A lot has happened since things kicked off this year. Our seeds were hot housed in the steamy propagator in the hope that germination would be quicker, more consistent and we would be a bit more successful with the chinense types. And things have indeed gone well. Hundreds of seeds germinated, hundreds of paper pots were made and now it is time to pot on the strongest of the plants to a more substantial home.
How do we know it is time to pot on?
The seedlings are starting to show roots through the bottom of their paper pots. Many have two or more sets of leaves. The sun is shining in the UK and is forecast to be so for at least a couple more days. Perfect for a bit of window sunbathing to help the chillies settle in to their new pots. All good signs.
Using the specially formulated potting compost mix, the plants are tucked into 9cm square black pots. A layer of grit is put in the bottom and the paper pots are not removed, just buried within the new pot. Minimal root disturbance and the plants hopefully don’t feel swamped by the new pot.
Hey presto, 151 seedlings are potted on, fed and watered and basking in the sun.
Capsicum pubescens is a late entry to the heated propagator. Whilst using the last of our homegrown Rocoto chillies it was impossible to just throw the seeds away. So, they were introduced to the chitting pod. Having sworn we would get going earlier with the seeds this year, to allow the longest growing period possible, a quick diary check reveals that these seeds are starting off at pretty much the same time as last year. So much for planning.
Four days later the roots have emerged. Much quicker than the chinense types and almost as quick as the speedy annuums.
And why did we bother with these seeds? Well, it turns out we’ve got a bit of a crush on these squishy fellas. There are far less varieties of Capsicum pubescens available on the market and you would certainly never see them in a UK food store to buy. The chilli fruit are all pretty similar with thick walls, juicy flesh and matt black seeds. With a round shape: some are a little more apple shaped, others lemony and some occasionally cheeked like bell peppers. Heat levels are medium to hot and they have a punchy fresh fruit flavour. They come in a range of -green-yellow-red but not purple or white. So far.
Capsicum pubescens are the smaller group of the five domesticated species of chilli. They are further away from others genetically. They trace back to pre-Incan times in Peru. In fact it is thought that the chilli remains found in the Guitarrero caves 10,000 years ago was a pubescens type. Historically significant as the chilli in question was found alongside evidence of campfires, grinding stones and human bones. It seems chillies were considered pretty valuable food stuffs. Not much has changed in 10,000 years then.
At The Birdhouse, we only grew one plant of this type last year: the high shine red Alberto Rocoto Locato. Gifted to us by my mother. It was easy to spot in the greenhouse as the plant grew differently to the others. For one, it had tiny white hairs on its leaves. Secondly, once it had got going, it split into two branches about 30cm up. It then sprawled out sideways and needed support from other plants. It snapped easily if knocked. It had bright violet flowers, with dusty white stamen. The chillies were late to set and took a long time to ripen to glossy red, maybe a 100 days or more. It matured about sometime similar to the Scotch Bonnets and they supposedly take 120 days. The plant was prolific despite being in a smallish 2.5 L pot. Whilst it was fed well it could probably have done with more root space.
A quick bit of research tells us that these chillies are a fan of cooler nights, although still happy basking during the day. They are far more tolerant to lower temperatures generally. Although not frost tolerant. This bodes well for a UK climate and the need for a longish growing season. They are also long lived perennials, living up to 15 years. They can be climbers or tree formations. I think we might have a few Winter inmates this year. Let the pubescens journey begin.
February soups at The Birdhouse are typically thick enough to put hairs on your chest. Hearty and wholesome, they keep you going through the gloom when you’d rather dive under the duvet as soon as the sun sets. However, the weather in the UK has been a little odd over the last week or so. Far milder than normal, with hardly any rain, light and bright. Spring is in the air, in the form of the scent of early flowers, the buzzing of insects. It is predicted to go on like this for the next week.
The warmer temperatures mean than a fresher soup is in order. A check in the stores reveals Crown Prince squashes, garlic and red chillies. Sounds perfect for the soup we’re after.
