Howdy, folks, it’s thursday again and I’ve just returned from a long weekend away, so it’s time for me to tell you all about Challock Chilli fest. A rather different festival to most.
When I discovered Victoriana Nursery Gardens and their annual event, they had a pitiful lineup of stalls – Roughly eight and most of them not even dedicated to chilli – but that was its selling point.
Challock Chilli Fest isn’t about the products, it’s about the peppers and Victoriana Nursery grow well over a hundred varieties specially.
Everything from a heatless chinense-type strain named “bellaforma” to the world record holding Carolina Reaper and even beyond to Fatalii Gourmet’s jigsaw and the butch taylor reaper hybrid.
Yet I wasn’t there for pure heat. I was there for more unusual things like the earlier purple strain also named “jigsaw”, the pubescens-type rocoto family chillies, the (supposedly) ultra-valuable aji charapita, their second variety of lemon drop and the whopping eight of jalapeños.
Superhots will always crop up again if there’s substance behind their claims but these strains were different. Less grabbing of most people’s attention but at least as worthy of it. And who knew if I’d ever see them anywhere else?
I had to try as much as I could on the one day that I could make the long journey down and everything outside the main poly-tunnel was just icing on the cake. Extremely watery icing, given the all-pervasive drizzle that graced that first saturday of the month.
But, within that one tasting tunnel, the drips were minor and, while it didn’t actually do anything about the weather, the large assortment of peppers definitely helped me forget the cold.
I didn’t like all of them, of course, finding the chocolate cayenne disappointingly flavourless the tenerife strangely medicinal and the orange peter pepper oddly bitter compared to its 🔥📽️ red variant 📽️🔥. But I did like the majority – As you might expect of such a hardcore chilli-lover – and I came away with some pretty interesting discoveries.
Despite all the jalapeños that I tasted that day, I can honestly say that none of them were my favourite. To me, the best has to be the simple purple strain that you’ll be seeing on camera soon. But, just because that’s the best straight up jalapeño doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something special among victoriana’s strains.
The numex lemon spice, as big a departure as it was from the typical jalapeño heat and flavour, was a fantastic blend of a familiar chilli with yellow pepper elements and citrus. It was its own thing, not anything that could replace the usual variety, but it was delicious all the same.
If you enjoy both jalapeño and lemon and you can handle the heat of a cayenne, I’d definitely recommend it. Unlike the bitter, red kella uchu which they called a “hot lemon drop”.
On the more visual side, the blood red of the Farmers’ Market Potato Jalapeño’s flesh looked absolutely stunning against its distinctive, pale brown skin made almost entirely out of growth scars.
Its flavour was nothing abnormal but it was pleasant enough and definitely that of a jalapeño. Plus, it had a nice little bit more crunch. If you want a real looker for your garden and table, this one’s one of the best.
Yet it’s only one of the best. The pale, cream and purple striped “pink tiger” is equally eyecatching in its own way and the fish pepper is almost as pretty in green and white when it’s growing.
The cayote zan white was a stark contrast to most of the other peppers with its bold shape and colour but, in my opinion, outshone by the weirder-looking “yellow” brazilian starfish. A pepper that I only found out about a few days before and one that turned out to be just as shockingly tasty as it was weird to look at.
It began like any white – gently sweet and floral – but finished with a bold, almost peachy fruitiness. I loved it for its flavour, even more than its looks, and just had to get some to take home. But we’ll get to what I picked out in a moment because there were more to look at.
Almost equally oddly shaped was the squashed-looking “orange blob habanero”. A variety that, while tasty, sadly didn’t live up to its pedigree as a specialist orange hab and still left me preferring the original.
Or, completely unique among the wide festival selection, was the colouration of the wild lombok. A murky brownish-green chilli that appeared to be entirely ripe and fresh, yet tasted like overripe, home-grown cucumber with a hefty helping of heat. Easily the worst thing that I tried all day but also balanced out by the last of the truly beautiful peppers – The CGN21500.
The CGN21500 is a heritage variety catalogued by Wegeningen University’s Centre for Genetic Resources in the Netherlands. It has never been named, outside of its designated code-number, but it still stands out in the minds of many because of its delicious, slightly floral, highly fruity taste, habanero-like heat and purple, through pink, to peach ripening.
Only two other peppers – the fidalgo roxa and the cheiro roxa – go through the same colour pattern and its generally accepted that all three are part of the same little portuguese family. Plus, the fact that they all taste rather similar definitely helps evidence that claim.
Of the three, the CGN is probably the least interesting, shape-wise, but it’s still highly sought after by those who know what it is. The only thing that I dislike about this pepper is its code, making it super hard to differentiate from other numbered strains.
So, in the interest of both my memory and yours, I’m going to be calling it “cereja roxa”, after its purple colour and cherry pepper shape. I’ll let you know the pronunciation when next I talk about it. Trust me, it won’t be long.
Now, what else was of interest? Well, I tried slices of about a hundred varieties myself and still only managed about two thirds of the selection. I can’t possibly talk about everything.
What I can mention, though, are a few small highlights like the sweet and sour, almost plum-like fruit flavour of the mini rocotos, the dry, almost smoked taste of the salvatore bird’s eye and the cabai kerintin, or the surprisingly herbal freshness of the yellow “CAP270” – Another annoyingly unnamed breed that was unexpectedly tasty.
But the five varieties that I bought for myself didn’t include that one because I had no idea how to use it.
Instead, I picked up an extra mild pasilla variant known as the “holy molé” for my molés and con carnes, the numex lemon spice for anywhere I wanted a non-lemondrop citrus pepper, the “yellow” brazilian starfish to try and make a peach sauce, the cereja roxa for any other fruity applications and, finally, some bahamian goat peppers to try on camera. Because these little monsters ruined me before I could even get to them and the actual superhots:
Labelled simply as “madagascar”, these centimetre-long chillies are more commonly known as pili pili and, while they only hit a few tiny pinprick points in the mouth and throat, they hit with all the intensity of the sun itself and do so for a good fifteen minutes or more.
For something so small, I have no idea how they can hold their seeds, let alone that much capsaicin, but they clearly do. They had me running around, panting and filled with regret for a good long time. Even worrying, at points, that I might have to relive the whole day’s heat at once when they threatened to return on me.
The worst part is, I don’t even know how they tasted. All I knew was that I couldn’t take any more after that. So I was ever so grateful to Meander Nice Stuff for their fudge-based offer of salvation.
They and all the other stallholders – And there were nearly thirty on the actual day – were fantastically friendly, so I did feel somewhat sorry for them all suffering through such poor weather but, at the same time, I was thrilled to have the chance to chat.
I won’t tell you what exactly I picked up from them but you’ll see it all in due time.
Until then, I’d just like to reiterate that I had an absolutely amazing day out and that Challock was unique, even among chilli festivals. If you like chilli, there really is no substitute for this one event and no better way to try so many vastly different peppers. I’d be at least a few hundred pounds in debt if I bought them all online – Assuming that I even could.
The one thing I’d say not to do, though, is to follow in my footsteps. Don’t try to eat everything. Just pick the peppers that interest you and maybe take some grower recommendations. They do, after all, really know their stuff.