Time to shed some light on the chillies

It’s that time of year where the sun is lovely & warm and the nights are not too chilly. We’re racing towards longest day: action stations everyone.

The Birdhouse greenhouse is brimming with leafy specimen. No longer a cocooned sanctuary from the Night King but a claustrophobic bubble isolating the chilli babies from the real world. Time for the babies to grow UP and for the bubble wrap to come DOWN. It has served its insulating purpose well but now it is shading a little too much; stopping the auto ventilation window doing its thing; trapping pollinators and taking up precious ceiling height. Roll it up for next year.

Suddenly, the whole space is flooded with clear light. Wonderful.

The light issue continues…

A quick stock take reveals that we are seriously running out of space. How this has happened is beyond us but it seems to be a phenomenon known well to Chilliheads across the land. Each season we go through a number of cullings. Precious plants are sorted into ‘keepers’ and ‘the rest’. And yet, despite this harsh practice, there still seem to be more pots than ever before.

We sorted at chitting/germination point. Some seeds just didn’t look right and didn’t get potted up into wee paper pots. The compost heap was the destination for these leggy seedlings. The next couple of rounds of sorting happened at potting on stages. Weedy plants, non-thrivers or just varieties where we had too many plants were all thinned out.

The thinnings will populate our local school Summer Fete’s plant stall. They have been potted into non-conformist pots that we do not wish to keep for re-use; kept outside in temperatures of nearly zero; unceremoniously plonked into multi-purpose compost and barely kept alive on a lean diet of fresh air and rain water. They are, however, tall and flowering away, so all is good. They should sell well!

And now, we should be at the point where the perfect number of plants has been achieved. And how many do we have? 110 to be exact. We couldn’t possibly manage with less that that number of plants.

110 plants and counting

But hang on a mo, there STILL doesn’t seem to be space for them all in the greenhouse. We are having to utilise the floor for trays of plants. This is not ideal as the light levels are lower down there. Rotation of plants is tricky but absolutely necessary. On top of the overcrowding issue, lots are yet to go into their final (bigger) resting pots. So after all that sorting there are still too many plants.

Family, neighbours and friends beware, you will have to adopt some chilli babies…Momma’s about to get mean.

Meanwhile, in happier news, some of the bigger, earlier fruiters are just getting on with their thing. Golden Greek Pepperoncini is smothered with flower and fruit. Oh, and the roots are out the bottom again. Time to reach for the soldering iron and make some holes in the bottom of those flower buckets because potting on is in the diary for the weekend AGAIN.

Homegrown, homemade, chilli and squash soup

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.

Homegrown Crown Prince squash

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.

Chopped and ready to roast
Soup base

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.

Squash soup ready to blitz

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).

A sprinkle of Apello pepper finishes the soup

Dinner is served.

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.

The race is on

The chillies have been chitting in their heated propagator. After their tea bath they were carefully strained then snuggled into the chitting pods (takeaway container + capillary matting). Finally they were placed into the heated propagator on the 17th January.

In the propagator the temperature stays above 25 degrees (even on the coldest of – 5 nights so far) and reaches the sweaty heights of 35 degrees +. The pods are stacked with the Chinense types at the bottom, nearer the heated base, and the Annuum varieties on top, not quite so warm.

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Without a thermostat it is impossible to keep the temp constant but it seems that most of the varieties have responded well. Here are the results so far…

Chilli (A=Annuum, Ch=Chinense)Date started chitting (after a soak overnight in some tea)Date of first germination
Jalapeno (A)17.01.1919.01.19
Serrano (A)17.01.1920.01.19
Aleppo (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Cow Horn (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Cherry Bomb (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Golden Greek Peperoncini (A)17.01.1921.01.19
Sweet Banana (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Scotch Bonnet (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Espelette (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Madame Jeanette (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Trinidad Perfume (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Padron (A)17.01.1922.01.19
Habanero Primero Red (Ch)17.01.1922.01.19
Guajilo (A)17.01.1925.01,19
Mustard Habanero (Ch)17.01.19Yet to germinate
Orange Habanero (Ch)17.01.19Yet to germinate

Not bad results for 8 days after starting.

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Jalapeno seeds starting to germinate just two days after soaking & chitting.

