The Weasel

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A peppery paroxysm is sweeping the country, as I discovered the other day at a "Chilli Fiesta" held at West Dean Gardens in West Sussex. Instead of the handful of gastronomes which the organisers anticipated, a small army of 2,500 fiery food fans trudged through the sweltering glasshouses to marvel at the 70-odd varieties of chilli which flourish there. We gazed in sweaty wonder at majestic Corno di Toro, exotic Peruvian Purple, scalding Jingle Bells, saucily named Ring of Fire and tiny, incandescent Tabasco peppers. As with the human species, the smaller ones tend to be the most assertive. Apparently, half of Britain's peppers are grown nearby, on a former RAF base at Tangmere. Before long, the Sussex Downs could become a UK version of Santa Fe, each doorway decorated with a garland of cayenne pods, every lane echoing to the blare of a mariachi band. Across the Atlantic, the chilli, chili or chile (there is no definitive spelling) has become big business. Spin-offs range from The Whole Chile Pepper magazine to Crazy Ed's Original Chili Beer, which received a big thumbs up when sampled by the Weasel household.

But before embarking on a gastronomic tour of these piquant pods, it pays to know your peppers. Though they may sound much the same to the anglophone ear, there is a marked difference between the genial jalapeno and the mind-blowing habanero. In literary terms, it is like comparing Mr Fezziwig with Vlad the Impaler. Measured in Scoville units (the Richter Scale of chilli heat), the jalapeno averages around 3,000 - it adds an interesting tang to mango ice-cream. The take-no-prisoners habanero, on the other hand, clocks up a rating of 200,000-300,000 units. Apparently, the physiological effect of chomping on one of those phosphoric little berries is akin to running a marathon.

All this, of course, endows the habanero with an irresistible appeal, particularly to the more hairy-chested (of both sexes). Trading on this machismo, American pepper sauces have some of the least appealing names of any food product. Those determined on taste-bud suicide can choose between BBQ Sauce From Hell ("Beyond HOT"), Ass-Kicking Salsa ("Kick Yo' Ass Hot!") and Hog's Breath Hot Sauce ("Hog's Breath is better than no breath at all"). But the last word goes to a distressing ketchup known simply as Death. Actually, it's not quite the ultimate - there's an even hotter brand called Beyond Death.

According to one theory, what we really enjoy are the endorphins (natural pain-killers) produced by the body as a defence mechanism. Another boffin believes that chilli lovers are "mouth surfers" who experience a drug- like "rush" from the pain. A chilli-addicted pal of mine takes this to an extreme. He's a fidgety sort of cove and, inevitably, during the preparation of a meal, he accidentally wipes his pepper-smeared fingers against a delicate portion of his anatomy. Once, I had to hold his head under the kitchen tap while he was making jamabalaya. Recently, he performed such an entertaining dance that I took it as part of the ritual associated with Goanese Fish Curry. But the anatomical region he inflamed after making Louisiana Spiced Chicken has no place in a family column.

There's no law that a name should have to mean anything. Still, I somehow felt myself to have been diddled, short-changed and generally treated as an out-of-town rube when I discovered that the name Haagen-Dazs was a pure invention, umlaut and all - the coinage of a gang of marketing wallahs charged with the task of coming up with an appellation that simply suggested "cold", with a possible top-spin of "over-priced".

Similarly, a box of scented tissues carrying the grand moniker of "Bloomsbury & Tate" lost a little of its metropolitan elan when I flipped it over and discovered that the maker was actually "Goulds (D&M) Ltd, Sefton Street, Heywood." Furthermore, at least going by the London phone book, there is no such surname as Bloomsbury. But I suppose there's no reason why Goulds (D&M) shouldn't name their fragrant wipes after a couple of vaguely upmarket place-names.

They may well adduce the parallel case of Thames & Hudson, an unimpeachably worthy publishing house, which, though it appears to immortalise a couple of bookish entrepreneurs, was named after the major waterways of London and New York. Since the company also has offices in Paris, it should really be Thames, Hudson & Seine - though that might be giving the game away.

However, the name which really sticks in my craw is the Renault Megane. Not that there is anything particularly terrible about the word - it is just as pointless and banal as any other car name. (I read somewhere that virtually every town name in Italy has been registered by Japanese manufacturers.) No, what gets my chevre and gives me sleepless nights are the screamingly annoying TV adverts featuring a laddish, garrulous automobile and the twee, endlessly repeated tag-line that the Megane "speaks your language".

Oh yeah? Well, in that case, it seems not unreasonable to inquire what language is this weird word "Megane"? I looked it up in my French dictionary. Pas d'une saucise. Likewise Italian, German, Spanish... and I'll bet you a trailer-load of thalers that it doesn't exist in Maori, Ainu, Tagalog or the click language of the Khoikhoi. It finally came to me that Megane is simply a French (more probably Breton) female name, sister to the Renault Cleo. All well and good - but, in that case, why has the car been given a male voice?

In case you're not already aware, lips will be purple this autumn. Not because of a nasty cold front, silly, but by decree of the beauty industry. Fashion hackettes have been put in a bit of a tiz by the unfortunate name chosen by Givenchy for its new range of plum tones. On this side of the Channel, the word "Prunelle" carries connotations of wrinkles and, ahem, regularity. In French, it has a whole slew of meanings, including sloe, pupil and apple (of the eye) - along with being a feminine pun on plum (prune). It is worth remarking that over there, the prune (pruneau) is regarded as a major beneficence of nature - and, to be sure, no laughing matter. The sun-tanned plum is a mainstay of the southern economy and a vital ingredient in many classic dishes. Holidaymakers who have made the long trek to the south-west of France, along l'Autoroute des Deux Mers, may recall a unique roadside museum which simultaneously celebrates the twin passions of the region: prunes and rugby. As with many other unlikely marriages, it might be remarked that the two deserve one another.

The news that the stars of MTV's first feature film, Joe's Apartment, are three Manhattan cockroaches serves as a useful reminder of the fact that New York is not so much a burgh of eight million citizens but a city of eight trillion bugs. No matter how grand one's surroundings are in the Big Apple, you always know that your closest neighbour will be equipped with a stylish pair of antennae.

For a while, I lived in a brand-new block near Central Park which was infested with the things. Goodness knows how they arrived - probably in the builders' lunch-boxes. While by no means delighted by their company, I did enjoy one element of life with the roaches. To get rid of them, you have to invest in "The Roach Motel". Its famous slogan might equally have suited the Bates Motel in Psycho: "They check in, but they don't check out"

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