Firing up our taste for the hot stuff

TIM CRONSHAW
Last updated 08:05 27/12/2012
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FAIRFAX NZ
Most Kiwis can barely handle a jalapeno pepper. But Troy Matthews likes his chillies up to 200 times hotter, reports Tim Cronshaw .

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If the ultimate in machismo rests on who can eat the hottest chilli pepper, then Troy Matthews will take some beating.

The Ohoka, Canterbury, chilli and capsicum grower has them in his salads, sandwiches, vodka, chocolate and in his icecream.

Capsicums don't rank on the Scoville rating - the accepted measurement for chilli heat - but the same cannot be said for a couple of fire-breathing chilli varieties that Matthews is growing.

One of them is the yellow seven pod, while the pick of them all in the heat stakes is the aptly named scorpion chilli. How hot? Hot enough to blow your socks off.

The true test will come soon when the trinidad scorpion ripens. Only a small row is being grown for an Auckland business producing a hot sauce.

Matthews prides himself on his ability to stomach the hotter chillies, but will bypass the earlier ripening yellow seven pod.

"I want to eat the yellow seven pod, but will wait for the next one which is the scorpion because if I end up in hospital I will never eat it."

The average Kiwi struggles to keep down the wimpy jalapeno - a miserly 5000 to 40,000 on the Scoville scale.

Other commercial varieties found in supermarkets, such as fireflame are 2000 to 5000, hot wax 5000 to 10,000 and serrano 5000 to 23,000.

Chilli aficionados will down habanero at 100,000 to 300,000 or scotch bonnet at 150,000 to 300,000. These are grown by Matthews, but they are no match for the fiery yellow seven pod - the size of a small fist with a punch of 1.2 million Scoville units or the trinidad scorpion at two million units.

The substance that makes a chilli so hot is called capsaicin and in its purest form it is at 15 million to 16 million units - hotter than police pepper sprays.

To date the hottest chilli to touch Matthews' lips has been a naga pepper at one million units.

"I have only eaten one of them and I thought that was the worst thing in my life. I had to hold it down and stop myself from vomiting, otherwise it would burn on the way back up."

As with most Kiwis, Matthews was a reluctant chilli eater at the start and his mother, Marion, who runs the Chilli and Capsicum Company with him in a 3000 square metre greenhouse, and his wife, Lisa, rarely touch them.

"I remember Mum made a chilli con carne and I don't know why people ate it, because I hated it. Now if I'm with a mate I will really fire it up. It will be hot for me and really hot for him."

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A favoured trick by Matthews, 30, is to test his mates in the greenhouse. To ensure he doesn't come off second best he will pick an unripe chilli which has yet to reach full heat. Then the friend will be challenged to repeat the feat with a mature pepper.

Another trick is to eat the milder tip of the chilli. This is because the pith and the seeds are near the heat source of the oil.

Matthews has read that regular consumption of the hottest chillies can destroy the palate, but points to their health benefits. He swears chillies help him get over colds quickly and clear the nasal passage.

"I figure if I grow them, then I should at least be able to eat them."

Oddly enough, he has found chillies don't necessarily rate highly as man food.

At farmers markets women might try a habanero and ask for a hotter chilli, while the men remain silent.

The heat is not reserved to chilli peppers. On a hot, nor'wester day the thermometer rises to 42 degrees in the Matthews' greenhouse and higher temperatures have been recorded.

A singlet-clad Matthews seems oblivious to the heat and humidity. His mother, in contrast, prefers the cool hum of the fan in the nearby office.

Inside, the temperature is regulated by a thermostat with roof vents opening and closing to the changing weather patterns.

The greenhouse was built by Matthews' grandfather, Gerrit Vantveen, initially to grow flowers. But flowers proved a hard sell and they moved to capsicums.

Matthews was a school leaver in 2000 when he came to the growing operation, intending to be there for a short duration. He now co-owns the business.

"I left school to become a mechanic and asked grandad if I could work for a few months to pay for my costs, and he wouldn't let me leave," he says with a smile.

He says his late grandfather - Opa - taught him how to work.

Matthews heard that someone was prepared to sell the Chilli Company label and it was bought by his grandfather.

That was six years ago and they have been growing chillies since.

"There was a guy growing chillies and he pulled out when the land was worth more to him selling it, and it's the new Countdown at Rangiora. So we took over the label. In the first couple of years we struggled and we are still struggling today. Financially that's the case, but we know what we are doing now."

Chillies provide a nice balance to their greenhouse production. More growers were taking on the milder capsicums and the Matthews saw a market opening for chillies.

Capsicums still form the bulk of the business, with 8500 plants bedded into small sawdust-filled bags and 2000 bags in chillies.

The capsicums produce about 20 kilograms a square metre at five kilograms a plant year-round.

They were planted with the chillies in the first week of August and will be harvested for nine months until they are pulled out in June. After a maintenance lay-off of a few months the cycle will begin again.

The Matthews are careful to release only enough chillies as needed by the market. This sometimes leads them to tipping them into the compost and taking the hit on their picking costs.

"There is only a certain market and we don't want to flood it, and it looks like we will throw some out this week. There's no point selling it for below the cost of production."

From hard experience they have learnt if they oversupply the market, prices come down and it takes a long time before retailers bring the price back up. There is also the competition to consider, with two other commercial chilli growers in Canterbury.

Matthews says the most popular chillies for New Zealand dining tables are jalapenos and fireflame.

"They are a mild chilli, but to New Zealanders they would be hot.

"We do fireflames, which is a mild one, and that's the one most of the supermarkets sell.

"I will eat two or three of those a day easily."

The plants, in small bags of sawdust, are fed hydroponically with water and nutrients 12 times a day automatically. On a hot summer's day a pepper plant can consume one litre of water, which is supplied by a well on site.

Capsicums are trained up strings and have side shoots pinched out. This encourages them to grow upright and towards the light, keeping the picking paths clear.

Chilli bushes are grown in nets, and receive a trim only if they stray onto the paths.

Spraying is limited with the Matthews preferring to use biocontrol agents, rather than lean too heavily on insecticides.

The hothouse operation sits on four hectares of family land surrounded by hazelnuts.

The labour-intensive pepper growing means the nuts drop to the ground, but they would like them to pay their way one day.

Matthews usually starts at 6am with the work day including dropping off peppers to wholesalers. A couple of part- time staff help with the harvesting.

Over the past three weeks two tonnes of capsicums have been picked each week. The chillies are in full production at the moment and 400kg of chillies have come off the bushes.

Fresh chillies can reach $20/kg, but the painstaking work of picking 3-4kg of chillies an hour compared with 150kg of capsicums must be factored into their seemingly high price.

Packaged chillies go to wholesalers for the supermarket trade and are sold by the Matthews at Kaiapoi and Oxford markets, as well as to a few restaurants.

This side of the business has been slow, as many Christchurch businesses were wrecked during the February earthquake.

If the entire greenhouse was in chillies, they could probably supply the entire New Zealand fresh market and some of Australia.

They cannot compete with cheaper imports from China in the frozen market or in dried chillies, so restrict their selling to fresh produce.

Recently, Marion has been transforming chillies into sauces and jams for the Riccarton market.

Matthews says they are always looking for new outlets to increase their profit margin.

Fairfax NZ

- Taranaki Daily News

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