Rocoto – Capsicum pubescens

Rocoto is one of the most interesting chillies to grow. It doesn’t suit everyone’s circumstances as it takes a long time to mature, and the plants grow huge. On the plus side, they are quite tough, resistant to diseases, infections and pests, and they tolerate cold more than almost any other variety. I think that to look at, they are one of the most stunning of chillies. On the plant they look like apples, hanging from a very thin curly stem. They grow to the size of small apples too, and whether they are red, yellow or orange, they look equally as impressive. Be prepared to let the plants grow to their full size, which can be 2m across and 1.5m high. You do this by giving them as big a pot and as much space as you can, large tubs or drums are better than plant pots. If you live in a region with mild winters they will live for years, and grown in the ground, will grow even bigger and form large shrubby bushes.

Rocoto Red chilli

I don’t grow them every year, as they take up so much space, but I thought I’d give them a go this year and put some plants outside, always a gamble in the UK. They fruit more quickly in higher greenhouse temperatures, so I kept them inside for as long as I could, then the biggest plant was moved out of the greenhouse for July and August when it really got too big. It is in a big earthenware pot which gives it enough weight to stop it falling over and it has spread quite wide, probably 1.5m. When I moved it back into the greenhouse in September I pruned it to remove the longest stems. You don’t normally have to do this but it was that or leave it out in the cold.

It fruited well, and they developed nicely outdoors, even though the August weather wasn’t great. September was warm so it carried on prospering and the fruits started to ripen in October; this is from seeds planted at the beginning of March.

Rocoto Flower

Rocoto Flower

I also experimented with planting one outside in the vegetable patch. The hairy leaves and stems characteristic of Capsicum pubescens are a deterrent to slugs and snails so it has been largely untouched by pests. This is still looking healthy even at the end of October, and it is flowering well but it won’t bear ripe fruit I am sure. I will leave it there to see how it survives the winter.

Rocoto Green

One strange characteristic of the rocoto is its black seeds, which you instantly notice when you slice one open, this is quite natural. Be careful when chopping these, they are packed full of juice which seems to spray everywhere, all over your knife, hands, and chopping board, even in your eyes if you get too close.

Rocoto Red Sliced

I find the taste and heat of rocoto quite different to other chillies. If you eat a small piece the burn is instant, very fresh and permeates quickly, as though the capsaicin has been dissolved in alcohol which isnot a nice experience for me, a bit like taking a slug of chilli vodka. Even though these aren’t hugely hot, around 60,000 SHU, they seem to punch above their weight and I find an equivalent sized piece of habanero affects me more favourably, it burns my mouth, yes, but doesn’t overcome me so quickly.

Chilli Seeds

How long does it take for chilli seeds to germinate?

This is one of the most common questions novice growers ask; rarely are the answers detailed enough, and often they are misleading. The most common problem is when seed merchants give a very broad ballpark estimate of 2-6 weeks or something similar, covering their backs for any eventuality thereby mismanaging peoples expectations.

The reality is that most chilli seeds should germinate within 14 days, some of them much sooner. The quickest I have ever found are senor serrano, a modern commercial variety of serrano, in good conditions they will be emerging within 4 days. A lot of commercial jalapeno varieties aren’t far behind this, and I’d say the average is around 10 days across the board if conditions are perfect.

Chilli Seeds

The exceptions are often the super hot things, especially bhut jolokia and nagas, they are very erratic and often take longer, but again there are instances where they will pop up within 10 days or so, though this is less likely as they are more particular about moisture and temperature and it is more difficult to get things spot on. The more recent super hots, like Trinidad scorpions and Carolina reapers are less fussy.

The other exceptions, according to my non scientific experimentation is anything brown, by which I mean chocolate habanero, mulato, pasilla etc. There are many times where I deliberately set these to germinate next door to each other, or even in the same pot, and they have under-performed when compared to their standard relatives, e.g. mulato v ancho, or chocolate habanero v orange habanero. This is strange as ancho and habanero aren’t even the same species, but maybe the genetic variation that causes brown-ness also weakens germination, not for me to say without some proper tests.

Notwithstanding a dubious seed supply, or seed which has been poorly stored, if your seeds aren’t as quick as I have suggested above, then there is likely to be a problem with the way you are germinating them. Don’t despair, things will still happen, but be aware that your conditions probably aren’t perfect, so next time try something a bit different. You might have to buy a book to get all the details on what to do and what not to do :), at least now you know what you are aiming for.

