It’s February, our kitchen table is covered in seed packets and the chilli season is just about to start.
We grow a range of chillies to suit the different tastes in my family and for a variety of culinary uses: large, fairly mild fruits for stuffing and baking, spicier chillies for pickles and curries, and some purely for their ornamental features.
We’ve grown Hungarian Hot Wax for many years. It has large, tapering fruits that develop in heat as they mature, but remain mildly pungent on the Scoville Scale (which ranks the heat of chillies) with a Scoville Heat Unit rating of 2,000. We harvest the chillies while they are still yellow, stuff them with cheese and bake until soft. Hot Banana is another good stuffing chilli with sizeable, relatively mild fruits. It is a prolific cropper, producing excellent yields in late summer and autumn.
For medium to hot fruits, we like Jalapeño (6,000-8,000 SHU), Cheyenne (40,000 SHU) and Apache (70,000-80,000 SHU). Jalapeño is easy to grow and is another heavy cropper. The fruits are perfect for slicing in salsas and adding to spicy pizzas. Cheyenne is an early variety with chillies that work well in pickles. The dwarf plants are good as patio chillies with plump fruits that ripen to a warm orange. Apache is another of my favourite compact varieties. It produces scores of red chillies that pack a real punch in curries and Mexican fajitas. With one of these spicy varieties on the windowsill or patio table, you can be sure your cooking will be on fire this summer.
I always add lemon-flavoured chillies to pickles and chutneys to add a lovely citrusy tang. Peruvian Lemon Drop has been the most reliable cropper for us, with long fruits that ripen from green to a light yellow. They are moderately spicy (30,000-50,000 SHU) and are one of the most flavoursome chillies we’ve grown. If you favour extreme heat in your cooking, you could try one of the varieties that top the Scoville Heat ratings like the Carolina Reaper. With red, wrinkly fruits that weigh in at over two million SHU, this is one chilli I like to admire from a distance.
Ornamental varieties have the benefit of attractive fruits or unusual foliage colour as well as a tasty crop. NuMex Twilight is a beautiful patio plant covered with masses of chillies pointed upwards in vibrant shades of yellow, orange, red and purple giving it the effect of flames rising from the foliage. Vampire is another eye-catching variety with deep purple-black leaves, purple flowers and unusual black fruits that ripen to bright red. Despite its fearsome name, it is a fairly mild chilli at only 14,000 SHU.
Chillies can be sown from January right through to March. Leave it any later and the plants don’t have enough time to mature and produce fruits before the first frosts. I sow six seeds into a small tray of peat-free compost and place in a heated propagator to speed up germination, but heat is not a necessity. You can germinate seeds successfully on a sunny windowsill if you don’t have access to a propagator.
Prick plants out into 9cm pots when the seedlings have a couple of pairs of leaves and grow on at about 18°C. Pot on into larger 30cm containers when the roots reach the sides of the container. I don’t stake compact chillies, but larger plants may need to be tied to canes for support. Chillies are relatively low maintenance provided you keep plants well-watered and feed with a general-purpose fertiliser, swapping to a high-potash feed once flowers begin to form.
Picking chillies regularly will encourage new fruits to form. You can pick chillies at the milder, unripe stage or wait for the full heat to develop as they ripen. Fruits can be eaten within a few days or preserved by pickling in a vinegar mix or made into spicy chutney. We also preserve our chilli harvest by drying fruits on strings or chopping them up and freezing in ice-cube trays full of water. These chilli ice-cubes can then be added directly to curries and soups whenever they are needed.