It’s got to the point where we could almost put chilli on our breakfast cereal. Jalapeño, Scotch bonnet, bird’s eye, habanero, chipotle, cayenne: all have become everyday objects in our home.
Our love affair with the chilli began in France. This is odd, because the French, on the whole, do not do spicy foods. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’ Henri howled, clutching his throat, when we put before him one day the mildest of all mild kormas.
But on a smallholding near us, a chilli enthusiast, Jean-Phillipe Turpin was busy. He grew mild chillies, medium-hot chillies, and chillies so hot they were off the Scoville scale. We came to call him ‘Mr. Chilli’.
He came to sell his wares every week in summer and autumn at two local markets. Fresh chillies, strings of dried chillies, powdered chillies, chilli plants. We became regular customers, as did other English, from far and wide. The French? Not so much.
Back in England, we still buy different chillies, every week. The dozens of varieties purveyed by Mr. Chilli rarely come our way. The ones we do have are everyday objects in our house. As are jars of spicy pastes and potions.
When we lived in France, the easiest way to persuade a French friend that you did not have their interests at heart was to produce a spiced dish, especially one with chillies in.
‘Oh, we love spicy food’, declared Henri and Brigitte when we broached the subject of cooking them a curry. All the same, we were careful. We dished up a korma so mild that it barely qualified as spiced at all. ‘Ouf!’ exclaimed Henri, after the first tentative mouthful – ‘are you trying to kill us?’
With this in mind, it was a huge surprise to us when one Friday in Lavelanet market, we came upon a man with a stall full of chillies. Orange chillies, yellow chillies, green chillies, purple chillies, fresh chillies, dried chillies. He had no customers at all. So he had time to chat to us, and explained that he’d come to love chillies, and to be passionate about seeking out new varieties, growing and using them. He was one of two such growers in France. We bought from him. He had other English customers. The French? Not so much.
That was five years ago. After relying on northern Europeans to bail him out, slowly but surely he started to attract a few French customers too. He’s still in business. Perhaps, despite the danger represented by a Red Savina chilli rated 500,000 on the Scoville scale, he hasn’t managed to kill anybody off yet.
M. Chilli’s smallholding, devoted exclusively to chillies, chillies, and more chillies.