Barra do Ribiero

This is a new one for me, this year is the first time I have grown it, but I’m really pleased. It is a Capsicum baccatum from Brazil so I assume it originates from the area of the same name. In appearance the plant looks very much like the more common aji limo/limon varieties with long bendy tough stems and small leaves. In a reasonable sized pot the plant grows to about 45cm high, and at least that in width once the fruit starts to weigh down the stems.

Barra do Ribiero, Brazillian chilli pepper

The taste is similar to an aji limon, sharp and citrussy, but the difference with this one is that the fruit is very fleshy and juicy, more reminiscent of a miniature rocoto. Although the whole thing is pretty hot, I’d say about 40,ooo SHU, you can easily slice off a piece of flesh for juicy munch without getting any heat at all. For this reason I think it is going to make a delicious sauce, the flesh should break down easily and you can control the heat by taking out the bitty seeds.

On top of this, Barra do Ribiero is beautiful to look at, each one is a firm and glossy heart shape. they start yellow, then go through a part purple stage before ripening to red. The first few I picked in early September, but the bulk weren’t ready till the end of that month,

Barra do Ribiero bowl 4 web

This was an easy one to grow, like most Capsicum baccatum varieties it is tough and resilient, I’d say it will toddle on into the winter in my greenhouse, still producing slowly, and should overwinter well. The seeds germinated easily, they came from Nicky’s Nursery. I have a good crop from 4 plants, and I’m going to have a go at everything with them, some I have dried, slicing them open first. Some I have frozen, and some I will make sauce with.

Barra do Ribiero Sliced close web

#chillibrani

Chillibrani Chilli Festival – Brno, Czech Republic

I thought it might be interesting to tell people about a recent visit I made to the Czech Republic and to their ‘Chillibrani’ Chilli Festival (Chillibrani means ‘chilli harvest’). I was invited by my publisher there as my Growing Chillies book has recently been translated into Czech, and we went along to the festival to have a look, deliver a talk and sign some books. If ever you find yourself in that part of the world, or fancy an easy and interesting weekend away this is well worth considering.

Jak Pestovat Chilli Booth

Jak Pestovat Chilli Booth

For those that have visited chillifestivals in the UK, nothing at Chillibrani will come as much of a surprise, but it is still a very worthwhile and rewarding festival. Many of the same traditions are seen there, lots of sauce makers offering tastings, various growing companies offering seeds, growing equipment, some fresh chillies for sale, music, beer, food and or course a chilli eating contest.

Chillibrani, Brno 2015

Chillibrani, Brno 2015

The festival was in the city of Brno, a couple of hours south of Prague; a very pleasant, cultured and laid back place. The Czechs are a little newer to the idea of chilli festivals than us. The popularity of growing chillies hasn’t quite reached the level that we have in the UK, but they are following the same timeline in the way it is developing, just a year or two behind us. I think because of that, this and one or two other chilli festivals (this one is in its second year) are enjoying patronage from all the various chilli businesses in Czech, as well as lots of visitors, while in the UK festivals have become so frequent that they are often somewhat under-attended with an incomplete set of exhibitors, and with some festivals looking a little empty because of it or not surviving at all. Not so in Czech, this festival had 4000 visitors, around 50 exhibitors, two stages, lots of interesting talks and demos along with a huge and vociferously supported chilli eating contest. The visitors were a real mix of people, not just hardened chilli heads, but also a lot of people who saw it as a good way of spending an afternoon in the sunshine eating and drinking.

Apart from chillies, there was plenty of good food, Indian, Czech, excellent burgers, cooked meats and plenty of beer. The beer there, needless to say, is fantastic; a few different brewery outlets offered a range of pilsner, lager, weissbier, and a couple of ales and stouts. All of these for sale for less than £1 for a half litre (don’t all rush at once, Brits have a reputation to shed in Czech Republic as far as anti-social beer drinking goes!).

