A Bird’s Eye (chilli) view of the Columbian Exchange.

Just how far have modern chillies come?

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.

European explorer map routes
European explorer voyage routes

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.

Hot Chilli Glazed Ham

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?

Flavour the boiling liquor with ingredients that will compliment the glaze
  • 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.
Simmer for 20 mins per 500g
  1. Soak the ham overnight as the salt levels could be high. Discard the water.
  2. 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.
  3. Add more water, the liquor flavourings: and bring to the boil again.
  4. Reduce the heat until gently simmering. Cook for 20 mins per 500g.
  5. 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.
  6. Prepare the glaze by mixing the ingredients together. Quantities really depend on the size of your ham.
  7. Carefully slice away the skin. Leave the fat and score in a diamond pattern.
  8. Gently apply the glaze, trying to get in between the criss cross lines.
  9. Bake in a 180 0 C oven for about 30 mins. Keep checking as the sugar in the marmalade could darken quickly.
  10. Take out the ham and try really hard not to eat it all in one go. One nibble won’t hurt though.

The quest to find the best soil

Just which compost to choose for our precious chillies?

Loam. Peat. Coir. Grit. Vermiculite. Sand. Clay. Silt. Perlite. Manure. Compost. Sand. So much to consider.

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.

Cultural roots

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!

.


Gochujang

Korean fermented chilli paste

We’ve been waiting for a rainy day to attempt this. After surprising each other with Onggi for Christmas it feels like the time is right to attempt Gochujang.

Korean Onggi fermenting pots

Err, Onggi?

A Korean earthenware pot. They’ve been made pretty much the same way for about 5,000 years or so. If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, right? Onggi have lots of uses including water storage, dry food storage but predominantly fermentation. Korean soy sauce is traditionally produced in Onggi. The porous nature of the iron rich clay pots adds to the ferment and encourages the ripening and breathing of the fermenting food within. The pores in the clay draw out impurities and encourage air flow. Thus keeping everything from decaying.

Our first ever batch of Gochujang will be split between a traditional Onggi and a glass Kilner jar. A bit of an old vs new, East vs West comparison. Surely the glass will allow more UV to hit the paste…but glass is certainly not porous. Hmm, how different will the products be? We’ll be reporting back in a couple of months.

Next, what is Gochujang?

It is a fermented chilli pepper paste from Korea, made to 400 year old recipe. It is a burgundy red, hot, pungent paste used to marinate meat, enrich soups & sauces and generally add all round yumminess to a lot of Korean dishes. Uber umami. Traditionally it is made in Onggi and left out in the sun to ferment, occasionally stirred. Commercially produced Gochujang is readily available in familiar red boxes in Asian supermarkets and online. Not sure it compares to the homemade stuff. Let’s find out!

How do you make Gochujang?

OK, after copious amounts of food channel watching and internet research here are the top two sources of inspiration and information we will be using:

Good Food Channel’s John Torode Korean Food Tour: seeing and tasting Gochujang Onggi made in the traditional style

Korean born, New Yorker, Maangchi’s amazing Korean food blog. Gochujang recipe

And here is the list of somewhat crazy ingredients us UK Birdhousers have had to source to get this wonder paste up and fermenting:

  • 2 litres of water
  • 227g barley malt powder
  • 2 1/2 cups sweet rice flour
  • 2 cups rice syrup
  • 1 cup fermented soybean powder
  • 400g hot Korean pepper powder
  • 1 cup Kosher salt

And now what to do…

  • Mix the 227g barley malt powder into the 2 litres of water. Use a whisk to get the lumps out.
  • Strain into a large saucepan and gently warm. You want a temperature that is warm when you stick your finger in but not hot.
  • Add 2 1/2 cups of sweet rice flour.
  • Now leave it to sit for 2 hours. It will separate out slightly and have a layer of clear, sweetish liquid on top.
  • Bring to the boil and heat over a medium heat for between 1-2 hours. You want it to reduce by about a 1/3. Stir occasionally to stop it sticking.
  • Add the 2 cups of rice syrup. Stir in well and leave to cool completely.
  • Add the 1 cup of fermented soybean powder. Whisk gently to clear any lumps.
  • Add the 400g of chilli powder. Really hoping to harvest and dry enough chillies to produce homegrown Gochujang. Maybe with smoked chillies? Just a thought.
  • Finally, add the 1 cup of Kosher salt. Stir again to remove any lumps.

