The great advantage of growing chillies from seed is that there is a virtually endless selection of cultivars to choose from. The downside is that the novice grower is easily confused by the glowing catalogue descriptions and can fail to make the best choices. Taking a different aproach, we look at how you might use chillies, and suggest suitable varieties for each purpose.
Although much of the fun with chillies is using them fresh, the UK season is fairly short, so thought should be given to the various means of preserving them to give year round pleasure.
Being able to make your own sauces is perhaps the greatest benefit of growing your own chillies. Commercial sauces mostly taste of vinegar; home made sauces taste of chillies.
The sauces that we use most frequently are those made from Capsicum baccatum varieties, and there are two that are particularly good. Spangles is a highly ornamental variety and the ripe chillies make a sweet, delicately flavoured, mildly spicy sauce. Spangles grows well in pots; planted in the glasshouse border it needs plenty of room as it will make quite a large plant unless carefully pruned.
The second recommendation is Madre Vieja which gives a much more assertive, spicier sauce. Quite similar to the popular Hot Lemon / Lemon Drop varieties, Madre Vieja is more compact in growth, higher yielding, and produces fleshier chillies which are better for sauce making.
Remember that hot sauces need time to mature before use
Always a useful standby, dried chillies can be re-hydated before use, but we prefer to use them as they are, either whole or crushed. Lancer is our favourite variety here; the ripe chillies are deciduous and come off the plant without a stalk. They dry easily and have a delicious flavour. Crush one or two into a pan of frying mushrooms to really lift the flavour or drop whole into a dahl as you gently cook the lentils.
Another favourite is Machu Pichu. A compact chinense variety with large wrinkled brown chillies which dry well. The rich umami flavour and mild heat makes them very versatile for use in soups and stews. They seem to have an affinity for red meats and augment rather than compete with the flavour.
No question here - Turkish Pickling has no peer. Compact plants yield massive harvests which start early in the season as these chillies are always pickled green. Produced on an industrial scale in Turkey, and eaten as a side dish to tradional Turkish cooking, these are extremely moreish. Turkish Pickling is one the easiest chillies to grow in the UK.
It is hard to imagine cooking without a selection of carefully chosen selection of chilli powders to add character to almost any dish. Our favourite, Havana Gold, has a rich, complex flavour, and is quite mild. It enhances the flavour of other foods without overpowering even the most subtly flavoured dish. The ripe chillies are thin fleshed and start to dry on the plant. Havana Gold grows particularly well in the glasshouse border, but needs room as it has the typical baccatum spreading growth habit. The lovely golden colour of the ripe fruit is retained in the powder.
Not everyone has the space to grow the chillies that they would like to, and a dwarf plant habit becomes an essential feature. To such people we offer our sympathy and the suggestion that they try Hot Thai. The variety was awarded an AGM by the RHS and produces masses of bright red chillies on very compact plants. The chillies themselves are not too hot and are excellent fresh of dried.
You could also try Xalapa, available as plants from Dobies. Much more compact than other Jalapeño types and with a particularly good flavour.
I hope that the above guidance will prove useful and encourage readers to explore new ways of using chillies. Remember to preserve more than you think you will need - you may be surprised at how much you consume, and how many friends will cadge a jar or two.
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