My in-laws only consider a table set if, along with the salt and pepper, there’s a bowl of shiny, fresh chillies. They crunch them like other people might crunch gherkins, as a kind of counterpoint to whatever else is going. I don’t mess with these people.
When "straight-from-the-bush" isn’t available, relish will do, home-made, and so hot I’d be nervous to store it in plastic jars. There’s a quiet stand-off between those who like a cooked relish, and those who prefer it fresh. I’m a fresh girl. Mandoline the chillies up with some garlic, a handful of whatever herbs you’ve got going – parsley and basil, mint is a must – moisten with olive oil and lemon juice. Taste, adjust, serve with respect.
Because yes, though I come from a family of blands, and though I’ve yet to address a complete chilli with the focus of my in-laws, I’ve fallen for the fiery little pod.
If you are a chilli fan, you need to head off to Exclusives for an exquisitely indulgent homage to the peri-peri, called Pain & Pleasure. The Cape Town launch took place recently at Garth Stroebel’s Chef’s Academy in Cape Town, where I got to taste peri-peri meringues. Who would have thought, eh?
Rochelle Schaetzl, group product development manager of Nando’s (who paid for this extraordinary book) and regional chair of the SA Chef’s Association in Gauteng, is the lucky person who got to travel the sub-continent and beyond in search of the roots and rhythms of the peri-peri.
There could be no stronger illustration of the hold peri-peri has on sensible people: she was a pressure-cooker of passion in her speech to explain the rationale and the processes that underpinned this project. She kept getting distracted by explorations of what peri-peri does to the mouth. It was almost too intimate. The 16th-century Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta said the chilli was ‘prejudicial to the health of young folks, chiefly to the soul, for it provokes to lust’. Well, yes, Rochelle illustrated his point.
The book is beyond beautiful. The cover is richly embossed fabric with the dust-cover, a collection of photographs, craftily folded to wrap around it like a presentation ribbon, to be used only should you choose. The photography is exquisite, and where there are no photos, the pages are textured with illustrations. There’s a good collection of recipes from top chefs, and the package gives scientific weight with an enormous body of research.
The Scoville Heat Unit
Did you know, for instance, that the measure of heat is the Scoville Heat Unit, named after its American originator, one Wilbur Scoville? Most sweet peppers lie in the 0-100 range; habanero peppers top the ratings at 200 000-300 000; and peri-peri hangs around the 60 000-80 000 range.
What you definitely should know, if you don’t already, is that good wine is wasted when you’re eating peri-peri because, the authors say, you will ‘feel as though your tongue has been overpowered. It lies back in your mouth limply, as if in a state of post-coital bliss.’ So accompany peri-peri with a fairly sweet late harvest wine: the sweetness counteracts the burn. Fruity beers and ciders are also good.
There’s a health argument for peri-peri. A culture argument. Above all, there’s a pleasure argument for getting to grips with the fire. As we head into the season of repetitive eating (another braai, anyone?) know this: there is no overcooked steak, no boerewors roll, no marinade that cannot be rescued by peri-peri. Keep it handy at all times.
What about you? Learned anything the hard way with chilli? Got a relish or marinade to share? We'd love to hear from you.
Heather Parker is the editor of Health24. She is one of SA's most respected journalists, and a serious foodie to boot.