Transfer to the vessel of your choice.

Cover the opening with a muslin to allow air circulation. Rest the lid on top. Keep on a sunny windowsill. Open the lid whenever the sun is shining.

Leave for 2-3 months (sigh, it’s going to be soooo long) Stir occasionally to mix the dark crust in.

Must research which Korean recipes we’ll be trying first.

Chilli mussels

Mussels are a firm family fave at The Birdhouse. We eat them as a treat meal…cheap meal…a pescatarian meal (yes, well, one of the birds of The Birdhouse is mostly veggie)…a one pot meal…a quick meal…and a healthy meal.

Today’s dinner is Thai mussels served with fermented chilli sourdough. The ingredients are store cupboard items, supplemented with a few homegrown yummies and of course fab, fresh UK mussels. This time our mussels come from Loch Fyne.

A quick prep of the mussels: check they all close, discard any that don’t. Trim off any ‘beards’ and scrape off any barnacles. Then they are good to go.

Place your pot of choice on the hob. We need very little excuse to use our mega family sized Le Creuset pot (in Volcanic). Chop the broth ingredients: red onion, garlic, fresh green birdseye chilli, lemongrass. Fry in some sunflower oil. Add coriander seeds, lime leaves, cumin, lime zest and coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer. Pour in a little fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. Tip in the mussels and pop that lid on.

Leave to simmer for 4 minutes. Quickly prepare the bread and chop some basil. Be ready to serve the mussels as soon as they are open.

Plate up the mussels and sprinkle the basil on top. Squeeze a little more lime juice and season with our new condiment crush: World of Zing’s Siriacha chilli sea salt. Settle down for a tasty meal with the one (or more) you love.

You’re welcome.

Chilly chilli bread

It’s darn cold here in the UK right now. Not necessarily the darkest depths of double digit negatives but it is colder than we’re used to and snow is forecast. Keeping the north side of our house warm in temperatures like this can be a challenge. A key heating strategy is cooking, especially in the mornings.

Does it surprise you to know The Birdhouse is a sourdough kinda place? Surely not. And today was a sourdough kinda day. As are most days. Preheat the oven, bake for an hour or so, eat warm bread. All in the name of breakfast.

Birdhouse sourdough starter

We always have a sourdough starter on the go. A regular feed and warmth -with the occasional vacation in the fridge- keeps it lively and tasty. Our starter began life as equal weight of flour and water. Fed until it was a robust, living, breathing member of the family.

The idea is that the natural yeasts and bacteria found on grains (and so in flour) multiply over the first few days of warmth and feeding. After the natural balance of microorganisms has battled it out and found harmony, this foamy starter can then be used in place of bakers’ yeast to make a leaven loaf.

When we started on our sourdough adventure we endlessly pored over images, recipes, blogs and FAQs from a couple of sources: Vanessa Kimbell at The Sourdough School and Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf. 

Our own tried and tested recipe and method is as follows:

The ingredients:

  • 100g of sourdough starter (not recently fed but not ravenous)
  • 300g of water
  • 500g of flour
  • 10g salt mixed into 15g water

All the ingredients are in grams as this just makes adding everything easy. It seems to be sourdough convention to do it this way. This is not a quick bread. Our dough generally takes 24 hours to get from jar to plate. This is a slow, cool, fermenting prove, not a quick, hot and tasteless affair. Minimal effort, spaced over a leisurely day. Once you get into a routine it’s difficult to get it wrong.

This morning we have chosen to add a good tablespoon of our Prairie Fire fermented hot sauce. Surely that will keep the frostbite at bay. We’ve mixed it with the salt and reduced the water accordingly.

