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Trees Can't Dance founder Dan May writes chilli cookbook

CHILLI-MAD Dan May is hoping cooks will warm to his new chilli cookbook devoted to the fiery flavour enhancers.

Dan May has a new cookbook out devoted to chillies

CHILLI-MAD Dan May is hoping cooks will warm to his new chilli cookbook devoted to the fiery flavour enhancers.

But far from appealing simply to die-hard chilli fans, Dan is hoping his Red Hot Chilli Cookbook will fire the imagination of all who like to cook.

The smart new hardback may at first glance look like it has niche appeal for those with a soft spot for the hot stuff, but Dan is a man on a mission to spread the love for chillies.

And he is not to be underestimated. He is, after all, the chap with the claim to fame for the most northerly chilli farm in the world, when he was based in the wilds of Northumberland in Coanwood.

The chilli guru’s new book, just published this week, is borne of his love of chillies and also a passion for cooking. The Trees Can’t Dance chilli sauce business he co-owns in Haltwhistle makes all the condiments.

Leafing through the book in a café in Newcastle with Dan, 43, sat opposite, it looks a colourful, accessible read with savoury and sweet recipes, both fiery and mild. It is an attractive looking tome full of enticing dishes and featuring sumptuous photography.

Dan, a father of four – including baby Monty, six weeks – has popped into town from home in Whitfield, near Allendale.

“It’s not a book for chilli fiends. It’s for anyone who enjoys cooking,” says Dan, who was brought up in the South West but has lived in the North East now for 23 years.

“They are all my own recipes. I’m not a massive obsessive about the heat, I just love the flavouring. That’s the point of the book. It’s the range that’s available.”

“People now are much more willing to experiment and try different dishes. It’s borne out now that Tesco even has a chilli buyer!”

In the book Dan shares his favourite recipes celebrating chillies in all their varieties and strengths. There’s an introduction on the history of chillies, how to grow them at home and how to identify the key varieties and what gives them their distinctive heat.

There are ideas for every kind of dish from Moroccan spiced lamb burgers to fruity African bean stew to chilli pecan brownies and the perfect Bloody Mary.

Dan May has led an extraordinary life so far, first as a musician, a roadie, then as a landscape photographer and now in the chilli sauce business.

The Trees Can’t Dance story began in 2005 when, against all conventional horticultural wisdom, Dan began growing chillies as a a hobby in the wilds of Northumberland.

The chillies grew surprisingly well and it wasn’t long before he started to produce his own chilli sauces using his home-grown ingredients.

Fast forward a few years and the venture has now moved on to a more commercial footing with a factory in Haltwhistle in Northumberland where TCD Foods lovingly produces myriad chilli condiments – sauces, marinades, pastes, chutneys and jams – for devotees of their products.

Dan is MD and part-owner of the company. Although he’s never stopped growing chillies, these days they are used more for development and market research purposes for Dan's personal use. “I'm growing about 30 different varieties and have about 600 to 1,000 plants in polytunnels at home. I'm still avid and fanatical about them. But it is entirely separate from the business.”

The factory makes about 25 products and they do third party work as well. Their sauces are used to add spice, heat and flavour to snacks and can be used to sass up marinades, dressings, sauces, soups, stir fries, curries and stews.

As well as selling locally through farm shops and delis, they also sell a few lines nationally in Sainsbury’s, including their new chipotle chilli paste, available from March 4, and three products in Tesco stores in the North as far down as Leeds. They export about 40% of what they make to mainly Europe and the Middle East.

Dan says most of the chillies for use in the factory are now bought in from two or three British wholesalers. “They bring them in and we buy stuff part processed.

“When we first started we grew them and made the products. But realistically we couldn’t supply the volume and there’s also the prices people were willing to pay.”

The factory’s now been up and running since January last year.

“We have gone from modest beginnings to having a small but decent-sized factory. It varies from week to week but we have between six and 11 people working there.”

Dan has recently moved house from near Haltwhistle to Whitfield with his wife Becky and their two children. His two older children, Freddie and Theo, are also frequent visitors.

At Whitfield they have a patch of land, over an acre in size, and plans to do up the walled garden and long-term to run chilli-themed foodie events at home.

Bringing out the cookbook has been a real labour of love for Dan.

“Cooking is a passion. It has grown from the cooking, the passion for cooking and the chillies.”

The love of chillies in turn grew from Dan’s former life as a landscape photographer when he worked in South America and Mexico. When he came back to the UK he just couldn’t get hold of the same chillies, so decided to grow them himself.

He adds: “The book is accessible. The majority of the recipes have been tested on my own family.

“The majority of them are fairly family-friendly, there are milder and lighter variations. A few years ago you couldn’t get the raw ingredients for some of the dishes and sauces.

“That’s why I started growing them. The range in the supermarkets has come on as well.

“With the recipes I have tried to provide different options as well.”

Six years on and the chilli sauces are making their mark, leaving a fiery brand.

Their mango and chilli marinade even won silver at The Grocer food and drink awards last year.

“Essentially we have gone from a regional product to a national product. This year we’re hoping to produce about half a million bottles of sauce, probably considerably more. It’s probably pushing a million.”

Not bad for something which started out as a hobby.

Red Hot Chilli Cookbook by Dan May with photography by Peter Cassidy is published by Ryland Peters & Small, priced at £16.99.


Taken from The Red Hot Chilli Cookbook

1 teaspoon mixed peppercorns

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon sea salt

200 g/61/2 oz. fresh mango flesh, diced (from one mango, about 300 g/10 oz.)

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

4 teaspoons sugar

1 small Habanero or other very hot chilli, very finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

handful of fresh coriander/cilantro, chopped

1-2 tablespoons olive oil, if required

4 large skinless free-range chicken breasts

pilaf rice, to serve

deep casserole dish

Serves 4

1. Toast the spices in a hot, dry frying pan over medium heat until the seeds start to pop. Grind them, together with the salt, using a pestle and mortar. Put the ground spices,mango, vinegar, sugar, chilli, garlic and coriander/cilantro into a food processor and blend for about 30 seconds, or until smooth. If required, loosen the marinade with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil.

2. Lightly score the chicken breasts with a sharp knife, place them into a deep bowl and cover with the marinade. Use your hands to rub the marinade well into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

This can be done first thing in the morning and left to marinate until the evening.

3. A few minutes before you are ready to start cooking, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) Gas 4.

4. Place the chicken and its marinade in the deep casserole dish, cover with foil and cook in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and return the chicken to the oven for a further 10 minutes, or until cooked through.

5. Serve on a bed of pilaf rice.

DAN’S TIP This marinade will also work very well with salmon fillets or even pork cutlets and can be cooked in the same way, adjusting your cooking time appropriately for your chosen ingredients.


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