You may notice that a couple of previously mentioned chilli types (Poblano and 7 Pot Bubblegum) are missing from the first list. They have not yet turned up in the post. A refund will be requested. And, the very observant amongst you will have seen the addition of Serrano. These came free from one company. Lovely.

The seeds that germinated in the first few days are now in need of planting in their very first pot. These are newspaper pots filled with nutrient poor seed compost. We don’t want these tiny seedlings growing too quickly as daylight hours are still short and too much food will produce leggy seedlings. Hmmm, note to selves: do we need to think about a lamp?

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Cherry Bomb seedlings ready to be potted up.

Off to buy some seed compost and make 100 million more paper pots.

Hot New Contenders

In the running for ‘Best Chilli of 2019’ we have…

The Reds

Cherry Bomb. Heat of Product : Medium. Very easy to grow. The plant produces an abundance of eye-catching bright red fleshy fruits (5cm round) which mature in around 60 days from potting on. They can be stuffed with cheese and baked, or used for cooking and fresh salsa. Heat: 6,000 Scoville Heat Units. Expectation that each plant will need a 3L pot and will grow to approx. 75cm tall.

Espelette-type (Capsicum anuum Gorria). Heat of Product : Medium. The Espelette chilli pepper is a protected variety and the name can only be used if the chillies and seeds are from the Basque region of France. Traditionally the Espelette-type chilies are used to make a bright-red chilli powder to add to soups, stews and many other dishes, popular in the Basque region. The plant produces a heavy crop of fruits about 13cm long and 3cm wide on a plant growing to about 50cm. The fruits ripen green to red. Heat level: 4000-6000 scoville units.

Cow Horn. A lovely, bright, cheerful, cayenne-type red chilli with a mild heat. Most fruits reach approximately 6-8″ (15-20 cm) long and start off green, maturing to red, with thick flesh. Skin can be a little wrinkled in appearance. Plants reach approximately 1 metre tall. These are beautiful when dried and hung up, but equally, they are good for frying and making sauces. Origin: New Mexico. Heat: Mild – approximately 2500-5000 SHUs

Guajilo. The Guajillo (“gwah-hee-oh”) is a very popular chili pepper in Mexico. The pods are between 10 and 15 cm long with a diameter of about 2.5 – 3 cm. They are reddish brown and when dried they turn black. This chili pepper dries well because of its thin fruit wall. The chili peppers have an erect habit. In Mexico, the Guajillo pepper is often used in salsas and sauces. It’s also used to make chili pastes. In Tunisia this paste is called Harissa. The Guajillo has a sweet taste and is medium hot. Who knows how big they get?!

Habanero Primero Red. Scientific Name : Capsicum chinense. Plant Habit : Mounded. Spacing : 18 – 24″ (46 – 61cm). Height : 18 – 24″ (46 – 61cm). Width : 18 – 24″ (46 – 61cm). One of the earliest ripening habaneros on the market, with fruit ready to harvest as early as bell peppers. Produces huge yields of fruit larger than other standard habaneros, with just about one-third the heat. Early flowering – can be sold in large pots with flowers and immature fruit. Days to maturity from transplant:75 to 80 to full ripe, 60 to 65 to green.

Aleppo. The Aleppo is a rare chile from the region of Northern Syria and Southern Turkey. Also called the Halaby pepper. There are a few peppers named Aleppo one is a Cayenne type. This is the more rare Pimento type. The Aleppo pepper is named after the famous city of Aleppo that is on the famous silk road that was used to trade spices and goods as early as 200 B.C. it ran from North Africa though Arabia, Persia, Turkey and China. Aleppo peppers have a sweet taste with a nice kick of heat. Culinary experts and Chefs agree it is hard to find real pure Aleppo powder. Aleppo plants can grow over four feet tall and peppers ripen from green to dark red. It makes a great chilli powder. (Capsicum annuum)

7 Pot Bubblegum. The red color that seems to creep up the stem. The red you see in the picture is unaltered and happens in the last few days of ripening. The flavor of this pepper is very nice compared to some of the other super hots. It has a sweet and fruity taste with some floral undertones and INSANE HEAT. Scoville Heat Units~1,800,000 SHU . Days to Fruit 90 Days. Silly, I said no silly heat, and now look what I’ve gone and bought!