The method:

  1. Mix the ingredients. No need to build up a sweat kneading, just bring it quickly together into a smooth dough in a bowl.
  2. Leave the bowl, in a warm place with a damp tea towel over the top for 20 minutes or so. This allows the microbes a chance to do their thing with the fresh flour.
  3. Then add the salt & extra water and poke it into the dough with your fingertips until there is little or no liquid remaining. You can’t add the salt too soon as it might kill off the fermenters.
  4. Lift and stretch and fold the dough in half. Do this four times: once to the top, once to the right, once to the bottom and once to the left.
  5. Leave the dough to sit for another 20 mins. Repeat the folding pattern.
  6. Leave for another 20 minutes, repeat fold.
  7. Last time, after 20 mins, fold away. You can leave longer than 20 minutes between each stage. Let it fit in with whatever else you are doing that day.
  8. Prepare your proving basket. We have bamboo bannetons. They add the iconic sourdough concentric circles of flour to the loaf. Dust out any older flour. Sprinkle a little cornflour, or polenta or semolina flour. Anything to stop the sticky dough sticking to the basket.
  9. Transfer the dough to your proving bowl. The bottom of this dough will be the top of your loaf so try and place a smooth side down into the basket.
  10. Cover the basket with a damp tea towel and place in the fridge overnight. This will allow the dough to prove slowly and the fermented sour flavour to develop. Baking can take place anytime within the next couple of days.
  11. Preheat the oven and baking vessel to 220 degrees. We bake in a dutch oven/casserole with a lid.
  12. Carefully turn out the dough and place into the baking dish. Pretty side up.
  13. Score the surface of the dough with a very sharp knife or razor. This allows the steam to escape as the bread rises and keeps the shape round and even. We have a birdie shape we like to add.
  14. Bake the loaf for an hour with the lid on.
  15. Remove the lid and reduce the temperature to 180 degrees.
  16. Bake for another 15-45 minutes depending on how dark and crisp you like you crust. By the way, it’s all about the crust.
  17. Take the loaf out and let it rest for a while. The final steam will come out and make carving a whole lot easier.

At steps 4-7 you can add all sorts of yummy ingredients: spices, herbs, seeds, nuts, flowers, fruit, cold porridge, sauces and pickles, sugars, syrups and honey, colours, veggies, cheese, pieces of meat, oils. The list is endless. At step 8 you can put a topping in the base of your banneton. We like rosemary springs, sesame seeds, walnut halves and chilli flakes (natch).

Just use your judgement regarding how these additional ingredients will affect the prove, consistency and bake of your loaf. Perhaps reduce the water? Maybe a little extra flour? An extra coating in the banneton? Baking is a science that requires thought, not just blindly following a recipe.

We love a dark chocolate, lime and coconut loaf as a breakfast bread. The basic recipe is an excellent way to use up the end of a pack of… whatever really. But today, it’s Prairie Fire chilli sourdough. Watch out, ‘coz here we come!

Birdhouse chilli sourdough loaf

Feeding time at the zoo

It’s time to give these little chilli seedlings a bit of what they fancy. They have been potted on into seed compost and are settling in admirably. The seed leaves are opening, they are a good green colour and generally they look healthy. The seed compost has no nutrients in it though.

Seven day old seedlings looking healthy after moving into their newspaper pots.

In the future we’d like to have a go at producing a homemade, maybe organic, specialist chilli feed. Using local ingredients. Perhaps with a seaweed enrichment? But not just yet.

Seemingly THE recommended chilli food is Chilli Focus. Containing ‘A precise formulation for optimal performance of chillies and peppers in pots, grow bags or the open ground.’ We used it all last season and the chilli plants and crop were spectacular. It turns out that Chilli Focus is ‘Made with care in the UK’, and ‘enriched with organic complex plant acids and pure concentrated extracts of kelp’ and comes in a 5 litre bottle, ‘enough for 1,000 litres of feed’.

With added Kelp extract

Err, sounds pretty good to us. Homemade fertiliser can wait for further research on a rainy (or snowy, check the forecast!) day.

The seedlings have been given a gentle dilute feed of 5mls per litre. This will be given once a week for now. Once the plants start to flower it will increase to 10mls per litre and then twice weekly when they set fruit.