Event Review: Chilli Fiesta 2011, West Dean, Chichester

I am a complete baby when it comes to all things spicy.

I love a subtle kick to my food, but the emphasis is definitely on the ‘subtle’. Our time living in Asia was marked by the daily struggle of trying to find something – anything – that wasn’t too hot for me to handle, and I quickly got used to mean tricks being played on me by the locals, who thought my inability to tolerate more than a modest level of chilli a hugely entertaining daily diversion.

This issue became even more problematic when I realised that I was possibly the worst person in the world to review the annual Chilli Fiesta.

The Chilli Fiesta is a yearly extravaganza based in West Dean, near Chichester. Since its inception in 1995, this amazing three-day event has increasingly become a total foodie mecca, with over three hundred different chillies and peppers on display, including the world’s hottest chilli – the California Death Pepper, or ‘Naga Jolokia’. Argh!

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? And, thankfully for me, the gorgeous Nathalie Clough stepped into the breach and agreed to review 2011’s Chilli Fiesta in West Dean, Chichester for The Daily Home.  Trust me, its better all round.

‘The forecast for this year’s Chilli Fiesta was warm with the prospect of some sun (much to my delight as it had been horrible all week). I happily dressed in my finest shorts and summery top in preparation for some rays, but as I arrived at the festival it quickly became apparent that the good old BBC was wrong again, and that I was almost certainly going to freeze.

Never having been to the festival before, I was unsure what to expect. I suppose I imagined a lot of chilli plants and table after table of chilli sauce! To a certain extent this was what we got, but as we arrived it became apparent that the emphasis was also on a variety of homemade chilli-based produce and individual food stalls.

Now, I love my food, and for this reason I love food festivals, as it gives me the opportunity to quite happily toddle from stall to stall eating food all day.

However, in this case I must be perfectly honest: I was a little disappointed by the lack of number of stalls and opportunity to try small portions of different foods.

It seemed to be more focused on large meals which, for me, took a lot of the fun out of the tasting aspect because clearly stomach capacity and budgetary constraints mean that eating fifteen different main courses was never going to be an option.

We eventually found (after wondering around for what seemed, to my empty stomach, far too long) a small stall, with a rather excellent family set-up: a lady, whom I assumed to be the mother, cooking on a stall in the back, and the father and son fending off the hordes of people at the front.

This family enterprise sold eight different curries and a few battered accompaniments. After inhaling two very spicy curries, my tummy was partly content and I went on the hunt for more.

The stalls to the back of the festival were more successful in my opinion; there were several different stalls selling chocolate-covered chilies and wrapped up cookies that would make lovely gifts, as well as jams, chutneys and sauces.

This was much more along the lines of what I had been looking for, and I spent a long time contentedly waddling around this area soaking up the atmosphere and doing some shopping.

By this point I was beginning to resemble a slightly maniac kid in a sweet shop.

Happily, for those of you who actually have kids, there were several things for kids to do if their small stomachs were unable to tolerate the chilli, such as balloon stalls and a very popular face-painting stand.

I fully entered into the spirit of things, and queued up at the face painting stall! However, after spending ten minutes waiting for a moustache to be painted onto my face I finally gave up and wondered off to find some plants.

The plant selection at the festival, in my mind, was where they really began to excel. There was an absolutely huge selection of different chilli and pepper plants, and a great amount of very knowledgeable and friendly stallholders.

However, knowing my ability to kill a plant by just looking at it, I settled on a small (though apparently very deadly and hot) purple flowered one, which the gentleman running the stall assured me would grow into several large chillies, despite my lack of gardening prowess. We shall see.

Although the rain did try its best to ruin my day, I came away with a very full stomach, a large plant and numerous goodies in my arms and very happy with my first experience of a chilli festival.

However, one word of caution: the boys in my group were a little less happy upon leaving, having succumbed to the typical ‘I can eat the hottest chilli in the world’ fever.

This particular chilli was so strong it was recommended only to be used in cooking, and in very small doses. Needless to say, there were more than a few very sore stomachs in our party by the end of the festival!

All in all, the Chilli Fiesta was a fun day out, and – if the weather is fine – would be a really interesting and unusual trip especially for families, as it is one of those rare places where there is just as much for adults to do as there is for children.

If they would just focus a bit on attracting some more small producers to add a bit of variety to the food offerings, it would be a perfect day out.’

Next year’s Chilli Fiesta will take place on the 27 – 29 July 2012. For details, see @westdeanejf on Twitter, and West Dean College and Gardens  on Facebook.

Do you have any questions you’d like answered? Ever wondered how to make a bed properly, how to cook easy bread from scratch, how to make the perfect cake, how to get tough stains out easily and quickly? My friends, I am rubbish at many things but due to a strange addiction to Mrs Beeton in my early teens and a very accomplished group of friends and family, I have access to a fairly sizeable amount of domestic knowledge. Test me – send me your domestic conundrums and we will see what we can do!


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