Collecting chillies has become a growing trend in WA, especially amongst male gardeners. It seems that the new measure of a man is the heat of the chilli that he grows and eats. The hotter the chilli, the hotter the man!
Fortunately for our men, they can develop a tolerance to the heat level of chilli and can even aspire to becoming a “Habanero Master”. In fact, chillies are mildly addictive and in some restaurants, when a particularly hot dish is ordered, a warning is required to be given to the diner.
Chillies (Capsicum frutescens) originated from South and Central America where the temperatures are very warm and this helps them to produce good levels of ‘capsaicin’, the chemical that gives the fruit its’ heat. The more present, the fierier the fruit. The optimum daytime temperature for fruit setting on a chilli bush is between 24 and 30 degrees C. Any cooler and the fruit will remain small and have numerous growth cracks on the skin.
Chillies must have a well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5 so they should be planted in an area enriched with either conditioned poultry mix or compost. Regular doses of low nitrogen liquid fertiliser after planting will encourage fruiting. The soil should be kept continuously moist to stop the flowers and young fruit from dropping so plenty of mulch and a trickle irrigation system throughout the drier months of summer is ideal.
Growing chillies in large tubs is a wonderful way to decorate the patio or barbecue area, especially when the bush is festooned with green and red fruit. Using a good quality potting mix with some added water saving crystals will help keep the soil moist.
Chillies do not generally require pruning or support except to help prevent damage from strong winds. Aphids can often damage the buds but these can be controlled by keeping weeds away from the bush or by simply hosing off.
So, what do you do if you bite off more then you can handle? Most people reach for water but, given that the oily capsaicin is insoluble to water, the heat will be spread throughout the mouth making the pain worse. The best option is to drink milk or eat bread or rice which will absorb the capsaicin and bring some relief.
When cooking with chillies, removing the seeds and the white pieces on the inside of the fruit can reduce the fiery heat. Alternatively, by cooking chillies for longer the heat will become more intense.
Chillies should be handled with care. The capsaicin can be very painful if it gets in your eyes or other sensitive areas so wearing rubber gloves or washing hands with soap after preparation is vital.
Often the true flavour of chilli is not fully appreciated due to their intense heat. They have flavours ranging from nutty through smoky to fruity so selecting a chilli with a heat level that suits the palette is essential to taste the true flavour of this remarkable fruit.