I have passed the signs for West Dean Chilli Fiesta my entire life but I have never ventured in.
As a child I hated hot and spicey food and my Dad's chilli con carne was regularly too much for me to handle. But now, as I have begun to grow up, I adore these flavours in my meals, and myself and my partner have even begun growing our own chilli plants so that we can enjoy the variety of tastes and heats in any meal we wish.
So, now I'm a bit of a chilli grower (no expert by all means), I decided it was about time I ventured in to the West Dean Chilli Fiesta.
West Dean Chilli Fiesta is held in August at West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, near Chichester. Lucky for me it is only a 15 minute drive, but if it was further away, I would still go!
The three-day event receives a great deal of visitors and this year, the sunny Saturday broke previous records, with over 12,000 people checking out the stalls, music and demonstrations. The camping area also had to be extended for the increased demand.
Sunday's weather was wet but my partner and I risked the showers, and were pleased we did.
Immediately we were impressed with the amount of stalls to keep us busy. They spanned the front of West Dean House and then sprawled out to the right and up behind it into the gardens. Packed with chilli flavoured everything, we found an enormous array of chilli sauces and dips, plus chilli cheeses, chilli cider and ale. There were several stalls selling chilli seeds and plants, chilli inspired clothing, chilli candy floss and even some beautiful chilli earrings!
The variety of food was also impressive, with local sausages, burgers, Asian, Indian and 'Cosmic' vegetables. One of the local brewerys, Langhams, ran the bar with a huge choice of drinks, perfect for relaxing in the intermitant-sunshine and watching the various bands on the stage. I enjoyed a beautiful chicken noodle soup from the Vietnamese stall which took me straight back to my travels, sat in a little restaurant in Hoi An by the river. You can't beat food that brings back memories.
And then there's setting! With the magnificent West Dean House to one side and lush green hills and woodland on the other, it's easy to see how people can spend an entire day here and even the weekend! The mini festival offers weekend tickets with camping, which is perfect if you want to try all the delicious food - you can spread it out over the three days. You could eat something different everyday and noone could get bored of resting in the warm sunshine to funky music and a cold pint in their hand!
West Dean Gardens had their own stall of chilli plants, a good choice of tall, hot and colurful varieties. I had to buy one, and brought home a bright orange chilli, which looks amazing, but isn't quite as hot as I'd like. There were several other stalls selling chilli seeds, but I would liked to have seen more stalls with plants. It's much nicer to see varities fully grown than on a seed packet.
Although we didn't visit the demonstration tents, the weekend held a great variety of live cooking. BBC Celebrity Masterchef Quarter Finalist, Wayne Sleep, took to the stage with local food writer Rosemary Moon in the Cookery Theatre and guest chefs Jeremy Pang, Head Chef at the School of Wok and Nisha Katona, author of Curry in a Hurry gave demos.
I am sad I missed Sarah Wain, West Dean's Garden Supervisor and chilli expert, talk about growing chillies in the Victorian glasshouses. They grow 250 varieties - what an amazing site that must be!
West Dean Chilli Fiesta is a great day out, and if you can guarantee good weather (not always possible) it is a great mini festival for the whole family. Kids can be entertained with rides and music, parents can enjoy the food, drink and stalls, and chilli enthusiasts will love the huge choice of chilli flavours - especially the hot sauces. I found myself tasting one which was best for women and children, expecting a mild zing only to nearly have my tongue blown off! Thankfully, I found this refreshing and fruity smoothie to cool me down! (And it was from the Cosmic Caravan, with a recycled cup - winner!)
Overall a great day out, packed with delicious food, refreshing drinks and very tingling tongues! There's a lot of fiery sauces to be tried but how got can you go?
Rozie Apps is assitant editor at Permaculture magazine.
For information on West Dean Gardens visit www.westdean.org.uk