Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Trial & Error
Hello, Shipmates. My name is Liam. Founder of Spice Island Chilli.
My #HotOnHistory feature aims to bring you a selection of stories and pictures from the Spice Island Chilli archive that will hopefully offer an insight into how my voyage started and my experiences along the way. I'll also include in later posts the occasional clipping of the actual factual history that continues to encompass the inspiration behind my range of popular chilli condiments.
Firstly, You should know that I'm no chef or saucier. Far from it. I leave that sort of thing to my way more educated and capable friends. I'm just me. Experimenter, Over thinker, Persevere'er. Chilli lover. Always taking the long way home in search of new experience and information.
Please note; Anything you may read here is purely personal opinion and is predicated on my own trial, error, persistence, results. retention and a pinch of personal development. My ongoing caveat throughout is best presented in the words of Baz Luhrmann from his song, Everybody's free.
.....the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.....
I'm far from alone on this journey. There is a plethora of small batch, artisan chilli sauce producers in the UK and globally that all do an amazingly successful job of getting stuck in and contribute their pebbles to the mainstream. They tirelessly work and experiment with our beloved peppers and each brings their own unique methods, practices and new approaches to creating the next beautiful blend. An established and growing community that I'm proud to be a part of.
Whilst on this subject it's impossible to forget the chilli farmers and home growers who keep us all supplied with the fiery fruit through their love for the capsicum and hardworking horticultural efforts. Additionally, who can overlook the fresh chilli pod eaters, competitive or otherwise, that keep us all at the top of our game. You know who you are and I doff my cap to you, you gorgeous nutcases.
And so, we all set sail.
The year is 2015....
At this point in time I had no expectations other than to try and create a hot chilli sauce that didn't taste awful. I couldn't really find a chilli sauce in the supermarkets that suited both my preferred taste and heat levels. They just weren't doing it for me. So I thought it might be fun to try my hand at creating my own and to build a small stock pile of chilli sauce for personal use. Prepared to fail, I began to experiment.
My decision making process when tasting chilli sauces is based on nothing more than a simple focus on the synaptic triggers that exist somewhere between my tongue and the happy place in my brain. Which has, in the main, never let me down. Think similarly to the pensively thoughtful faces and descriptive language used in wine tasting and then dial down the flamboyancy.
This is my, not so unique, way of tasting and determining a sauce's balance of flavours whilst simultaneously determining the flavour-to-heat profiles that result from the combination of ingredients used and the varieties of chilli peppers chosen. The only slightly more unique element to this, is that these decisions, happy or sad, have to happen before my mouth is hit by the impending tsunami of capsaicin that eventually kicks in and overwhelms the taste buds. Fun when working with the super hots, I can tell you!
It's these factors and big glug of gut instinct that have served me well thus far. Although you may rightly ask, "So what's this all based on then?" - Or asked another way, "In your opinion, Liam, what constitutes an awful tasting hot sauce?" I'm glad you asked.
My answer has three parts.
1) Too much vinegar.
- Firstly, I absolutely love vinegar. All vinegars. From the fruit balsamics to the Jerez sherry, the list is vast. Bit weird I know, but I've not found a vinegar variety that I couldn't down in one like a sambuca shot. Straight, no mixer. However, when it comes to making chilli sauces too much vinegar is fundamentally wrong. Yes, it's required for stability and some kick ass acidity flavour but as much as I love vinegar, making chilli sauce is a team game. No one likes it cheap and dilute. It's incredibly important to concentrate on the sum of all parts.
2) Chilli extract.
- Don't get me wrong, I'm glad chilli extract exists in the world and it's a more interesting place because of it. You'll know what I mean if you've ever seen someone's face after they've eaten chilli extract. But sadly, 16 million scovilles can't be achieved naturally so there is an inevitable synthetic taste that comes with the territory. Therefore, when making chilli sauces, it's just not for me. However, I have tasted extract many times, sauced and pure, much to my own peril, and there are some amazing concoctions out there that still challenge even the chilli hardcore. Extract's primary uses, in my opinion. sit with those with very, very high 'heat' tolerance. Those nutters that can't scratch the itch with anything less. All said, I do recommend you try an extract at least once just to see for yourself but don't say I didn't warn you. It's not pleasurable.
- Before breathalysers were introduced the police used to test for drunk drivers by asking them to walk in a straight line. If they couldn't, showing clear and wobbly signs of breaking the law, they were arrested. Similarly, if a chilli sauce doesn't have a basic grasp of keeping its flavours and also its 'flavour-to-heat balance' in an orderly line then it should be cast away to the depths of the pissed sauce prison. I'm not saying those that fail early should give up, much the contrary. It's just that rather than inflicting an imbalanced, bad and wonky flavoured sauce on anyone, more practice is required . Nail the flavours first and the heat can be added afterwards. Too often have I tasted clearly the reverse approach.
