grow well in pots, be sure to fertilise regularly, and repot them every spring.
- Prune chillies back by about a third when it has finished fruiting to encourage new growth.
Roasting chillies can give them a nice smoky flavour, you can do this by holding the chilli over a gas flame, or placing chillies in a hot oven, or under a grill till their skins are black. Place the chillies while still hot into a plastic bag or small lidded container and leave to sweat for 10 minutes, then peel or rub the skin off.
Chillies combine well with coriander, basil, chilli, oregano, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, fennel and parsley.
Chilli contains capsaicin which is the source of their fiery flavour. It is an oily substance and is not water soluble. If you have served up a fiery hot dish have some yoghurt, milk or ice-cream on hand to soothe a burning mouth, water doesn’t help.