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Chilli Blog

Alex de Wit

A Burning Desire

31/08/2012

In the early 16th Century, the Dutch arrived in Indonesia to secure spice and pepper trade for Europe. With the subsequent large numbers of Indonesians immigrating to Holland, trade and cultural sharing flourished. Now, Indonesian spices are everywhere in Holland, and the Dutch have a taste for chilli. In the year 2000, a Dutch couple, Marcel and Connie De Wit were living and running a restaurant named Joel’s in Avoca Beach, Australia. During that September, looking to make some extra money, they went to the Flora Festival in Gosford. Armed with chilli sauces they had made from left over cooking supplies in the restaurant, they set up a stall. Selling out on the first day, they rushed home that night and cooked up a fresh batch. This continued every day of the four day festival. The seed was planted, and from it the Chilli Factory grew.

Neil Smith, owner of The Hippy Seed Company and self-proclaimed chilli nut has been experimenting with new and different growing techniques since 1998. Famous for his online chilli tests on YouTube, Neil has got his hands on, grown and eaten an impressive variety of chillies. In early 2010, a new specimen found its way to Neil Smith’s plate. From the small island of Trinidad off the Venezuelan coast, the Butch T. Trinidad Scorpion had travelled to New South Wales’ Central Coast. Neil, after eating the chilli, thought it was hotter than any he had eaten yet and passed the seeds on to Marcel. Seed sowing seasons came around, so the team at Chilli Factory set out to grow their new fruit. Between 800 and 1200 chillies were planted that year, to be harvested in early 2011. Taking a few samples from the crop, they sent them to a laboratory Melbourne for a Scoville scale rating.

The Scoville scale is the measure of spicy heat or pungency of a chilli pepper. It ranges between zero and 15-16 million. This represents the level of capsaicin, the active ingredient in chillies, with above 15 million being pure capsaicin. The Guinness world record holding world’s hottest chilli, the Naga Viper comes in at 1 382 118 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a Habanero closer to 300 000 SHU and a Jalepeño at 10 000 SHU. Marcel and his company received the results of their chilli, 1 463 700 SHU.

The results have been sent off to Guinness and they’re now waiting on a reply. Alex De Wit, brother of Marcel and co-director of the Chilli Factory left his career in IT years ago to join his brother. “It’s been massive”, he said, his Dutch accent strong as we looked over The Chilli Factory’s stand at the Royal Easter Show. “Absolutely massive, we’ve been swamped here, inundated with orders all over the world for Scorpion Strike”, the sauce Marcel cooked up from the T. Scorpions.

Chillies have been harvested and used for centuries all around the world in food, medicine and horticulture. Modern uses include law enforcement and public control. The burning sensation of capsaicin is the chilli’s defence mechanism against mammals. Eating by grinding their molars together, mammalian mastication destroys the chilli seeds. Birds however, unaffected by capsaicin, are free to eat the chillies. Having beaks rather than teeth, they leave the seeds intact and ready to sow where they fall. As in so many cases through history, even with nature pushing them away, mankind was not willing to give up on a good thing.

When you eat capsaicin, your metabolism speeds up and your body reacts to the burning sensation as though it is a real burn. Blood is rushed to the area, endorphins and adrenalines are released for the pain. When a lot of capsaicin is eaten, the burning is sometimes followed by euphoria, light headedness and slight loss of balance due to the endorphins. This chilli rush has been studied for its medicinal uses, with results varying from prostate cancer treatment to flu prevention and weight loss. There is evidence that chillies are anti-microbial, anti-fungal and according to research conducted in The University of Tasmania, are an aid to better sleep.

The reasons behind some of chilli’s culture based uses often go unnoticed. Many countries that use a lot of chilli are around the equator, hot and humid. Chilli inspires the body to sweat and cool down, acting as a natural air conditioner. The same countries often have high carbohydrate and fatty diets. Chilli, speeding up the metabolism, helps balance this out. However, research into using chillies for weight loss has been inconclusive. Capsaicin has also been linked to controlling and reducing stomach ulcers. One of the main causes, the H. Pylori bacteria, often found in contaminated water and foods, has its growth inhibited by capsaicin. Developing and underdeveloped countries have much higher rates of H. Pylori infection and, in a symbiotic relationship, often have much higher capsaicin intake. Even with health, food and education standards on the rise throughout the world, finding these natural remedies that have been used for centuries gives us a greater appreciation of the natural world.

Modern life has called for new adaptations of capsaicin. Its irritant quality is used with law enforcement, in the army and as a pest deterrent in horticulture. Law enforcement and army grade pepper sprays have a SHU rating of up to 5 300 000 units. Over three times that of the T. Scorpion. It is also found in topical ointments for localised pain relief. This works by overwhelming the nerves with capsaicin. Exhausted of the chemical used to transmit messages to the brain, no pain is felt for a period of time. This use of capsaicin with horses led to it being listed as a banned substance from equestrian events.