The main difference I observed was in the chilli eating contest. There is a fundamental difference here which I think the Czech people need to learn, or maybe not, as it was quite entertaining. In the UK, and I think the USA too, the rules pretty much forbid the eating or drinking of anything other than the chillies put in front of you so that if you reach for yogurt/bread/water/beer or whatever, you are disqualified. In Czech, the competitors are given an equal amount of bread each, and I think 3 bottles of water. They can use this as they please until they run out, and only if they reach for yogurt are they disqualified. This makes for a very protracted event, with most of the competitors still completely happy up to round 6 or 8, which is well into the hotter habs and the super hot ones. With a lot of ceremony, winding up of the audience, interviews with competitors etc. between each round this shenanigans carried on for two hours and still there were a handful left of the 50 that started, all awaiting round 11, the 6.5 mil SHU extract sauce. At two hours I think competitors faces and digestive tracts were so numb that nothing could sort the men from the boys, or even the young girl, that remained in the line-up. So there was a round 12 and 13, each with increasing amounts of extract sauce, 30ml, 45ml, and each spoon with some roughly chopped Carolina Reaper or similar thrown in to give them something to chew on. At two hours and 10 minutes I think it was more about competitive bladder control than chilli eating and a few dropped out. Finally what separated the two remaining competitors was that one ran out of bread and water so with nothing to cleanse his palate he was off, leaving last year’s runner up the victor.

If you fancy a trip to Brno, it has a lovely city center with trams, cobbled streets, lovely architecture and a friendly selection of cafes and bars. If you go there don’t miss ‘the bones’ an ossuary under the main drag which holds the bones of 50,000 bodies exhumed from graves in the middle ages to save space in what was a walled city and stowed away in crypts, only to be sealed, lost, then rediscovered about 20 years ago.

Brno Czech Republic

Brno, Czech Republic

The chilli festival has a website http://www.chillibrani.cz/ This year (2015) it took place on Saturday 5th September and I think next year will be around that time too.

Sliced Cajun Belle Pepper

Cajun Belle

One of the varieties I have grown for the first time this year is Cajun Belle. I wanted a frying pepper, something that I could stuff or chop fairly freely into my cooking that gave a bit of heat, but also acted as a substitute for heat free bell peppers.

Cajun Belle Peppers

Cajun Belle Peppers

I sampled a few the other day, but today I did the first big pick off of 3 plants. I didn’t pick all of them, only the red ones and a few green. I’d say that currently there is an average of 25 full grown pods on each plant. That is pretty prolific as I’m going to get at least the same again before the year is out. Generally they are 6-8 cm long and 4 cm across so these are really heavy croppers. They look just like mini sweet peppers but quite thin walled and heat-wise they are probably about 3-4000 SHU.

The plants are generally upright and only about 60cm tall, so they are heavily laden with fruit by the time of the first pick and some of the stems need separate support.

Cajun Belle Green

Cajun Belle Green

So my verdict is these are a real winner if this is the type of chilli you want.

  • Quick and easy germination
  • heavy cropper
  • Seed to fruit (green) in 17 weeks (in average greenhouse conditions)
  • Tasty and with a bit of heat
  • Thin walled so the can be easily stuffed

The seeds came from Nicky’s Nursery I would dispute some of the stats on the description there, 61 days to fruit from seed is a bit of a tall order for any chilli. From ‘planting out’ as they say in the USA, maybe, but from seed, I don’t think so, that would have meant picking at the beginning of May for me, which I have never done with any chilli or pepper plant. That said, Cajun Belle is really prolific and I would definitely recommend them, and I will be growing them again next year.

Cajun Belle Chilli Open

Cajun Belle Chilli Open

Piri Piri

My Giant Piri Piri Plant

I have a soft spot for my Piri Piri plants.  I don’t grow everything every year, I  rotate other plants around and If I have a freezer full of something I might miss a year. It gives me a chance to try new varieties and keeps me interested but I will always have my Piri Piri. Partly this is because they are just the best for overwintering, and partly because they crop so amazingly in the second year.

Nobody sells the seed, my seeds come from my mother’s ‘mother plant’. She first collected the seeds about 20 years ago from a garden in Portugal, and has kept them growing ever since, she has a plant about 15 years old, though I have to say it is a bit ropy now. Because she keeps this one growing, and doesn’t grow anything else so the seed she collects is always true. If anyone wants seeds for a plant like mine I can give them some of hers.

As far as I’m concerned this is THE Piri Piri. There are lots of other chillies that look slightly different all over Africa (chillies were taken to Africa from South America by the Portuguese) that are given this name, but that is simply the name they give to a small hot red chilli, so while the name is the same, the chilli might vary. This is made worse by the fact that where chillies are grown for Piri Piri sauce, they tend to choose something that is quick growing and prolific, then brand it with the Piri Piri name afterwards.

Anyway, back to my plant, the one below is now 5ft (1.5m) tall, and it will get bigger by the end of this year. It is a second year overwintered plant, last year it got to about 4ft (1.2m).

