South Devon Chilli Farm: Some Like It Hot
By Stella Nicholls
Photos provided by South Devon Chilli Farm
Who doesn’t love the idea of a chilli? Thought to have originated in South America, humankind has been abundantly blessed by the many varieties that exist today. If you are one who enjoys the hottest of the hot, then you will probably be aware of the Scoville Heat Scale which measures the pungency or spiciness of a chilli. This process involves drying the chilli before an extract of capsaicin oil is taken. The extract is gradually mixed with a solution of water and sugar until the ‘heat’ is barely detectable by human testers.
A chilli with the SHU (Scoville Heat Unit) rating of 20,000 means that the capsaicin oil was diluted 20,000 times before the heat was barely detected. The higher the SHU, the hotter the chilli is. The current world record holder, (since 2013) is the Carolina Reaper, delivering an average of 1569300 SHU. That’s hot!
My colleague, Sofy Robertson, recalls her husband, Dave’s experience at a chilli tasting challenge:
“Some like it hot’ and that is definitely the case for my husband, and yes, we are still talking about food in case you were worried. On a trip to Dart’s Farm, we were greeted by a lady from South Devon Chili Farm, proffering a platter of diced chilli and a banner announcing a chilli tasting challenge.
“As much as I love a free sample, I declined. My husband Dave, on the other hand, was wearing the same expression that lights up my face at the cheese counter. He made his way through all of the tasters, from increasing Scoville to Scoville. He earned his Chilli Challenge sticker and his name was added to the adjacent board. The lady then brought out one final sample, ‘just for fun’.
“After drinking several bottles of Luscombe lemonade some minutes later, Dave told me that he just couldn’t turn it down. He had taken that final slice of chilli as one might take up a sword before battle, consumed it, smiled and thanked the lady, and walked away head held high, before hissing “Drink! Now” out of the side of his mouth.”
Wanting to find out more about who was behind the spicy challenge, we got in touch with South Devon Chilli Farm directors Heather and Steve Waters, Martin Phillips and Kaz Lobendhan. They were happy to take some time out of their busy schedule to answer a few questions about the Chilli Farm, which is right on our beautiful Devonian doorstep in Loddiswell.
Thanks for taking the time to connect with us, knowing how busy the farm is. Have you always lived in a farming environment?
We all mostly grew up in towns – London and Reading, working in finance and IT; so quite different experiences to running a Chilli Farm in rural Devon.
Tell us a little bit about your journey, from starting out as hobby gardeners to running the Chilli Farm
Yes, it started as a hobby, growing chilli plants in garden greenhouses; they were so easy to grow and such fun plants that we decided to rent a local polytunnel and see how many different varieties we could grow.
The first season was really successful and we had so many chillies, we didn’t know what to do with them all. Fortunately, at about the same time, farmers markets had started to become popular and so we took our amazing crop of fresh chillies to the markets and some local shows. We got a positive response from members of the public and realised there was a widespread fascination with chillies. Once we had started making chilli sauces, preserves and chilli chocolates and they all proved popular too – we took the leap of faith, gave up our day jobs, and started full-time as chilli farmers and producers.
Talk us through a typical day ‘in the office’ at South Devon Chilli Farm
As directors, 18 years down the line, we are now less practically involved in the growing, manufacturing and retail sides of the business, but are still managerially involved in all processes. We still spend time speaking to customers over the phone and when they visit our shop and café about all aspects of chillies including growing plants and cooking with chillies. We also spend time working on new product ideas and designs as well as marketing and PR.
What do you do for ‘down time’ when you are away from the business?
We all try to make the most of living in such a wonderful area – walking the coastal and rural paths, spending time on the beautiful beaches, sailing and surfing.
What are some of the high points that you’ve experienced along the way?
As with any food business, one of the best parts is producing new flavours and seeing them well received with great comments from our customers. A high point was opening our onsite shop and café where we speak to customers and get instant feedback.
On the flipside of that, what are some of the challenges that you have faced?
The weather is always a bit of a challenge at the start and end of the season; we are always on guard against damaging frosts.
What is the best advice that you have received?
Don’t rub your eyes after handling chillies! (Wise advice, indeed!)
What are you passionate about; what drives you?
Producing the best flavoured chilli sauces, preserves and chocolates from chillies grown in Devon – and becoming a household name!
And Lastly, what plans do you have for the rest of 2019?
We have a new range of Chilli Ketchups and Chilli BBQ sauces which we are just launching. We’re also constantly working at improving our visitor experience onsite, for example, our café menu, guided tours and show tunnel.