To give you an insight of how I realised all of the above I feel I should to show you where I started and that my own voyage into the chilli sauce world started from scratch. I armed myself with nothing more than the rudimentary tools required to get from fruit to bottle via a few burnt eyeballs and gave it a crack.
The following pictures are of one of my first planned home cooks. There may well have been a cook attempt before this one, however, this is the first one in which I'd attempted, in a semi-organised fashion, to weigh, measure and record down in a little notebook the method and results of whatever the hell it was I was trying to achieve.
I was also growing chillies at this time but unfortunately the results were pretty poor (I'll discuss my plant growing experiences in a later post). So I had to buy my chillies in larger volumes for the cooking. I'd always throw in some of chillies that I'd managed to yield from my plants, just for good measure, but the volumes I required were hard to produce consistently from the domestic window sill. It's also worth noting that during the times these photos were taken there were no branding ideas and I was still blissfully unaware of the joys of bottle labelling, scaling and other general logistics. Certainly any thoughts on my concoctions becoming a 'business' in any way was the stuff of a mad man's dreams.
What you'll see in the pictures below is what would eventually become Centurion 1744. My first born. My vintage. My flagship hot sauce. Although, for the record, I'd never choose a favourite child.
This was the trial stage. Which it should be also be noted was swiftly and regularly followed up by a fair bit of error.
Spice Island Chilli - Hot On History - Trial & Error (Circa 2015)
The Scotchies are in!
I'm sure all chilli sauce producers would agree, the scotch bonnet is the workhorse of the chilli world and a great place to cut your teeth when starting to cook. Due to my horticultural skills requiring some work, I'd cheat and pick up the best looking scotch bonnets I could get hold of.
My local spice shop, Akram Stores, would sell me the whole box rather than just pick and pay. These were high volumes back in those days.
I tended to just run 1 kilo cooks at a time to allow me to tweak recipes between cooks without burning through 5 kilos in one go. The pots and hobs couldn't manage much more than 1 kilo cooks at a time anyway!
Start as you mean to go on.
Washing obviously formed an important part of the 'cooking line'.
Once washed I'd move the peppers across to chopping ready for blending.
I love seeing these little ones bobbing about before they met their maker and were subsequently preserved for weeks to come.
I'd throw in a few different varieties to certain cooks just to see how it affected taste and colour, etc. I was doing at least three trial cooks a week at that point. Taking notes after each one and adapting the recipes in certain ways so I was prepped ahead of the next cook, which was never far behind.
I had to be quick as I didn't want the peppers to start perishing. Fridge space was at a premium.
As you can see, I didn't over do it on the additional ingredients. In the early days I kept things basic to keep a track of what I was doing. I didn't dive in with the more challenging blends until much later.
At the scotch bonnet level the fruitiness of the peppers and the heat is fairly overpowering so I steadily increased or decreased the other ingredient levels until they reached thresholds that complimented the flavour of the bonnets.
Before you ask... To this day I still use Mum's cat mug to measure out when doing new product development at home. Old faithful. Although the handle has broken off now... :-(
Blending. Well that was a lesson all of its own. This particular model was an Anthony Worrall-Tompson approved blender made by Breville. It didn't last long before I blew it up with overloading. You never forget your first.
I must have blown at least 8 blenders and invested in a Vitamix before I realised it was much easier to run a hand blender.
I didn't have one at the time. I just worked with what I had and stuck to what I knew, until eventually throwing the towel in and trying something new and improved.
No problem for the 1.5 litre AW-T Breville. It could eat through kilo after kilo of chillies on any given day.
I just had to treat it gently and it'd be good to me.
Until the smell of a burning motor kinda gave the game away that I was being too impatient.
Now we're cooking!
Right to the brim of lovely, bubbling chilli lava.
I'd often end up with chilli in the eye when leaning in to get smell of the hot aromas.
If you have yet to get chilli in your eye then I advise you stay that way. It's not recommended. Especially when it's also boiling on a hob at just under 90 degrees. Ouch!
Whilst the sauce was doing it's thing, I'd start working on the sterilisation of the bottles and overflow glassware.
So, it was kettle on, funnels out.
The danger here was fingerprint burns.
"Ahh, this the life." "From small acorns. Keep going. Keep going..." I'd say to myself..
I still say that a lot actually.
It was always worth it all in the end.
Look how pretty they are!
Centurion 1744 version 0.1
I know what's going on the pizza tonight.
Right.. Start washing up... We've got a cook day tomorrow :-)
More of the trial, less of the error, please!
Spice Island Chilli®, based in Portsmouth, is a fusion of my two passions: History and Chilli.
It’s the reason I continued to create my handmade range of chilli sauces, sharing with you my interest for awesome new tastes and flavours, and the historic tales of adventure that helped inspire me to create the range.
Spice Island is the historic location of maritime trade and customs in the area of Portsea known as Old Portsmouth.