Chilli This Autumn

In Italy, there are the sagre: local fairs celebrating a particular food item: for instance, the Sagra Della Cipolla (onions) in Cannara, or the Fiesta del Radicchio Rossa di Treviso, honouring that town’s specific variety of chicory. Whilst a whole calendar of such food festivals may, to the English mind, come across as geeky and maybe not even in a good way, there is also something endearing and hopeful in this reverence for the holy communion between humans and plants. At Hawkwood, we try to sprinkle a little of that spirit about: every Wednesday morning, Caroline and her team get busy in the kitchen. They prepare the weekly volunteer lunch, built around a particular, seasonal item plucked from the garden: this week Sarpo Mira potatoes; last week scrumped apples, next week our kaleidoscope of beetroots.

Apple Day has become a national institution, a mere couple of decades after the charity Common Ground launched it in a ditch effort to halt the receding of our pome richness. So when, this Saturday, OrganicLea set up its fruit stall and juice press at the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow, we were part of a celebration echoing through hundreds of halls across the country.

If you keep your mince pies peeled, you’ll stumble across other noble endeavours: Garlic Festivals and Potato Days , alongside the more enduring and generalist Harvest Festivals at churches, to where Leslie has taken representatives of our newly stocked pumpkin store for blessing. Curiously enough though, in recent years the crop that has fired the public imagination and launched an industry around public gatherings in its honour, is that little foreign devil, the chilli pepper.

One such event is the Festival of Heat at Spitalfields City Farm, where, a couple of weeks ago, Hawkwood’s “World of Chillies” arrived on tour. It sat smouldering amidst a gazillion spicey sauce stalls, and thousands peered in on our world map bedecked with regional chillies, lovingly laid out by the travelling company of Iva, Rob, Martin, Elizabeth, Ximena, Hannah, Ru K and myself.

The collection has come on a bit since 2009, its embryonic year. It was then, in Hawkwood’s first growing season since rising from the composted ashes of its municipal glory days, that the self-same Ru K and I realised our very seasonal plant sales operation left in its wake a summer desert on the benches in the Glasshouse. For us, containerised chilli plants offered, counter-intuitively, the prospect of oases. We tried out a few exotics like “Chocolate Habanero” and “Bhut Jolokia” amongst the “industry standard” cultivars led by the dependable “Ring Of Fire”. Little did we dream, though, that five years hence, our journey, via the Bennington Chilli Festival and moments of epiphany in Mexico, would arrive at forty three cultivars covering every continent in the world except Antarctica, incorporating four Capsicum species; the hottest chilli in the world (“Carolilna Reaper”); the biggest chilli in the world (“Big Jim”); the most pornographic chilli in the world (“Peter Pepper”) and a rainbow of nations in between.

More importantly than all the record breaking is that the World of Chillies is becoming a library not just of plants, but of stories, as increasingly people heed the call to bring back from their travels peppers that have prominence in gardens, kitchens and markets along the way. So this year’s additions include the lovely round Croatian “Lobrasan” and bulleted “Italliano Picante” carried back by Aimee from her winter work-break in Andalucia: both further proof that mixed heritage is as much a feature of the chilli world as our own. Aimee is also behind the introduction of “Kudz”, harvested on the PEDAL ride to Palestine (see September 2, 2014) and has done more than anyone to grow the collection in every way, as a key propagator and carer for the plants.

Adam gave us “Cabe Rawih” and “Cabe Merah Keriting”, from indigenous attendees of last year’s quarternal gathering of Via Campesina, the international peasants’ union, in Indonesia;  and from Italian farmers resisting a high speed rail line the “Soverato”, which boasts its own sagra, the Festival del Pepperoncini a Soverato. Kate returned from South Africa with “Telica” and “Long Slim Cayenne”; Jeannie a rouge C. chinense from Tanzania, which the stall holder, under repeated questioning from her

as to what sort of chilli it was, insisted was a “chill-ie”. Fortunately, the World Development Movement sponsored a speaking tour to the UK by Tanzanian farmer Janet Marrow in April, who was able to identify it more precisely and prosaically as “Pili Pili Mbuzi”. Then there are the “Pimientos de Padron”, which Jess was going to get from Spain, didn’t manage to, and then appeared weirdly as seedlings in the Glasshouse in February, no one claiming responsibility. After a month of mystery we worked out that Maria’s Adults with Learning Difficulties class were the fairy Godfathers. Our World is starting to become magical.

As the tragic beauty of autumn is set to engulf us, I wonder that magic plays as much a part in sagre and festivals as any other force. Knowing scarcity chases abundance, offerings are held to the spirits, in gratitude and in the faith that what is about to disappear can be made to reappear. This is the weave beneath the ancient harvest celebrations and wassailings, that in turn foreshadow the cosmetically lighter modern incarnations such as Chilli Festivals. At Hawkwood though, the chillies are a blaze of glory in the Glasshouse, fruits combusting in every shade of yellow orange red that’s ever been bled. There’s no need, for now, for ritual or spells. Fire works.