The Chilli Alchemist

by Jay Webley

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When asked to describe the UK chilli scene, the word that keeps coming to mind is ‘exploded’! During the past few years we Brits have seen a surge of chilli festivals, hot sauce companies, restaurants boasting ‘hot’ or ‘challenge’ dishes, chilli clubs & chilli farms. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down either!

I’ve always been a lover of chilli. Fresh, dried, hot sauce, it’s all good to me! However, until around 7 years ago, I struggled to find a range of any of these products. The ubiquitous Tabasco wasn’t cutting it for me but it was either that or Encona (Caribbean style sauces). Both carry a lot of vinegar & didn’t exactly showcase the flavour of the chillies within. I’d often make my own sauce with a blend of cayenne & naga, but I was convinced there must be more out there somewhere…but where?

The first real multiple hot sauce company in the UK is arguably Hot Headz who have been around since the mid 90s but I was unaware of them for some time. It was during a Sunday outing to a local market when I encountered a biker dude with a small stand that was packed with an array of sauces I had never seen or tried! Rather than make conversation, I left the market, went to withdraw a large amount of cash & then skipped back to the hot sauce haven I had found! I walked away with bags full of exciting products that used chillies I hadn’t heard about or tried. However, the common theme with all that I purchased was that they came from Belize or the USA. Not a single British or European sauce among them. This didn’t bother me as I was elated to have discovered a new source of chilli products that would keep me happy for some time. I soon became a regular at Dr. Burnorium’s Hot Sauce Emporium!

Skip forward a year or two and the good Doctor set up a permanent shop in the heart of my home city. It became the first UK hot sauce shop & a mecca for people like me. I’d visit regularly & always try something new as well as revisit my favourites. During one visit I discovered a new product made by a company/person called Chillipepper Pete. “That dude is British would you believe?” said the Doctor. Interesting…

The fact there was a dedicated & successful hot sauce shop selling British made products got me thinking. Clearly there is a market for the products but who are they going to? There must be like-minded chilliheads dotted around the UK but where to find them? Of course, the internet was the answer! It didn’t take long to discover a forum called Chillies Galore and it was where I got chatting with a chap called Alex who claimed to be running a chilli farm near me. He said that they grow a number of varieties & use their harvests to make a range of hot sauces. Intrigued, I volunteered to help prepare his polytunnels for the season ahead. I’d grown chillies before but only at home. I wanted to see what a farm looked like and I wanted to get a better understanding of the demand for chilli in the UK.

The internet also introduced me to the Clifton Chilli Club (CCC), a recently formed society of a few chilli enthusiasts again based in my home city. Bristol was seemingly the epicentre of the UK’s capsaicin conglomerate! Relatively unstructured, the CCC were keen to expand their knowledge on chillies in every way. Be it growing, eating, trying products or simply pushing their sanity limits by abusing ultra-hot products. No matter what, I wanted to be part of it and have remained so to this day. It’s now the UK’s largest chilli club and boasts the UK’s largest YouTube subscribership & viewership with no sign of slowing down. We’ve made videos that include growing advice, cooking, sauce reviews, stupid pranks, chilli eating contests and many more. For as long as the demand remains, we’ll be providing our services both digitally & in persons.

Since 2008, I have been regularly attending chilli festivals in the UK. There are more & more every year. Some fail, some tick along & some have become an annual pilgrimage for chilliheads. Many of the festivals follow the same formula: chilli stalls, music, entertainment, camping, competitions and chilli themed food & drink. My interest was in the produce, particularly the hot sauces. I was forever seeking the perfect sauce but I kept coming across the same issue; British sauces don’t suit me. Us Brits have a sweet tooth and this was influencing a lot of sauce producers. Way too many held a high content of sugar &/or vinegar. Very few celebrated the chilli and failed to work with the flavour characteristics of the pepper(s) within. I wanted to taste chilli as well as heat as this is what I had grown to love about the US products. I was looking for a British version of CaJohn or Blair’s. I didn’t find one until I encountered a company called Mr. Vikki. This was a company that knew Indian spicing like no-one else! Full of flavour, balance & chilli flavour, I had found my diamond in the rough. However, their range was predominantly pickles & chutneys. I was still after a hot sauce so decided to keep making my own.

A few years ago, I set up The Chilli Alchemist. I could no longer let my passion for chilli remain a casual hobby so I decided to produce a range of sauces that I had previously been making for myself at home. It was a risk as the products I wanted to bring to the UK scene were different to many of those already established. To simplify the story, The Chilli Alchemist is still running, employing staff and bigger than ever. The UK’s demand & diversification has helped us remain successful. We supply worldwide and one of our regular category of customer is restaurants.

It’s near impossible to go to a UK restaurant now without seeing some sort of spicy offering on a menu. For years, I would take my own sauces to an establishment as the menu didn’t excite me however, these days I can (almost) safely leave home without them. Some restaurants offer chilli infused dishes that don’t really challenge the tongue with their heat levels but more & more are now offering scales of heat. In some cases, we now have ‘challenge’ dishes. Meals so hot that you have to sign a disclaimer to be served it & may win a prize if you finish it. It would seem that the novelty of such items has not waned, nor has the type pf person willing to attempt it!

Indian food has been commonplace in the UK for over 50 years. We’ve embraced it and one of the nation’s favourite dishes is an Indian influenced meal called a Tikka Masala. Again, the menus of these establishments have evolved. I remember visiting an Indian restaurant over 20 years ago only to be faced with a small range of dishes, the hottest being a Vindaloo. A vinegar & potato based dish that was not even of genuine Indian origin. These days, it’s not difficult to find hotter & more flavoursome dishes that use more than just the common Finger or Birds Eye chilli. The authentic naga jolokia chilli can often be found in dishes of many UK Indian restaurants and, in my opinion, that’s a very good thing!

Chilli is now so popular in the UK even the supermarkets are capitalising on its appeal. Some now have a range of chilli clothing & others offer a larger range of hot sauces. Major condiment manufactures have also jumped on the bandwagon & started to provide chilli-infused or chilli-based sauces (all be it cheap & low quality for the most part). Crisps (chips), pretzels, pizzas, fish, burgers, cheese, the list goes on. We are not short of a spicy hit no matter where we go. Compare this to a short 5 years ago, the progress is astounding. Long may it continue!

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