Gardening: Hot stuff from Dorset

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The Independent Online
They're exotic, hot and colourful. And now they're available by post from Dorset. Chilli peppers are thriving near the south coast of England, as Kirsty Fergusson found out.

A pair of leg-length bottle gourds stand upright, each encased in a green wellington boot, at the entrance to the Michauds' poly-tunnelled market garden. There is more humour than intentional metaphor here, but the vegetable legs make a fine - if slightly surreal - emblem for a diverse and colourful assembly of vegetables on the move.

On a windy hillside overlooking the Dorset coast, Michael and Joy Michaud grow nearly 200 varieties of exotic, little-known vegetables. Not all are produced for commercial reasons; some are grown for experiment, or to satisfy Michael's curiosity and provide material for the book he is writing on unusual vegetables.

Inside the poly tunnels, out of the wind, more than a dozen varieties of chilli peppers and aubergines are cropping in colours that would make even a Benetton catalogue look a little dull. Rows and rows of shiny scarlet, orange, purple, yellow, brown, lime and deep red fruits are waiting to be picked and sent by mail order to adventurous kitchens all over the country.

The peppers have an almost unbelievable look of perfection, as though they have escaped from the pages of a well illustrated children's book. This shiny perfection is all the harder to believe when you learn that they are grown organically.

Infestations of aphids are treated by hand-washing the thousand or more plants before releasing natural predators to snap up the survivors, and fruits are harvested early in the stages of ripening, before the slugs and snails get interested. But then the Michauds are no strangers to the rigours of organic gardening: Michael Michaud is an inspector for the Soil Association and Joy is editor of New Farmer & Grower, the quarterly magazine for organic market gardeners and farmers.

Michael Michaud is an American, who spent his student years at the University of Texas, which is to say that he grew up with the knowledge that chilli peppers are a fully integrated part of any red-blooded American's diet. He is now working hard to educate the British palate to the subtleties of chilli-based recipes.

"There is so much more to chilli peppers than heat and macho contests to see how much you can take." (He speaks with the kind of vigorous passion more usually associated with the chilli-eating nations). "Most people just don't realise how much diversity there is in chillies: some are sweet enough to add to fruit salads; others have the subtle effect of binding the flavours of the other ingredients together."

Both Joy and Michael have PhDs in agronomy, and worked for several years after their marriage at the University of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. They left in 1989, having bought 15 acres of land in West Bexington overlooking the Chesil Beach, just a few weeks before a hurricane devastated St Croix where they had been living.

Joy's parents have gardened and farmed organically at West Bexington since 1960 and the Michauds' arrival confirmed the growing reputation of organic producers in this windswept corner of Dorset.

Having gained organic certification, the Michauds started selling their produce in local markets. But it was dispiriting work, competing against non-organic farmers with hundreds of acres.

Moreover, they found they were having to produce vegetables - cauliflowers, sprouts and potatoes - about which they felt pretty unenthusiastic. The Michauds, remembering the Caribbean markets they had left behind, yearned for more colour and greater diversity in their crops, so they opted to sell directly to specialist shops and restaurants which were not averse to colourful and unusual vegetables. The mail-order chilli pepper service, begun in 1996, proved a natural extension of this market.

Poblanos, habaneros, jalapenos, Hungarian hot wax, cayennes and serrenos: Michael's aim is to make these exotic-sounding names as familiar to British kitchens as, say, Maris Pipers or King Edwards. And Joy is keen to point out that exotic names do not imply that an extravagant amount of time need be spent in preparation; recipes for classic (and innovative) chilli dishes (chilli corn bread, salsa verde, chillies rellenos ) accompany each dispatch of peppers. "We know we're selling mainly to working couples who don't have the time for elaborate preparations," she says.

The Michauds do not save seeds from the peppers they grow. Pepper seeds are relatively cheap, and home-saved seed (as with pumpkins and squashes) will often not come true to the parent plant, or will prove more susceptible to viruses.

Seeds are sown as early as December or January to ensure that fruiting starts in good time - June or July - and continues as long as possible. Much depends upon the severity of the first frosts, but chillies can usually be sent out until the end of November. Chilli seeds are slow to germinate at temperatures of less than 80F; Michael reckons that many people sow too late, at too low a temperature to produce successfully fruiting plants.

Slugs and snails are a permanent threat to the seedling plants, which are best kept off the ground, on staging, during the early weeks.

The Michauds transplant into the ground when the plants are about 10in high, giving them support from taut lengths of twine attached to the cross bars of the poly-tunnels. Hoses, with outlets for each plant, run the length of the rows, covered by black plastic, which helps the soil to retain moisture and has the added benefit of suppressing weeds.

Adventurous cooks are not the only enthusiasts for the Michauds' chilli peppers. Artists and flower arrangers find the glossy fruits irresistible, too; a stem of Hungarian hot wax chillies may have 10 or more yellow, orange and red finger-shaped fruits (depending on the maturity) showing through the light green foliage. And the Thai hot peppers - sprays of tiny, deep red chillies, no more than half an inch long, showing up as brightly as holly berries amongst tiny dark green leaves - look like tightly furled buds of a miniature azalea about to burst into flower. Taste them at your peril.

Peppers by Post, Sea Spring Farm, West Bexington, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 9DD (01308 897892)

Anna Pavord is on holiday