Over the past few years there has been an explosion in the number of people growing chillies, and the range (and heat) of varieties available.
Heat is measured via the Scoville scale. For a scorching treat , try the Dorset Naga from Sea Spring Seeds, which packs a punch of over a million Scoville Heat Units (SHU). That puts it in the ‘Superhot’ category, reserved for chillies in excess of 500,000 SHU. Below that you get the ‘Very hot’ varieties, above 100,000 SHU. Then the merely ‘hot’, down to 35,000. Past the medium chillies, anything below 5,000 SHU is classed as ‘mild’.
But for people like me who prefer to have the flavour of chillies without the scorching heat, there are some interesting options available that mean you can have authentic flavours without burning your mouth.
Ají peppers are Capsicum baccatum species, and usually ‘hot’ varieties. However, Real Seeds sell a variety called ‘Dedo de Mocha’ that allows you to savour the ají’s gently smoky flavour without burning your mouth. It is happiest growing in a greenhouse, and if kept in a frost-free environment can be treated as a perennial plant. (All Capsicum varieties are perennial in their native habitat, but they can be hard to overwinter in the UK. The low light levels we experience in the winter cause them to drop their leaves, and sometimes the plant will resprout in the spring, and sometimes it won’t. It’s worth trying, if you have a heated greenhouse, or a very sunny windowsill.)
I’ve grown ‘Dedo de Mocha’ in previous years, but this year I’m trying some new varieties from Victoriana Nursery Gardens.
Jalapeños are Capsicum annuum species, originating in Mexico and usually coming in at a medium heat of up to 10,000 SHU. But ‘Jalapeño Fooled You’ is a cool chilli, with no heat at all. It’s long, thick-walled green fruits should provide all of the chilli flavour, allowing you to put together tasty meals that won’t scorch your tastebuds.
“Dedo de Mocha plants ready for potting on”
Cayenne peppers are also C. annuum species, generally rated hot and used dried and ground as cayenne pepper powder. Victoriana’s ‘Cayenne Sweet’ will give you all the colour and flavour of cayenne pepper, without the heat.
With cool chillies, it’s hard to see where to draw the line between a sweet pepper and a chilli – NuMex Garnet, for example, can be dried and ground to make paprika, and is considered to be a sweet pepper. When you’re shopping for pepper seeds, any reputable company will offer an assessment of a variety’s heat, even if they don’t go as far as giving you the Scoville rating.
Even when you’re growing cool chillies, it’s wise to be a bit cautious if you have no tolerance for heat – it is unusual, but not impossible, for the plants to create a hot pepper or two. It normally happens when they’re stressed (e.g. short of water), but you’d be unlucky to harvest anything with too much of a bite. Victoriana note that the occasional pepper from their sweet ‘Padron’ variety (traditionally used in Spanish tapas) has some heat, particularly later in the growing season. (The chemical that causes the heat sensation, Capsaicin, accumulates as the fruits ripen, so ‘normal’ chillies will be hotter when they are fully ripe.)
Chillies like heat and light, and a long growing season is advised – sow seeds before the middle of March for the best results. Ideally, chilli seeds like some bottom heat from a heated propagator, or a warm spot in the airing cupboard or above a radiator (but check to make sure they’re not drying out). Windowsills can be tricky at this time of year, with temperatures plummeting when the sun goes down, but as soon as your seeds have germinated (which takes about 2 weeks) your chilli seedlings need as much light as you can give them. You’ll notice them growing more strongly once the days start to get longer in the spring.
The same is true for sweet peppers, which now come in all the colours of the rainbow, and all shapes and sizes. Sow now, and pick a peck of peppers this summer!