Judging West Dean Gardens from its smooth green lawns and classic South Downs view across some 6,000 acres of sheep-grazed estate, you'd imagine its head gardeners would be thoroughly genteel. But Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, the couple who have run the place together since 1991, have slightly different ideas. "Jim has the largest collection of Mariachi albums in private hands," Wain observes wryly, and this Tarantino-esque taste in hot music (and the couple's taste for even hotter food) finds an outlet once a year in West Dean's Chilli Fiesta, this year running next weekend.
The Latitude festival of the horticultural world, the Chilli Fiesta is now an English summer institution of its own, but it began back in 1995 as a very select affair. "The first year we expected about 400 people and 2,000 turned up," recalls Wain. Her and Buckland's inimitable mix of music, booze and garden expertise gave the event its cult reputation. These days, even if it drizzles, around 15,000 people will make the journey to this perfect, sleepy spot tucked in among the chalky hills, to carouse, dance and try their luck with the hottest peppers Britain can produce.
"Grown men with tattoos, wearing singlets," laughs Wain, "breaking out into terrible sweats, sitting around and crying." But not just grown men. You see children dancing to salsa music, Women's Institute members looking for something to spice up their jams, and expert chilli growers who have travelled the world trying the produce from Thailand to Tijuana. Thompson & Morgan, the seed growers, are intimately involved, and the greenhouses at West Dean are already groaning with 300 different varieties – some supplied by famous seedhouses, others arriving in simple labelled envelopes from fellow enthusiasts.
One favourite with the crowd (which necessitates the institution of a one-way system through the glasshouses) is the evil-sounding Naga Jolokia, or to put it more plainly, the California Death Pepper, which recently beat out Red Savina to make it into the Guinness World Records as the world's hottest chilli. But there's also the adorable Sweet Wrinkled Old Man, or the vivid-red Whippet's Tail to admire – with every plant carefully labelled by Wain in her beautiful flowery writing.
A hundred stall-holders, plants for sale, cookery demonstrations, food tastings, and, er, belly dancing, all add to the mix. It's one volunteer gardener, though, who stops me, keen to get across his experience. "Seeing the crowds, seeing everybody enjoying themselves, the buzz the chillis generate – it's just amazing." n
Chilli Fiesta, 8-9 August, 10.30am-5pm, £7.25 for adults, £3.25 for kids, www.west dean.org.uk/gardens/chillifiesta.html
Choice chillis by Sarah Wain
Hungarian Hot Wax
"A great one to start with: easy to germinate, productive, looks glorious. You really will get your money's worth. You can cook it so many ways, even stuff and grill it."
£2.29 for 150 seeds, www.seedsofitaly.com
"For the more experienced. This has fruity overtones, but with a real kick at the end. It goes well with curried fruit, or dairy – amazing in a mango ice-cream."From £1.40 to £4.95, www.nickys-nursery.co.uk
"For these fussier varieties, you need patience on the germination, and a heated propagator with a thermostat so you can turn down the heat once they start growing." 15 seeds of "Thai Dragon" for £2.49, www.thompson-morgan.comReuse content