Piri Piri Plant

My 5ft Piri Piri Plant

 

These are great for overwintering. They are much more tolerant to cold temperatures than most capsicums, they will die back to stems, but this spent a few months last winter in a cool greenhouse with temperatures down to 0°c on a couple of nights. Last winter was a very mild one though (South Devon). Normally I wouldn’t expect plants to survive in the greenhouse, and nothing else that I left in there did.

Also, if frost hits in the autumn this one will survive where others don’t. According to my experiments nothing else will out-survive it apart from the tepin or Chiltepin, which are even more hardy, but pretty useless as a fruiting plant. This one pays dividends everywhere.

Piri Piri Flower

Piri Piri Flower

After winter it lays dormant for longer compared to other types. When I keep other plants they tend to start shooting out very soon after midwinter, and by early February they are shooting nicely. Not with this Piri Piri; maybe because the stems are quite woody, and it is a slow growing plant anyway,  you have to have faith and wait a bit longer, but it will catch up and still fruit earlier than first-year plants.

the chillies you pick will be pretty hot, I recon about 80-100,000 SHU, and off a big plant like this one I am expecting hundreds of them. They will be used for everything, dried, powdered, sauced and pickled.

Piri Piri Green

Piri Piri Green

 

Piri Piri

Piri Piri

 

 

Jak Pestovat Chilli

Growing Chillies Book is now published in Czech language

 

Dobrá zpráva pro milovníky chilli. ‘Jak Pestovat Chilli’ Nyní v českých knižních obchodech.

I’m not sure if there are ever any readers of these pages who are speakers, or indeed readers, of Czech, but if you are then Growing Chillies Book, or should I say ‘Jak Pestovat Chilli’ is in a bookshop near you! Of course this is a bit of a catch 22, if you can read this, you may not need a Czech translation, but if you do, you can link to the details here –  www.pestujchilli.cz You can order it online or buy it through bookshops.

I will be visiting Czech Republic for the weekend of 5th & 6th September to do some book signing and talk at a chilli festival there; more details to follow soon.

Jak Pestovat Chilli

Growing Chillies Book, now translated into Czech

The Order of Greenfly

I have long been fascinated by the way greenfly will populate one type of chilli plant but not another, and while chilli plants are generally a tasty target, greenfly are happy to dig into one variety while another variety next door goes unscathed, at least for a while.

Some years I get very little in the way of greenfly, other years, like this one they are more of a challenge but even though they are pest, I still find them strangely fascinating. Their breeding cycle is weird, some are born with wings, some without, and some are even born pregnant.

So I have been observing their progress recently. A few weeks ago i noticed a few on my Chilhuacle negro plants, but not any of the others. Now they have spread a bit, firstly to bhut jolokias, but not Carolina reapers, then to some cajun belles, then to some aji, and yet the pimiento de Padron in-between remain untouched.

An entomologist once told me that that they tend to stick to one variety if they can and so in my greenhouse I dispensed with keeping plants of the same variety next to each other, now I alternate them, so that if one plant is infected with greenfly then they are less likely to jump onto the neighbours. Apparently they just get used to the sap of one plant, and their young will prefer to stay there. They still managed to spread from one chilhuacle to another, but it took a while, the fact that they were spread out bought me some time to squash them.

Anyone done any serious experimentation on this?

Aji Chilli Flower November

When will my chilli plants die?

I had set aside this morning to do a little bit of pruning on a handful of plants that I would like to over-winter. In my growing chillies book there is a section on keeping plants over the winter, what temperatures to keep them at, how to prune them and when. But it isn’t an exact science, and very dependent upon autumn temperatures, where you live and where you keep your plants.

Anyway, despite the fact that we are only 5 weeks away from Christmas, the plants I want to keep, which are still in a greenhouse, in south Devon, are all still healthy and don’t yet need any pruning. Having said that, the ones I am keeping are mostly ones that I know will do well, or that I know are worth investing a bit of time and warmth in. So I have a some aji plants, a nice big piri piri, and a whopping great moruga scorpion. There are a few others which have a bit of fruit to ripen, but things like jalapeno, most of my habaneros, pimiento de padron and a few others have mostly been consigned to the compost bin.

