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North East Chilli Festival is hot stuff

The brains behind the North East Chilli Festival, Mark and Shelley Deakin, are the region’s hottest food couple in more ways than one, as Jane Hall reveals

Mark and Shelley Deakin of Hot Stuff Chilli Co
Mark and Shelley Deakin of Hot Stuff Chilli Co

Whatever the weather has in store for this weekend, it’s guaranteed to be a scorching one at Seaton Delaval Hall.

That’s not a Met Office prediction, however. That’s the less scientific but in this case undoubtedly accurate forecast of Mark Deakin.

When it comes to delivering blisteringly precise prophecies of this kind, the 46-year-old is in a class all of his own.

Along with wife Shelley, Mark runs the Hot Stuff Chilli Company, which exploded on to the local food scene in early 2010 and has become well known for its range of sizzling sauces, rubs and marinades.

The couple who live in New Hartley, Northumberland, in a cottage overlooking what was Hartley Colliery – scene of the notorious 1862 pit disaster which killed 204 men and boys – are also the organisers of one of the region’s newest foodie events, the North East Chilli Festival.

The spicy two-day experience is set for its second outing tomorrow and Sunday. Once again set against the picturesque backdrop of the National Trust’s historic Seaton Delaval Hall just a handful of miles from Mark and Shelley’s home, last year’s event attracted more than 12,000 visitors.

This year’s salute to the world’s fieriest foods is expected to entice even more chilli fans and non-devotees alike with, Mark says, ticket sales 300% up on 2012.

It looks like the chilli festival which will this year boast nearly 70 producer and food-on-the-go stalls as well as musical entertainment from the likes of the Kentucky Cow Tippers and The Bugalu Foundation alongside DJ sessions, has turned into the hottest culinary ticket in town.

Among the local names taking part are Spicy Monkey, Kitty’s Ginger Wine, Boulevard, Mr J Ro’s, Mr Vikki’s, Riley’s Fish Shack and Yellow Fields. From further afield will be the famous Dartmoor Chilli Farm, Chilli Pepper Pete and Hot Headz.

Not all the producers specialise in chillies but they will still be going chilli-crazy over the weekend.

Mark admits he and his 42-year-old wife are feeling somewhat “pressurised” to deliver a red-hot event this weekend.

Last year's North East Chilli Festival
Last year's North East Chilli Festival

While excited the chilli festival is making a welcome return to the North’s burgeoning calendar of artisan food happenings, Mark says following the event’s hugely successful inaugural outing “there is a lot more stress in that so many people are looking forward to it and there is a real pressure to deliver a weekend that is better in every way than last year”.

“People absolutely loved it last year and if you look at things like Twitter there is a real buzz about it this year too. Tickets for this year’s event went on sale in November and from the minute they became available people were buying them.

“It shows the enthusiasm there is out there for the event, but you are always aware that you can’t stand still and that on behalf of both the traders and the visitors you have to deliver.

“We’ve got more producers and more top class entertainment, which is worth the admission fee in   itself but yeah, things have been cranking up.

“But Shelley and I both enjoy putting on events and we like the fact that people like the chilli festival. It is rewarding.”

It’s just as well as life on the food festival front is about to get even more demanding for the couple, who met when they both worked as club promoters (Mark initially in Sheffield where he hails from and Shelley in Newcastle where she managed some of the city’s most famous nightspots, including Foundation).

They have set up a separate company to present and promote a new tranche of Proper Food and Drink Festivals. The first one will take place on August 31-September 1 in Northumberland Square, North Shields, when around 100 producers from across the region, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Scotland are expected to gather to showcase the best artisan foods and drinks around.

This will be followed next May with a three-day Proper Food and Drink Festival in Bents Park, South Shields, with the aim that both events will hopefully become an annual addition to the region’s food fair circuit.

And in August 2014 Mark and Shelley are collaborating on the Lakes Chilli Festival in Cumbria.

They hope to hold at least four big artisan food festivals next year.

The pair believe the North East public is hungry for such events and as producers themselves with the Hot Stuff Chilli Company they want to give their contemporaries more opportunities to trade in what has, of late, been a tough economic climate.

The idea is to hold the food festivals in public spaces where there isn’t usually an admission charge and in areas that wouldn’t normally have access to this kind of event.

“It’s about bringing something really good to a place that doesn’t normally get anything like this. We want to be able to give people the opportunity to trade at a good event and give the public the chance to discover the wealth of food that is out there,” Mark says.

Shelly and Mark Deakin from New Hartley
Shelly and Mark Deakin from New Hartley

“The region’s local food scene is getting so much better. There are new and interesting things coming along all the time.

“There are some very good quality producers and food-on-the-go businesses. You look at somebody like Wheatberry doing its gluten-free food that looks fantastic or Marlish Water or the Northumberland Tea Company. All of them are new companies that are part of a thriving food scene.

“Our view is that it can only get better and by putting on these events we are going to help ensure it happens, that people are inspired to source their food locally and that the small producers are viable.”

The North Shields event aims to sell ‘proper food to proper people,’ which may at first glance seem a patronising tag line.

But there is a poignant story behind the phrase, as Mark explains.

“When we first got into the whole food thing it coincided with Shelley’s dad becoming ill. He always used to say about North Shields that it was home to ‘proper people,’ by which he meant they were the salt of the earth.

“So when we thought we were going to do the North Shields festival we decided on ‘proper food for proper people’. It is an expression that is personal to us and also sums up what we are doing – holding a good and honest food event.”

Mark and Shelley see their latest venture as like their “club nights but for older people” populated by “cool traders and cool people who like eating, drinking and entertainment”.

“It is just the same in some respects as the club nights, but with a different age group,” they add.

“We do still have a foot in the clubbing scene, but we are too old to do it all the time! That’s the sort of person we are appealing to. It is a laugh. The food business is now very different to how it once was.

“There are a lot of interesting people doing lots of different and often whacky things. Being part of the business, we are constantly meeting new people who have great stories to tell.”

As do the Deakins. The Hot Stuff Chilli Company was borne out of Mark’s desire to recreate a particular spicy chilli sauce he had enjoyed in Sheffield but couldn’t find on Tyneside.

He tried replicating it in his domestic kitchen and thus the Hot Stuff Chilli Company was born.

Their comprehensive range, which comes with a side order of humour (Hot Scotch Sauce or Kick Ass Extreme anyone?), is now available online, in the Fenwick food hall in Newcastle and at food festivals.

Fans will be pleased to know that the Hot Stuff Chilli Company is set to grow alongside the food festivals.

“I think that is one of the reasons why local traders trust us to pull off the food festivals, because we are a local trader ourselves,” Mark says.

For the moment, however, all the Deakins’ energies are being concentrated on this weekend’s explosive North East Chilli Festival.

“The backdrop is fantastic and we can promise a great weekend with more than just chillies on the menu,” Mark predicts.

The North East Chilli Festival is tomorrow and Sunday at Seaton Delaval Hall, The Avenue, Seaton Sluice, Northumberland, NE26 4QR. There will be no visitor parking at the hall for the event but a free park and ride is in operation from Seaton Sluice. Please follow the signs.

Tickets cost £7 on the door or £4 for National Trust members if bought in advance. Price includes admission to Seaton Delaval Hall’s grounds and gardens but not the house.

 For more information go to www.chillifest-ne.co.uk , while for the food festivals go to www.properfoodanddrinkfestivals.co.uk


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