Grown and consumed the world over, chillies never fail to thrill. The eye catching colours, the long list of medicinal uses coupled with beautiful flavours and a heat that ranges from the subtle to the extremely hot, chillies have it all. We are asked many questions at various shows and events throughout the year. How to use them, how to grow them and what exactly are chillies.
Here at Kent Chilli Farm we always refer to our chillies as fruit. Go to the greengrocer and it’s highly likely they’ll call them a vegetable. As soon as any chillies are, smoked, dried or ground they’re considered a spice. You’d be surprised to know, that in botanical terms they are a berry.
Whatever you call them, they all belong to the Capsicum (pronounced cap-see-coom) genus. Capsicums are part of the Solanaceae (pronounced so-lan-ay-see-ee) family which includes the familiar tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, tobacco along with a few others.
The full classification is as follows:
There’s much conjecture as to where the word Capsicum originally comes from. One school of thought is that it’s from the Latin word Capsa which means ‘box’ or ‘case’. This could be the fruit being thought of as a box of heat and flavour. Another is from the Greek word Kapto meaning ‘to bite’. This could be a reference to the fruit having a real bite or for a food that you’d want to hold with the teeth and dare not taste. In truth, no-one really knows. We’ll leave you to decide.
The heat in chillies is caused by the presence of something called Capsaicinoids and can vary wildly from plain old Bell Pepper with no heat at all, to the searing, world record breaking heat of The Carolina Reaper. This substance is a crystalline alkaloid and is produced and contained within the placental tissue inside the chilli causing the attached seeds to also be hot. Capsaicin makes up the lions’ share of these compounds at around 69%. Due to this fact Capsaicin is often used as the word to describe the whole group. The Capsaicinoid group includes Dihydrocapsaicin 22% which provides a shorter burn. Nordihydrocapsaicin is present at around 7% and provides a fruitier, sweeter burn whilst the rest is made up of Homocapsaicin and Homodihydrocapsaicin at about 1% each.
Within the Capsicum genus there are 34 species some of which are quite rare, for instance Capsicum Tovarii, indigenous to the valleys of Huancavelica, Peru which you won’t see at the local garden centre. Due to changes in science and plant classification the total number of species is ever changing. Some years ago there were 24 listed species but of the current 34 there are 5 species that have been cultivated and grown by humans for thousands of years and are the ones we grow here at Kent Chilli Farm.
It’s incredible that out of those 5 species, it is estimated that there are 4000-5000 varieties in the world today. This number is ever increasing due to insect cross pollination and seed companies hybridising new disease resistant varieties. Some of those varieties are almost the same, some produce similar fruit only on taller plants whilst some look the same but the fruit has a slightly different flavour.
The Identification of individual chillies once they’ve been picked can be extremely difficult. It’s a fair bit easier if the fruit is still on the plant. Leaf shape and plant size make the job a little easier as does cutting the chilli open, tasting and looking at the seed colour and size.
The ‘Famous Five’ are as follows.
Capsicum Annuum (pronounced ann-you-um)
Capsicum Annuum is the most widespread and a species that almost everyone will have either seen or tasted. This species includes the Bell Peppers that you might use in a stir fry or a salad which contain no heat at all. The most well known Annuum chilli with some heat is the Cayenne. These are often seen in ground in jars in spice racks around the world. Some might also be familiar with the Jalapeno chilli often seen as an ingredient served with Nachos in a Mexican restaurant. From anyone considering growing chilli for the first time, an Annuum variety is the best place to start. Germination is possible within the week with fruit appearing on the plants much sooner than with other species.
Capsicum Chinense (pronounced chin-nen-see)
Although this species contains the worlds’ hottest chillies, the heat in these chillies can vary wildly. Varieties such as Numex Suave or Biquinho for example are very mild and can even be eaten by people with a low tolerance. The most well known has to be Scotch Bonnet or Habanero chillies. These are used to great effect in the Jerk Marinades of the Caribbean and are seriously hot. The world’s hottest chilli varieties such as Carolina Reaper, Naga Viper, Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion are all Chinense varieties. When it comes to this species, our favourite trait is the way heat can arrive a little later than expected and catch the taster out. Heat can start out mild but keep building to something more serious. This always provides a few smiles when customers samples some fresh Chinense chilli at some of our shows.
Capsicum Frutescens (pronounced fru-tes-enz)
These chillies, sometimes referred to as Birdeye Chillies are generally hotter than Annuum chillies but when it comes to good looks, they lag way behind. Whereas Annuum varieties are often better looking the fruit of Frutescens varieties can be a little plain. Chillies tend to start out green and ripen to red and to be a regulation bullet shape. This Species does however contain the Tabasco chilli which must be one of the most well known of all chillies, made famous by Edmund Mcllhenny and his world beating Tabasco Sauce. Frutescens varieties can be extremely good producers and good for over wintering here in the U.K
Capsicum Baccatum (pronounced bah-cay-tum)
Our favourite species. With the ever expanding range of food products available here in Europe and the growth of the Internet, Baccatum varieties are becoming ever more popular but due to their growing habit and size are seldom seen in garden centres and nurseries. Varieties often have a rambling almost climbing habit leaving the grower no choice but to employ extra sticks and strings to support the plants. Fruit heat and shape can vary wildly from some unusual shapes such as Friar’s Hat or Speedball to something that could be mistaken for a Frutescens chilli. These plants are known in South America as Aji (pronounced ah-hee) hence most plants of this species being named with the Aji prefix. Our favourite is Aji Limon.
Capsicum Pubescens (pronounced pew-bes-enz)
Once again a seldom seen species. These plants, known as Rocoto (pronounced dra-cot-toe) in South America can grow to enormous sizes with a vine-like habit. The species is named due to the hairiness of the foliage. Although we’ve tasted some seriously hot Rocoto pods, these apple (Chile Manzano) or pear (Chile Peron) shaped pods can be fiercely hot or reasonably mild. Plants of this species are unique in that they won’t cross pollinate with any of the other four species and with the seeds being black in colour, the fruit is easy to identify. A thicker juicy skin makes pods are more suited to Salsa or stuffing than to drying.