The Greens

Jalapeno. Heat of Product : Medium. The Jalapeño (Capsicum Annuum) is probably the mostly widely know chilli variety in the world. The chilli gets its name from the town of Jalapa in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The fruits are conical, thick-walled and typically sold and used green. They usually ripen to red and develop a distinctive ‘corking’ pattern (light coloured marks) as they reach full size. The plants are upright, 3 to 4 feet tall with woody stems. The fruits take about 75 days from sowing to harvest with each plant producing 20 to 30 fruits which are typically 6 to 8cm long and 2 to 3cm wide and conical. The plants usually need some support as they start to fruit to avoid branches being broken by the weight of fruit. This variety of Jalapeno produce large fruits which have a heat level of around 6000-8000 Scoville Heat Units. Big 7.5L pots as the plants gets to over a metre tall.

PoblanoHeat of Product : Mild. This large mild chilli is revered in Mexico and the USA and used extensively in Mexican-style cooking. The fruits are up to 15cm long and are traditionally stuffed with meat, rice or vegetables and then baked. The plants will grow up to 1m high and the fruits are normally harvested green – from about 75 days after potting on. If left to turn red, the fruits are traditionally dried to make ‘Anchos’, another very common ingredient in Mexican dishes. Heat: 1000 Scoville Heat Units.

Pimientos de Padron. Heat of Product : Mild. These peppers are traditionally picked immature (usually when about 5cm long) before they have developed any heat. You may have seen the fruits in Spain or in a Spanish Tapas bars; they are usually quickly fried in olive oil and sea salt and served hot. There is a Pimientos de Padrón recipe on this link. The plants can grow to 2m high and produce a perpetual crop throughout the summer provided you keep picking them. If left to mature, the fruits turn a light red and grow to about 10cm long and 4cm wide at the shoulder. Heat: very mild if picked early, 3,000 Scoville heat units if left to mature. Eeeek, going to need a plan for 2m tall plants!

The Yellows

Golden Greek PepperonciniThe pepperoncini plant is a bushy, annual variety that grows to a height of about 100cm (3ft) tall. The peppers it produces are tapered, wrinkled along their length, blunt and lobed at the ends. They are usually harvested at 5 to 8cm (2 to 3in) long, while they are still sweet and yellow-green. When allowed to mature, the peppers turn bright red and grow stronger in flavour.

Sweet Banana. Heat of Product : No or very little heat. Long cylindrical fruits, tapering to a point. Fruits ripen from yellow to red. Final size: 18cm long, 4cm wide. Great for grilling and usually used when yellow. Plant 40cm high. Fruits mature in 70-80 days. Heat: No heat.

Trinidad Perfume. A high yielding HEATLESS Habanero – all the wonderful flavour of a Habanero with very little heat. Great for salads or cooked into food for a great flavour. Harvest: Pick when the fruits turn yellow – about 140 days from potting-on. Size: 70cm High, fruits 3cm green to yellow.

Madame Jeanette. The fruits are shaped like small bell peppers. Madame Jeanette chilis are very hot, rated 125,000–325,000 on the Scoville scale. The peppers ripen to reddish-yellow but they are larger and not symmetrical. Its flavour is described as “fruity”, with hints of mango and pineapple. It is often confused with the yellow Adjuma, which is less elongated and said to be more spicy but less flavourful. Madame Jeanette is used in almost all facets of Surinamese cuisine. The plant is very prolific. It has a relatively compact growth and dislikes cool sites. It will also grow indoors.

The Oranges

Orange Habanero. Heat of Product : Very Hot. Easy to grow. The fruits are up to 2.5cm x 4cm and are produced on a shrubby bush up to 70cm tall x 70cm wide. The fruits are ready to pick at around 100 days after the seedlings have been potted on, and the plant will continue cropping as long as suitable conditions are maintained. This is probably the most prolific habanero variety. The fruits are very hot – up to 350,000 Scoville units. Harvest: Pick when the fruits turn Orange – about 120 days from potting-on. Heat: 250,000 – 350,000 Scoville Heat Units. Size: 50cm High, fruits 3cm green to orange.

