The Chilli Alchemist – Dec. ’15

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It’s that time of year again when we chilliheads may have to feign a little poise and gratitude. You know it’s coming…that day when you are handed something which you look upon & have to make a quick adjustment to your face to bring on a smile and utter the words ‘thank you’.  I’m talking about being given a chilli-themed gift for Christmas!

Now, I like to think that I’m not an ungrateful person, and the very fact that someone has thought about me & been kind enough to buy me a gift is superb.  However, if I were given the option, I wouldn’t mind something a little different sometimes. I love trying new hot sauces or chilli infused foods and these gifts are often great to receive. The themed paraphernalia is where I struggle. Whether it’s a tie, a piece of clothing, an ornament, utensil or anything else, I’m just not that keen. Every day I work with chillies & I eat them in some form. I enjoy growing them, discussing them, trying them & making sauces for a living, but I don’t feel the need to saturate my home with a glut of themed inanimate objects.  If I’m honest, I have to admit to having been given some awful shirts with garish chilli prints on them & I’ve either passed them on to good will or used them for dirty work/decorating.  I’m grateful for the thought, but I do feel the need to draw a line.

This Christmas, I fully expect to receive another batch of chilli gifts, (assuming I’m not on Santa’s naughty list), and once again, I may have to feign a little excitement, astonishment & pleasure. This isn’t something restricted to Christmas either as my birthday can often reap the same results. I guess the problem is, (if you can consider another person’s generosity a problem), that chilli is still a little niche, especially here in the UK. Therefore, I wonder whether my friends & relatives chance upon a chilli themed item & jump at the chance to buy it for me as they know I like the hot fruits? I think about what I know about my friends & whether I’d act the same way if I saw something related to one of their interests.  There are variables of course.  For example, how well do I know the person?  How late have I left it to buy a gift?  After all, I am a guy & it’s my duty to shop for everyone I am buying for in one store at 5pm on Christmas Eve!  Personally, I like to buy gifts I think people might like, but are also a little unexpected. It’s a gamble but I like to steer away from the obvious sometimes.

As a hot sauce producer, I also get gifts throughout the year. However, these ‘gifts’ can be dangerous. I was trading at a big UK chilli festival earlier this year when a chap came along with bag. He reached in, pulled out an unmarked jar, placed it on my stand with a thud & demanded “Try this!”.

“What is it?” I asked with trepidation.
“It’s my own recipe & my wife makes it for me. It’s hot but delicious.” Was the eager reply.

As many hot sauce producers know, you can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients in a pan, add it to a jar/bottle & consider it to be a safe product. We have to consider pH levels, sterilization, cooking temperatures, boiling times and much more. Rather than just pop open the jar & try this amateur product, I asked a number of questions first to help me gauge the potential risk to my health. I asked for the ingredients and how it was made. The answers given seemed reasonable so, although still filled with a little uncertainty, I agreed to try the sauce. I had a colleague with me who was also willing to try so we each reached for a wooden tasting stick. I popped open the jar & took a sniff. The product smelled reasonable – slightly spiced with a little acidity & sweetness on the nose. My colleague Dave dipped his taster stick first. I was about to do the same when I noticed bubbles appearing in the oil on the surface. I then noticed that the sauce was rising out of the jar unaided!

“Dave! Don’t eat it!” I yelled as I turned to see him swallow the contents of his mouth!
“What’s wrong?!” asked the chap whose confidence was about to take a hit.
“I believe that this sauce is experiencing bacterial fermentation. It’s not safe to eat and Dave may soon be experiencing an upset stomach.”
“But it was made safely & you know the ingredients inside.”

I had made an error.  I had forgotten to ask whether the jar & lid had been sterilized in any way.  I should have known better as the jar had clearly been used for another product previously.  I also didn’t consider all the ingredients & the acidity ratio.  Some of the ingredients inside were known to raise pH levels.

“I’m so sorry, but I can’t try this product sir, and I would suggest that you don’t eat it either for your own safety.”

The chap looked at me with hurt puppy dog eyes, and then did the one thing that almost any married man would do, he blamed his wife!  Unfortunately for my colleague Dave, his stomach did have to deal with the effects of swallowing this unsafe product, and not to be too graphic, he did have to say goodbye to his underwear later that day!

I now have a policy not to try any amateur sauces when presented to me.  Whether it’s judging an amateur sauce competition or trying a bespoke product at my stall, I have to politely decline.  Unfortunately, this policy does seem to cause offense although it’s never meant.  I’ve seen too many people suffer from such products & I don’t want to be one of them.  Again, as many sauce producers know, you can’t be in a kitchen for a few days if you have been suffering from sickness & diarrhea.  If I get ill, I am unable to produce.
As lovely as it is to receive gifts from people, if anyone wants to give me something non-chilli related, I won’t be ungrateful.  In fact, just buy me a beer or Fallout 4 for PS4!

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