Peel the squash, easier said than done, it seems to fight back at every stage. Once battle is done, chunk it up and place it in a roaster with some whole garlic cloves. Splash liberally with olive oil, season then roast in a medium oven until soft and caramelised around the edges.
While the squash is roasting, prepare the soup base by sautéing roughly chopped onion, celery, carrot and leek in a pan. Add bay, rosemary and red chillies of your choice. Add the roasted squash and garlic. Top up with stock. We had a pot of smokey liquor left over from boiling a ham, perfect.
Bring the soup to a gentle boil and simmer until the veggies are cooked. Remove the bay leaf. Plug in the stick blender and blitz the hell out of that soup. Squash always makes such a smooth, velvety consistency, very satisfying. Add a slosh of double cream to enrich it and bind all the ingredients together. Check for seasoning, add chilli flakes or powder of your choice. We opted for Aleppo pepper, not too hot, vibrant red and sweet sun-dried tomato oiliness notes (no really).
We have four rocoto (Capsicum pubescens) chillies left from our bumper Autumn harvest. Surprisingly as they are such juicy chillies, the rocoto have stored very well indeed in the top of the fridge door. It seems like a special recipe is in order. How to preserve them and make those precious last chillies count? Today is Valentine’s Day so let’s go crazy!
How about candied chillies? With the intention of adding them to some knock-your-socks off florentines.
Sounds like a plan…
Heat a 50:50 mix of white sugar and water to form a sugar syrup. Add a few extra flavourings to enhance the fruity floral flavours of the rocoto: rose essence and scrapes of tangerine zest. Next, add the sliced, deseeded chillies and bubble away.
The house fills with the aromatic scent of rose and tangerine. Then I add the chillies and begin to choke. The capsaicin explodes into the air and hits the back of my throat, ticket tickle cough, tickle tickle cough.
And yet, sniffing the vapours rising from the saucepan is irresistible. Mmm, warming and aromatic.
As the candy mixture thickens it’s time to get ready to take the chillies out. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper and find a long pronged fork for fishing. There is a fair amount of caramel left in the pan so a handful of pistachios are thrown in to make a last minute chilli nut brittle. Why not?
The caramel brittle is too hot to taste. By the time it has cooled down I find out it is also hot-spicy. Rocoto are fierce and have a long burn. Excellent flavour with the tangerine peel and pistachio though. Must remember that when I make the florentines.
All that remains is to put the matt black seeds in the germinator because it would just be rude not to.
Everyone seems agreed that a passion for eating chillies originated in the heart of South America. Mexico initially but the news spread like wildfire, notably to the Bolivians (gatherers of wild chillies) and the Peruvians (the great chilli domesticators). Evidence of human chilli consumption can be traced back to 7,500 BC. Cultivation of chillies as a crop has been verified up to 6,000 years ago. That is a serious amount of history right there.
After thousands of years of South Americans quietly consuming, gently taming and trading chillies, how did their hot secret get out?
Let us discuss that oft mentioned historical phenomenon: The Columbian Exchange: a two way process named after Christopher Columbus, Italian explorer extraordinaire.
Previously Europe had traded with China and India via well established land routes. Silk, spices and opiates were all very much part of the European highlife. However, as politics changed and the Turkish Ottoman Empire came into power, land travel to Asia became arduous, unpredictable and dangerous. And yet the Europeans still had a desire for the exotic goods they had become accustomed to. Black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) were one such luxury. As well as a condiment, the popular hot spice was often used as payment and referred to as ‘black gold’. Christopher Columbus saw this demand and put together a proposal to find a new route to Asia. The Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, decided to employ Columbus and fund his sea voyages.
Most people were now convinced the world was a sphere. Columbus thought one could set off from Spain, sail west, across what was then called Ocean Sea and approach the other side of Asia from this new direction. Although he was a bit off in his calculations (mostly because he underestimated the size of the earth) he still managed to find land and come back with goods that impressed the Spanish court.
