Phew! That was the 20th Chilli Fiesta at West Dean Gardens - and it was a scorcher! Sunshine brought out the crowds for what is now a three-day event, the largest chilli festival in the UK to my knowledge, and it was HOT!
It is all a far cry from the first event, inspired by a trip to the States for Jim Buckland, the Gardens Manager at West Dean, who came back with chilli seeds for his wife Sarah Wain to grow and the conviction that it might be possible to build an event around a chilli collection, as chillies make fabulous decorative plants even if people aren’t all that interested in eating the fruits - or that was what I thought at the time!
In 1995 the Chilli Fiesta was just a Sunday afternoon. It rained in the morning which convinced us that no-one would come - but in the end around 2,500 people turned up when the sun came out. I cooked from a tiny table in the walled garden below the three-quarter span glasshouses: I started off inside but it quickly got far too hot! Old El Paso were in Chichester then and I was writing recipes leaflets for them, so we had lots of products for a tombola and I think we gave the takings to Christian Aid: it was all very low key until we realised the potential at the end of the day.
In 1997, when these photos were taken on the Sunday evening, we still had enough energy at the end of the event to fool around and the Fiesta was starting to be a real fixture in the Hot Heads calendar. The cult of the Chilli Head possibly took a year or two more to establish itself but early in the history of the Fiesta a trip to Venice was the perfect excuse to have to purchase my amazing chilli necklace from Susanna and Marina Sent: it seemed to be one of their signature pieces at the time and I think it is meant to represent coral as was the fashion for the Victorians but for me it will always be chillies!
Over the years we have had enormous fun. Some friends like Sea Spring Seeds have been fixtures from the beginning and exciting new people have come on board. Top of the New List for me this year has been The African Chef. He has brought some deliciously different flavours to the Fiesta though his products and recipes: I shall be cooking my small pumpkin leaves in future (those from the Crown Prince squash are especially recommended) and his Chakalaka sauce, Beef jam and Sweet potato and coconut chilli relish are among my favourites. All the products are amazing and you can order on-line too. There is a virtuous circle here as Malcolm (The African Chef) is working with Barfoots of Botley, great local growers and friends of mine, to use their out of grade produce - the wrong size for the supermarkets - in his creations. Hot thinking!
Now I am hanging up my chilli necklace as twenty years at this event has been a good innings and I would like to take my cooking and love of whisky to the Whisky Fringe in Edinburgh in years to come - and the events clash! It’s time to hand on to the new order and to leave while the tent is still packed for my dems! I may come back for the 25th Fiesta to celebrate - who knows? Having matched The ONE, Paul John’s Brilliance and, today, the Haig Club whiskies to my Crab and vanilla pasta at my last demonstration I know how much people have enjoyed the thought of whisky with chillies. Please keep up to date with my new adventures through this blog and Good Luck to all those who cook at the Chilli Fiesta after me!