So my thoughts turned to which plants would die first if I left them as they are. Which are the most frost tolerant? And some people might be interested in an experiment we conducted at the chilli farm many years ago. With the help of the weather we achieved some fairly accurate and interesting results. In a polytunnel containing 100 varieties we didn’t do the usual autumn cleanup, which is the way it should be done, good garden hygiene, stop the spread of disease, bla bla bla; instead we left the plants in situ, and while the temperature dropped over successive days we observed the results. This was the first cold snap of the year, so to begin with all the plants still had most of their leaves.

As the temperature inside the tunnel dropped towards freezing the first plants to succumb were the tropical ones, Capsicum chinense the habaneros and scotch bonnets, they will lose all their leaves in a single night at 1 or 2°c.

The next night the temperature dropped lower, and hit zero for the first time. At this point the ones to go are the bigger Capsicum annuum big peppers and jalapenos, especially the newer more highly bred ones.

Another day went by and overnight the temperature had reached -1°c. Now looking along the beds it was really evident which ones were survivors and which ones had suffered, but the leafless plants were interspersed with quite a few that still retained their leaves. These were mostly the Capsicum baccatum, tougher leaves and stems, originating from Andean areas where frost tolerance would be an advantage. But also the piri piri, tabasco, and strangely the Prairie Fire were still lookiing good, so the Capsicum frutescens display a lot of frost hardiness too.

Yet another day, and another degree or two of frost, and the only survivor was the tepin, a scrubby bunch of twigs, tiny tough leaves, and a very poor fruiter, but this truly wild chilli out-lived the rest; in fact this very plant lived on for four more years, until a very cold winter brought temperatures of -10°c, and that was the end of it.

So what is to be learned from this? Whatever the ‘rules’ about plant pruning and overwinter temperatures there will always be exceptions. My favourite is the piri piri, always the most loved chillies in my collection. I have said this before, but my mother has the ‘mother plant’ it is the only one she keeps now, so the seed never crosses with anything else, and I always kick off more than I need every spring. There are a lot of varieties under the piri piri banner; this is a Portuguese one, from an old ladies garden, and about midsized as they go, up to about an inch long, and they are solid bullets.

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

Piri Piri in a Raised Bed, November

This picture of Piri Piri plants was taken on 12th November. It sits in a fairly sheltered south facing raised bed, which most importantly gives it good drainage so its roots aren’t sitting in claggy wet soil. The mild autumn temperatures this year do the rest, and it still flourishes albeit slowly, with ripe fruit, new fruit, and flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Greenhouse Piri Piri Chilli

Piri Piri in the Greenhouse, November

This plant is the same variety, but inside a greenhouse, it is still going great guns, and might even survive the whole winter at this rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aji Chilli Flower November

Aji Chilli Flower, November

I’m always interested to know what the real survivors are in the chilli world, so if you have any anecdotes or experiences, post them underneath for others to see.

Green Chilli and Green Bean Salad

Green Chilli and Green Bean Salad

Another recipe from ‘Cooking Chillies’ book. I made this probably for the last time in a while as I have picked what are probably the last of the dwarf beans from my greenhouse until the spring. There are still some green chillies to pick too, but the ones i used today were pre-skinned and came out of the freezer.

The thick flesh of the chillies, the filling beans and the avocado together with a mouth-watering dressing make this not just a side salad, but a hearty meal that stands on its own merits. Serve it while the beans and chillies are still slightly warm from steaming for the best flavours.

250g fresh dwarf French beans

3 large green chillies (New Mexico, Anaheim or Romano peppers)

1 avocado

1 large beef tomato, chopped

50g parmesan cheese, grated or crumbled

2 spring onions, finely chopped

1 small jalapeno chilli, finely chopped

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped

Juice of ½ a lime

1 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp salt

Grill the green chillies and remove the skins, stems and the seeds inside.

Prepare the dressing in a small bowl using the vinegar, oil, coriander, oregano and salt. Add the finely chopped spring onions and jalapeno.

Steam the beans until they start to go limp, normally around 4-6 minutes depending on how big they are. Cut the chillies into strips and just at the point the beans are starting to bend easily add the pepper strips and steam for another minute. Be careful not to steam the beans to the point where they start to lose their dark green colour and go pale. Transfer the beans and chilli strips to a serving bowl and leave to cool for a few minutes while you chop the avocado and tomato.

When the beans and chilli strips have stopped steaming, but while still slightly warm, stir in the parmesan, followed by the avocado, tomato and dressing.

Green Chilli and Green Bean Salad

Green Chilli and Green Bean Salad