The science bit
Small shrub with robust stems up to 1.5m tall. Leaves alternately arranged or paired. Flowers hanging down (pendulous), dull-white or sometimes tinged green; anthers blue-pale-purple, occasionally yellow. Fruits two- or three-chambered, shiny, pungent berries; red-brown to cream in colour when ripe. Pollinated by bees.
- Chilli peppers originated in the Americas and Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them when he was in the Caribbean. He called them peppers because of their spicy hot taste.
- The spicy heat of chilli peppers is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), indicating the amount of capsaicin present in the fruit. Capsaicin is a chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings in the skin, especially in the mouth and eyes. Our hottest chilli at Eden – the Dorset Naga – measures 1.6 million units!
- Like tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco, chillies are members of the nightshade family and come in some weird and wonderful shapes.
- There are three groups of chilli:
- Habanero-type chillies: Habaneros can range in heat from very mild to mega-hot. They have a wonderful fruity aroma that adds a distinctive flavour to salsas and chilli sauces.
- Vegetable-type chillies: These are relatively large-fruited with thick flesh and tend to be milder than the other types. They play the same culinary role as sweet peppers and the great stuffed or chopped in salads, stews, stir-fries and omelettes.
- Spice-type chillies: These are generally small-fruited and thin fleshed and hotter than vegetable type chillies. They are used to add heat dishes rather than bulk and are ideal for drying and milling into powdered spice. Many varieties make great edible ornamentals.
Where it grows
Native to tropical America, chillies are widely cultivated and thrive in moist soils and sunlight.
When chillies were introduced into Europe they were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. The monks experimented with them in the kitchen and found they could use them as a substitute for black peppercorns which at the time were so expensive they were used as legal currency!
- Anther: appendage on the stamen that contains pollen.