“For me, since I’ve been eating more chillies, I never get the flu!” Alex De Wit said, “I get a blocked nose, but then I eat lots of chilli with garlic and ginger, and it kills the flu!” With 300% more vitamin C than an orange, the chilli is more than just the capsaicin. “Most people that eat lots of chillies are very happy, smiley people!” Maybe it’s the endorphins, or relief that the burn of the Trinidad Scorpion is wearing off, it’s hard not to agree with the Dutchman.  

Mark Peacock is the horticulturalist behind the Chilli Factory. A graduate of the University of Sydney, with a B. Horticultural Science, he wrote his honours thesis on the genetic heritage of the Bhut and Bih Jolokai chillies. Teamed up with the De Wit’s, combined passion and knowledge have resulted in the world’s new hottest chilli. As the amount of capsaicin developed is affected by the plant’s health, Mark’s knowledge about conditions and fertilisers has helped the chillies to grow to their full genetic potential. The SHU rating of Bhut Jolokai that he grew in NSW was higher than those recorded for the Guinness world record!

In ideal growing conditions, the Chilli can be grown as a perennial, fruiting year after year. But it is more common around the world due to seasonal change that they’re grown as annuals. Mark leads the growing in farms in and around the NSW Central Coast. His worm juice, a key ingredient in maximising the pungency of the peppers, fertilises the plant’s growth and strengthens its defences. The old wives’ tale of talking your plants into health rings true. The more love given to them, the bigger, healthier and hotter the chillies.

The Solanaceae plant family, to which chillies belong, is steeped in myth and tradition. Other plants of note in the family are Belladonna, Datura, Brugmansia, Nicotiana,  and Solanum. More common names are Deadly Nightshade, Devils Trumpet, Angel’s Trumpet, Tobacco and of course, the infamous Potato and Tomato. These plants, Solanums aside, are a collection of the most feared and revered natural psycho-active substances in the world. Defined by medicine as deliriants, the tropane alkaloids that develop in the plants have played a big part in traditional Central and South American spiritual practices. The imbibing of teas brewed from the leaves, flowers and roots of the Datura and Brugmansia induces deep trances and visions. Traditional cultures used it for spiritual guidance and leadership. Modern day has led to new uses in recreation and as an alternate practice for stress relief. Tobacco, one of the world’s largest economies and killers, needs no explanation.

On the opposite side of uses, still shrouded in myth and belief, is the Wolfberry. Also a Solanaceae member, marketed under the title Goji Berry, we’ve seen the spread of this plant family’s mythology into new age religions and naturopathic medicine. Walking through my local organic marketplace, the Goji Berry is as much at home as the organic, handmade pumpkin pie. With limited peer reviewed evidence on its medicinal effectiveness, a further perpetuation of the Solanaceae mythology is underway.

The Chilli, not left behind by its fellow Solanaceae members, has a mythology of its own. Traditional use includ as a deterrent of evil spirits, counter-magical, and a spiritual protector, it’s also been an aphrodisiac and a measure of a man’s masculinity and sexual potency. As with many Solanaceae, The Chilli’s origins are in South and Central America. In Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, he claims that in Mexico, wild chillies were being eaten as early as 7000BCE, and cultivated from before 3500BCE. The rest of the world had to wait until between 1490 and 1500CE when the Spanish and Portuguese came back from the continent with spices to trade. Once out of the Americas, the chilli spread and became popular all around the globe. Snapped up all through Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, it was absorbed into cultures and cuisines to the extent that some culinary origins are now little known. The vindaloo curry for example, a famous and hot Indian dish. First developed in the region of Goa at one of the main Portuguese ports, it began as an interpretation of the Portuguese dish Carne de Vinha d’Alhos. Chinese food from the Sichuan province is well known for its spiciness. First developed in the early second century, they traded with the Portuguese for new spices and chilli only 200-250 years ago. Before this, Sichuan cuisine was mild and often sweet.

The chilli has permeated every aspect of modern society’s lifestyle and eating. Now, there are very few dishes left where chilli isn’t an option. Having all happened since 1500CE, its rapid spread through the world is a point of interest. Why has it been so accepted, in so many contexts, and adapted to each one so well that we don’t notice it as alien? What is it about the burn that is so addictive? And why are there people out there, striving to make them hotter, and hotter again?

“It’s the next best thing,” said Alex de Wit, “People are always look for the next best thing. A faster car, better computers. It’s the same with chillies, you wanna be number one! We wanna beat the record.” Sure, someone else might find or develop a new chilli that will beat the T. Scorpion. Just as the De Wit’s have done to the B. Jolokai. But is that the issue here? It’s not about who’s on top, but who’s fighting to get there. The search for what can be the next best thing. Without this drive, and people like the De Wits, what a cold world we would live in.

Thomas Ainsworth

Saturday, 28 May 2011 10:45 AM

Hello Alex,

How are you? Hope everything is going well!!

Here's the article, finished and polished as much as I could before it was due. Still haven't got a good title for it haha you guys took the best one already, 'setting the world on fire'!

Hope you like it, and thank you so much for helping me out with it!! 

Best regards, 

Tom

Thanks for sharing this with us Tom, nuch appreciated...

Alex de Wit

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