He first landed in the Americas in 1492. He thought he was in India and so called the islands ‘The Indies’. He succeeded in bringing back a wealth of new ideas, foods, slaves and indulgences like tobacco. He did not find the desired peppercorns but on his second trip he stumbled across local ‘aji’ hot peppers.
Unfortunately, in addition, Columbus and his crew had transferred devastating diseases like measles to the New World. It is estimated that the population of some islands was reduced by 90% as a direct result of contact with Columbus and his crew. In return, his crew contracted a number of previously unknown diseases and transported them around Europe. An exchange indeed.
But what happened to the chillies?
Ah yes, for a while the chillies were grown as ornamental and medicinal plants in monasteries in Spain and Portugal. After a while the monks noticed the heat of the pods and they began being used in cooking in place of black pepper.
Portuguese sailors were busy solving the Asian trade route situation another way. They too took to the sea but sailed south, along the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope to access the Asian goodies once more. They opened up new trade routes and the supply of spices resumed, albeit a little slower. Chillies were transported and traded along these routes.
Were there honestly no chillies in the Old World until Christopher Columbus’ voyages?
As a result of his voyages and the consequent global trade routes to the New World, a widespread exchange of plants, animals, diseases, humans, culture, technology and ideas between the New and Old Worlds occurred. Agriculture changed, populations were altered and an increased understanding of global geography ensued. And yes, you guessed it, chillies were unleashed on the rest of the world. Capsicum Chinense varieties can be traced back to the ‘aji’ that Columbus presented to the Spanish Royal court.
Of course there would have been individual overseas travellers who reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Saint Brendan and Leif Erikson to name a couple. They probably brought back a few souvenirs for the family, just like the rest of us when we travel abroad. Why not chillies?
Chillies have been noted and referenced across the world far earlier than the Columbus’ daring travels. For example, clear depictions of chillies in stone carving from thirteenth century Myanmar, South East Asia, mean there must have been some chilli present there before 1492.
So Columbus may not have been the first but he certainly did start a global trend.
Within 30 years of Columbus travelling to and from the New World, chillies had spread far and wide. The Portuguese took them wherever they went; Goa, Japan, West Africa, Thailand and mainland India. Chillies are relatively easy to grow and cultivate and so they were adopted by people wherever the conditions were good.
And so, in conclusion, whilst Christopher Columbus most certainly did not bring back the single Mother chilli from which all chillies have spawned. He was definitely a catalyst in sending chillies to every corner of the world. Not a bad legacy really.
Hmm, first question of the day, what to do with the final jar of last year’s marmalade? Next question…can I use it with chilli?
Well, bake a ham is the simple answer.
So what will we need?
a ham, a good smokey fella. We always go big when cooking a ham as it lasts for ages, freezes well and goes with pretty much anything you want.
For the boiling pot: dried casabel, whole onion, couple of tangerines, fresh bay leaf, fresh thyme sprigs, a few garlic cloves, an apple, jalapeños, allspice berries and peppercorns. Do not stress too much peeling or prepping this as it will all be discarded.
For the glaze: marmalade, mustard of your choice, black onion seeds, fresh red fruit chilli, we used a rocoto.
Soak the ham overnight as the salt levels could be high. Discard the water.
Put the ham in a big old pot, add enough water to cover and bring to the boil. Discard the water and start again. More salt management.
Add more water, the liquor flavourings: and bring to the boil again.
Reduce the heat until gently simmering. Cook for 20 mins per 500g.
Remove the ham and let it sit for 20 mins. This just lets it cool down a bit and then it is easier to handle. The remaining stock will make a wonderful pea and ham soup.
Prepare the glaze by mixing the ingredients together. Quantities really depend on the size of your ham.
Carefully slice away the skin. Leave the fat and score in a diamond pattern.
Gently apply the glaze, trying to get in between the criss cross lines.
Bake in a 180 0 C oven for about 30 mins. Keep checking as the sugar in the marmalade could darken quickly.