Mustard Habanero. 95-100 days. Outrageously colourful habanero-type fruit starts out a very light green blushed with purple, and ripens to a unique mustard colour and finally to fiery orange, with plants bearing fruit of all colours simultaneously. Super hot, like most habaneros.

New Year Resolutions

Despite lack of posts, chillies did grow at The Birdhouse. Actually they grew in the greenhouse at The Birdhouse. So big and so strong they were bursting out all over the place. Neighbours, friends and family and indeed actual strangers were gifted copious bags of multicoloured, mega Scovilled goodies.

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We spent the Summer tasting, cooking, preserving, researching, stalking and fermenting chillies. Hits of the season were the Jalapeños. Wow, what a flavour and a heat that everyone can enjoy. The plants were tall (the height of our small greenhouse really), prolific, early too.

Big Bomb were also pretty darn good. Loads of fruit, great colour, sweet heat and plenty of chillies on each plants. Easy to prepare. The plants were a manageable size. Quite upright and strong. Surplus chillies were pickled to be stuffed at our leisure, like homemade Peppadews.

The surprise hit was the Scotch Bonnet. Only four plants germinated. Not promising. They sulked at every stage of the growing process. Hid at the back of the greenhouse for a month. But then, once they got going, they were truly excellent. Stunning shiny scarlet baubles, wonderfully fruity flavour and vast quantities of crisp chillies. Hot hot hot. Made a phenomenal hot pepper sauce with them. Nom. We cooked up a a similar sauce with Aji Lemon and Bulgarian Carrot too. One red, one orange and one zingy lemon yellow. Definitely worth the effort.

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And so to this year. What will 2019 bring to The Birdhouse? Here come the New Year Resolutions…

  1. Start the growing process a little earlier. Order seeds asap and then chit. Don’t give up on seeds that take longer than a few days to germinate. Some can take WEEKS! Consistent temperature, good air circulation and perhaps a bit of scarification on the hotter seeds as they were the harder to kick start.
  2. New varieties this year to include milder chillies, ones that are noted for their individual flavour and types suited to cooler climes. As well as a few faves. Don’t waste time on tiny chillies, pretty chillies, chillies that are mind blowingly hot.
  3. Make sure the height of the staging in the greenhouse is not too high. Chilli plants were generally much taller than expected and so were squashed up against the roof. Any chillies growing outside need structure to support them.
  4. Don’t be afraid to give plants away. Too many plants lead to pests and diseases spreading quickly.
  5. Sort a watering technique/system that works simply. Especially during the Summer hols when we are away. Maybe ventilation too. Oh, and an adequate heater for the early months.

And there we have it. Izzy whizzy, let’s get bizzy.

Going potty

Discussion around the arrangements for the plants when they are in their final growing pots. It seems that potting on into pots of increasing size is recommended. Not just dumping a teeny tiny seedling into a 30cm pot and leaving it to get on with things.

Our seedlings are currently in 6cm peat free fibre pots. These will then be planted straight in to 9cm square plastic pots. We already have a million of these so it makes sense to reuse them. They also fit neatly onto the windowsill trays we have. The next pot sizes are more difficult. In the interest in reducing plastic use we will be comparing non-plastic solutions with a bulk buy of large plastic pots to use every year.

First thoughts bring terracotta to mind. It seems a lovely, old fashioned option, reminisce of Peter Rabbit and friends. However, our greenhouse staging is super wobbly aluminium trestle style benches. The staging might not be able to take the weight of 20 30cm terracotta pots filled with compost, chilli plant and watered every day. What about grow bags? Or potato sacks? Or troughs? And does each type of chilli need such a large pot? More research need.

Research ensues.

We settle on secondhand, black plastic pots. Eek, not so PC these days but still very much out there in the market place. This is with a view to the pots being used year on year. Single use plastics are out of here. Reusing what already exists and cannot be recycled Hardwearing, easy to clean, uniform size and shape, good drainage but with excellent water retention qualities. One issue we have found with the fibre pots is that the water just evaporated right out of the sides of the pots, especially in the sun.

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20L pots found on ebay, being sold on from a plant nursery. Not purchased yet as we are visiting a nursery at the weekend. They may have pots to spare…or may not. Worth waiting to see. The chillies can hang out in the smaller pots for a few more days, no peeking roots out of the bottoms yet.