Whatever the weather it’s going to be a hot weekend as the first ever North East Chilli Festival takes over the National Trust’s Seaton Delaval Hall for two days. SADIE PARKER finds out more.
MARK Deakin is in a sweat, but not because the first ever North East Chilli Festival he has helped organise is now upon us.
The festival being billed as this summer’s hottest event (and going on the weather so far no one is going to haul the team behind it over the proverbial coals for misrepresentation) is set to take place this weekend at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland.
Visitors – and thousands are expected to descend on the spectacular National Trust owned property that was Sir John Vanbrugh’s last great masterpiece – can expect a truly spicy experience with chilli tastings, chilli eating competitions, chilli stalls, chilli cakes, chilli beer, chilli ice cream, a chilli trail… you get the picture.
It has taken months of hard work by Mark, wife Shelley, and fellow organisers Ian and Simone Clarkin of the award-winning Mmm… delicatessen in Newcastle’s Grainger Market and the National Trust, to pull together this celebration of the world’s hottest foodie ingredient.
With just hours to go before the gates open, Mark is feeling very cool, calm and collected. The perspiration breaking out across his brow, however, would seem to contradict this seeming nonchalance.
It turns out it’s not nerves but what’s cooking in the kitchen of his home in New Hartley, Northumberland, that’s to blame. Bubbling away on the hob is a rather large pan of Naga chillies, one of the hottest varieties in the world.
Just cutting open this chilli to remove the seeds can reduce grown men to crying, sweating wrecks.
Mark is making up a batch of Kick Ass, a seriously hot sauce comprising Naga and Scotch Bonnet chillies, horseradish and mustard powder.
It has become one of the aptly named Hot Stuff Chilli Company’s best-sellers and will be tickling taste buds along with the likes of Extremely Naughty Ketchup, Hot Scotch Sauce and Heavenly Chilli and Cardamom Jam, this weekend.
Mark – a former nightclub promoter with a penchant for piquant food – and Shelley launched the business in March 2010, and it quickly hit a nerve with the public.
Demand for the fledgling firm’s range of dried spices, sauces, rubs, marinades and jams is such that it is not unusual to find the couple working into the small hours preparing, making and bottling their fiery concoctions.
It’s an indication of how tastes have changed. The British – and North Easterners especially – are becoming ‘heat geeks’.
Hence the inaugural North East Chilli Festival taking over Seaton Delaval Hall tomorrow and Sunday, an event the pleasure-seeking and scandalous Frank Delaval who inherited the estate in 1752 would no doubt approve of.
It’s the first event of its kind ever held in the region and promises to offer chilli fans and non-devotees alike the chance to taste some of the world’s fieriest food – if they dare.
Among the chillies being offered up for tasting will be the world’s current hottest, the scary sounding Trinidad ‘Moruga Scorpion,’ which as the name suggests has a real sting in its tail.
A host of iconic chilli producers have signed up including Chillipepper Pete from Brighton, regarded as one of the first chilli aficionados in the country; the Dartmoor Chilli Farm which grows more than 100 varieties on the edge of the National Park in Devon, and Mr Vikki’s, who from their base near Penrith in Cumbria make award-winning spiced chutneys, sauces and pickles.
Hot Stuff Chilli Company, Spicy Monkey, Trees Can’t Dance and Crazy Freds will be among the local contingent making up more than 60 stalls including the likes of Doddington Dairy and the Brownie Bar who will also be going chilli crazy over the weekend.
“One of our stipulations is that everyone involved has to use chillies in their products,” Ian says. “So the Brownie Bar will be making chilli cakes and Doddington are bringing along a chilli ice cream.”
Jackie Kearney, a top four MasterChef finalist from the 2011 series who now runs a Manchester-based company called The Hungry Gheko, will be bringing her unique Asian and vegetarian street food to the festival.
And Newcastle-based microbrewer Ken Oliver of The Beer Making Machine has even developed a chilli ale for the event and will be bringing along his mobile brewery for the weekend to show the crowds how it was done.
Plenty is promised for non-chilli lovers too. There will be live jazz, blues and soul music, children’s activities, an international food marquee, walks, a bar run by Wylam Brewery and on the Sunday a Gospel Brunch with a 24-piece choir serenading festival-goers.
Thousands of people are expected to attend – a free to use double-decker Routemaster red London bus has been organised to ferry visitors from Whitley Bay Metro Station to the venue on both days – with organisers confident the weekend will put the North East firmly on the UK chilli map.
Large-scale chilli festivals are held in other regions, but Mark says the North East has been missing out – until now.
“I can guarantee there has never been anything like this in the North East. But it really seems to have captured people’s imagination and it is our hope that the North East Chilli Festival will become an annual family event for the region.”
Ian adds: “The whole chilli culture has become much more sophisticated. A decade or so ago it was just about blokes being macho and wanting to show off by eating the hottest curry. Now there is a much better understanding of how chillies can be used in cooking and what they can do for you.”
One of which is that eating chillies can give you a legal ‘high’. The reason is that when capsaicin – the active ingredient in chilli peppers – hits your tongue tiny nerve centres known as neurotransmitters hit the ‘panic’ alert button direct to the brain which causes you to start salivating. Your nose will run, your eyes will water and you will break into a sweat.
This will in turn encourage your body to release a powerful natural painkiller giving you a sense of euphoria.
Simone and Ian at Mmm… have been long-time supporters of local producers and are also one of the region’s premier suppliers of fresh and dried chillies from gentle Kashmiri to smoky chipotle and even fiery Nagas.
Simone says: “We are constantly amazed at the variety of great handmade food being made in the region and across the UK.
“We are on a mission to get people to really appreciate the time, effort and care these producers put into their food – and really taste the difference. ”
It’s a stance the National Trust has long championed itself. Alison Forbes, events coordinator for the National Trust at Seaton Delaval Hall, says: “It is Trust policy to use local, seasonal produce in its tea rooms and restaurants wherever possible.
“Here at Seaton Delaval Hall we are committed to encouraging people to support local, sustainable food and to this end are bringing the walled garden back to life and now have 18 community allotments.
“We see food as being very much a part of visitors’ experience and the North East Chilli Festival is an extension of this. It promises to be a great way to engage people and we hope it will inspire everyone who attends to choose local and even have a go at growing their own!”
Seaton Delaval Hall, The Avenue, Seaton Sluice, Northumberland, NE26 4QR, 0191 237 9100, www.nationaltrust.org.uk
The North East Chilli Festival is on July 7-8 at Seaton Delaval Hall, 11am-5pm. Tickets per day cost: adults, £7; children under 14, free; children over 14, £3; concession and National Trust members, £3.50. For all details visit www.chillifest-ne.co.uk
Social media users can also follow @chillifest_ne on Twitter or www.facebook.com/northeastchillifest