Cooking chillis | Growing chillis | Site and soil | Varieties | Planting out | Sowing | Picking | Troubles
Not much more than a decade ago, it would have been a rare Irish kitchen garden in which chilli peppers were to be found growing. Even still, not many home growers of vegetables would grow chilli peppers, not because they might not use them but because do not realise that they are quite easy to grow.
The chilli pepper, Capsicum annum, is native to Mexico and Central America, and has spread to many parts of the world. It is strange to think that there were no hot chilli dishes in India, China or other countries a few hundred years ago, until the chilli seeds found their way east. There are records of chilli seeds in archaeological remains in Mexico dating back to 7,000 BC but records of their cultivation from about 5,000 BC. The first chillis arrived in Europe about five hundred years ago and were quickly taken up by a society that greatly valued the then very expensive black pepper, a tropical plant. The Portugese brought the plant to the East Indies and it moved outwards from there.
Chillis proved easy to grow. They are part of the potato family that includes tomatoes and have similar requirements to tomatoes. Having been in cultivation for so long, it is not surprising that there is a very wide range of chilli peppers - many different sizes, shapes, colours, flavours and degrees of ‘heat'.
The heat of chilli is directly related to the content of capsaicin, recorded by gas chromatography and known as The Scoville Scale, after the inventor in 1912 of a system of dilution to rank the heat of peppers. The ordinary sweet pepper, part of the same species, is rated at zero and the hottest recorded chilli - a Habanero - was 577,000 units, although most chillis of this variety rate about one-fifth of this. High-score chillis are capable of causing blistering to delicate skin.
The pungency of chilli peppers is much valued in a wide range of cookery. They can be added to cooked and raw dishes, fresh, pickled, canned, dried and powdered. Simply air-dried on a plate they can last well for a couple of years at least. The ‘heat' is contained mostly in the seeds and internal ribs of the little fruits. Fresh chillis have useful amounts of various vitamins but these are largely lost in cookery. The feeling of well-being produced by eating chilli is thought to be produced by the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, released as a response to the ‘pain' of the capsaicin in chilli.
Site and soil
While it is possible to grow chillis outdoors, they really need the protection of a greenhouse, tunnel or cold frame to do well. In a hot, sunny summer, in a sheltered position, they will be fine but do not do so well in a cool year. The soil needs to be fairly rich, well-drained.
‘Apache' is a neat-growing hot pepper and ‘Cayenne' produced long, pretty chillis. There are dozens of kinds, jalapeno, serrano and habanero being hot kinds. But there are some very mild kinds too, such as ‘Sweet Banana', often used for frying. The mild, sweet kinds add chilli flavour to a chilli dish without adding ‘heat', and can be used in combination with hot kinds. Some seed companies offer mixed chilli varieties to try, and it is easily possible to save seeds of the ones preferred.
Sow the seeds in March in a pot or seed tray, usually a handful of seedlings is enough.
The seedlings are pricked out into small pots and grown on to planting out in May in the greenhouse or mid-June in open ground. Usually three to five plants is adequate for most households, even one well-grown plant can give a year's supply.
Chillis can be used when formed though still green. Maximum heat is produced in red ripe fruit and in hot weather conditions. Pick the fruit when red and air-dry on a sheet of tissue on a plate; place in a screw-top jar when fully dry.
Chilli peppers can be attacked by greenfly, whitefly and red spider in a greenhouse, treat with derris if necessary.