About a year ago, I was doing my regular shopping in Lavelanet market when I saw a new stall. An amazing stall, jewelled with the bright crimsons, scarlets, yellows, greens, purples and blacks of an array of a score or more of varieties of chilli.
It wasn’t busy. The stall holder was holding court to nobody at all till I came along, so we got talking. Mr. Chilli (Jean Philippe Turpin) would have as his mission statement if he went in for such things, ‘passionate about chillies’. He was selling the harvest he had been carefully husbanding all season: mild chillies, warmly scented chillies, chillies with a kick, chillies with a punch, and killer chillies. Nobody was interested.
He knew he had a chance with me, because I’m English. The French, famously, do not like hot spices. Without English customers – not many of us in Lavelanet, but rather more in Mirepoix – he would have had no business at all. I bought quite a selection from him, carefully trying to memorise the properties of each variety, and froze them. They lasted me all winter.
In the spring, he appeared again. This time he was selling chilli seedlings. The varieties were coded from 1 to 10, with 1 being mildest-of-the-mild, to 10: blows your brains out . He had one or two specimens even I wouldn’t touch – 10 + 6. Together with two English fellow aficionados and gardeners, I’d pop to see him most weeks – maybe to buy another plant, maybe only for a few handy hints. He never seemed to mind if we didn’t buy: our enthusiasm won him over and he would spend ages patiently explaining how to get the best out of our precious seedlings.
The season wore on. The seedlings became plants, then fruiting specimens. Now we’ve come full circle. The stall is crammed again with baskets of chillies in every shape and size and colour. Some look like crinkled Chinese lanterns, some like cherry tomatoes, some like tiny black bilberries, while many of course are the familiar long pointed droplet. Now he’s busy producing chilli oil, chilli paste, chilli condiments of every kind to sell throughout the year.
He used to live in Paris, but it’s not the kind of place, or the kind of climate, where chillies can thrive. Not in the kind of quantities he was growing them. Even back in those days he had getting on for 50 varieties. So a couple of years ago he looked for a space and a place in the sun, and ended up in a village near here, Saint-Quentin la Tour. He decided to turn his obsession into a business: I think a man who eats chillies for breakfast can fairly be described as obsessed. Mr. Chilli has few rivals. To his knowledge, there is only one other chilli producer in the whole of France, near Béziers. If you visit his garden, with its views over the Pyrenees, you’ll see row upon row of chillies, chillies and more chillies. They are protected from frying in too much sun by a system of canopies, staked to keep them posture-perfect, and generally treated to a firm-but-fair regime designed to encourage self-reliant, hearty, healthy and productive plants. He’ll have harvested the lot by now.
So from now on he has a busy period when he’ll swap his outdoor work for indoor activity. He’ll be air-drying chillies for the winter, turning others into chilli-based products, always choosing the best and most appropriate variety for the job in hand.
And the last two times I’ve visited him, I’ve had to wait my turn. Curious customers and would-be customers crowd round his stall, examining all those different varieties, asking questions, making tentative purchases . They’re all French. Mr. Chilli knew he was in for the long game. Perhaps he’s beginning to win.