Take out the ham and try really hard not to eat it all in one go. One nibble won’t hurt though.
Just which compost to choose for our precious chillies?
The options are a little overwhelming but let’s dig down to what we know about chilli plants to see if we can come up with our perfect potting medium.
Considering the geographical heritage of our chilli plants should hopefully give some guidance to the type of soil required for perfect chilli production. Chillies originated from Mexico. They gradually became mainstream as part of the Columbian Exchange in the 15th & 16th Centuries. A large percentage of the soil in Mexico is shallow to medium depth, dry, free draining, not layered or super structured, contains gravel, often fertile, pH leaning towards acid: 5.5-6.5. (Food Agricultural Organisation for the United Nations state that Leptosol, Regosol and Calcisol make up nearly 65% of the soil in Mexico if you want the scientific terms) Replicating this soil composition seems like a good starting point for creating the perfect chilli compost.
Back here in the UK
However, where chillies come from is not the only factor in soil choice. Surely where they are actually going to grow plays a part too. The UK offers a dizzying range of soil types, some of which would be incredibly inhospitable to a poor little chilli plant. Our Hampshire soil is about 6 inches top soil and then solid chalk. Not sure what our chilli amigos would say to that. A slightly acid, sandy loam in the South Hams of Devon would be perfect for growing chillies in the ground. With that in mind, we will be planting in pots.
Our UK weather is such that too much organic matter, such as peat or manure, silt or clay could easily become water logged and get cold. No one likes a soggy cold bottom, especially not chilli plants.
The potting soil in question will have two main functions for our plants: 1. to provide a habitat for our chilli roots to do their thing. 2. To be a vessel for the chemical requirements for great plant growth and chilli production. Let’s tackle each function separately.
A cosy home
We want the roots to have plenty of space to stretch out. Soil is typically 50% solids (mineral and organic) and 50% spaces, about half of which is occupied by water and soluble and suspended nutrients. A light, airy soil, with small particles would match the requirements. The roots can work their way through the gaps.
We will be gradually moving our chillies into progressively bigger pots. They sulk for ages if the pot size goes up too quickly. The indicator that they need to move home is when their roots poke through the bottom. Watering from the bottom should avoid compaction (which leads to a reduction of spaces within the soil available for root growth & essential gas, water and nutrient storage). Perhaps a layer of Horticultural grit in the base of each pot would avoid aforementioned sulky soggy bottom too.
Adding Perlite to the mix is another way to allow the soil mix to stay loose, encourage root growth and water drainage. No rotten roots here.
Feed the need
No great nutrient supply is needed from the soil solids as we will be feeding with Chilli Focus regularly. The organic components of the soil provided by the garden compost will ensure a good supply of microorganisms to exist alongside our chilli plants and work their bio magic. No doubt a few extra seeds will germinate as well but that is all part of the fun of doing things yourself.
We do not want too much green Nitrogen releasing organic matter. We hope to encourage good all round plant health and then fabulous flowering and fruiting. Extra Nitrogen may cause bushy green plants that forget to flower.
The seedlings are currently receiving a weekly feed of 5ml per litre of Chilli Focus. This will increase to 10mls per litre once a week when the plants have been pinched out and show some signs of flowers forming. At the height of flowering and fruiting the plants will have two feeds each week.
Vermiculite is another ingredient to consider. A natural product that is a good addition to any soil type. Added to clay soils it allows aeration and flow through the soil, reducing water logging and stunted or bound root growth. In sandy soils it soaks up water allowing retention where there would be very little otherwise. Good access to water, slowly released, means good access to those soluble and suspended nutrients. Sounds like Vermiculite is definitely going into our chilli mix.
So what does this all mean?
It’s looking like a hand mixed potting medium of 3/10 loam top soil, 2/10 coir, 2/10 organic homegrown well rotted compost, 1/10 grit for the bottom of the pot, 1/10 vermiculite to hold on to water and nutrients between watering and feeds, 1/10 perlite for free drainage within the soil. Probably very similar to John Inness No 2!