A taste of Dorset: a Naga saga
Philip Strange tells the tale of West Dorset's hot chillies
Published in December ’12
A neat clutch of polytunnels and greenhouses stands unassumingly on a gently sloping hillside, in the village of West Bexington, overlooking Chesil Beach. It looks like a conventional smallholding but, surprisingly, the growing space contains hundreds of chilli pepper plants decorated with their brightly coloured jewel-like fruits. This is where Joy and Michael Michaud set up the first UK business growing chilli peppers and along the way developed a super hot chilli, the Dorset Naga, one of the hottest chillies in the world. It is an extraordinary story of insight, experimentation and perseverance.
The Michauds bought land in West Bexington more than 20 years ago; for Joy, who grew up here, this was something of a homecoming but for Michael, born in the US, this was settling in a new country. They set out to grow organic vegetables but this turned out to be a struggle given the type of soil and the topography and size of their holding. About 18 years ago, on the point of giving up, they met an American friend who lived in London. She recounted her difficulty in sourcing fresh chilli peppers in this country and suggested they try to fill the void. This was the niche market they had been looking for and after a few false starts the chillies began to grow well in West Dorset; the sunlight and warmth and the lack of late frosts in West Bexington suited the plants. The business prospered and Peppers by Post now sells fresh chillies and chilli plants in the UK and plug plants throughout Europe. Their sister business, Sea Spring Seeds sells carefully tested seeds for chillies and other vegetables throughout the world.
But this is only part of the story. The Dorset Naga, developed by the Michauds, is known by ‘chilli heads’ everywhere as one of the world’s hottest chillies. Joy Michaud explains how they discovered the Dorset Naga: ‘Ten years ago, our main income came from selling fresh chillies. We wanted to cater to all tastes from the very mild to the hot and we needed a very hot chilli to extend this range. We were aware that the Bangladeshi community traditionally ate a hot chilli, Naga Morich, in an unripe green state. We realised that if we could market one of these it might provide that top of the range heat. Also, because it could be sold green, it would be ready earlier not needing to ripen and allowing us two weeks’ extra sales.’
Finding Naga Morich seed was not easy but eventually they came across some of the chillies in Bournemouth at Makkah oriental food stores. They sowed seed from these early in 2002 raising the plants alongside two more, also from Makkah. The size of the plants and their fruit were very variable so over the next few years they selected seed from the biggest, early ripening fruit for growing in the next season. Gradually everything became more uniform and by 2005 they felt ready to test how hot the chillies were. They sent extracts of the ripe red fruit to two labs in the US who had the capability to analyse levels of the capsaicinoids that produced the hotness (see box).
‘We didn’t know what to expect and what a surprise we got,’ Joy continues. ‘One evening, one of the labs telephoned us personally to tell us that they had never encountered anything as hot as this; the results were about double anything previously reported. We sat on the numbers for six months; we couldn’t believe that we had discovered such a hot chilli. Eventually we decided to go public and told a reporter on the Bridport News. Within 24 hours we were getting calls from all over the world. It didn’t help that this was 1 April 2006!’
The new chilli was christened Dorset Naga because of its ‘dual nationality’.
It has been officially certified as a new species by the Community Plant Variety Office of the EU on the basis of the shape of the fruit and the plant. The Dorset Naga now even features in the Collins Dictionary. The fruits are 4-5 cm (1.6-2in) long and can be recognised by the wedge shape and wrinkled skin. They start green and turn red as they ripen.
The discovery of the Dorset Naga had a massive effect on the Michaud’s business, opening many doors and establishing Peppers by Post as a key provider of chilli peppers. The Michauds now have strong links in to the Asian community in the UK and they raise chilli plants for the Coriander Club, a gardening club for women run in Spitalfields.
The discovery also changed the chilli world. Before the discovery of the Dorset Naga, nobody believed that chillies could be this hot; now several have been identified. Of course, the Bangladeshis already knew about the Naga Morich and its special properties but it was the Dorset Naga that broadcast this news to the world showing that so-called super hot chillies were possible.
The Dorset Naga was a discovery waiting to be made but it happened in West Dorset. Both Michauds have PhDs in Agriculture and their training must have had a hand in this. They came to the work with a clear idea, pertinent training in plant breeding and a systematic way of thinking. As Pasteur said: ‘Chance favours only the prepared mind’.
Chilli fact file
• Chillies originally came from the New World tropics and were probably carried to India by the Portuguese
• The heat in chillies comes from molecules called capsaicinoids; these hijack the sensory system in our mouths that normally detects heat
• Chilli hotness used to be assessed by taste but now the capsaicinoids are measured directly
• The results are expressed as Scoville units (named after the test’s inventor)
• On this scale, Jalapeno peppers register approximately 5000
• The Dorset Naga registers approximately 900,000 Scoville units
• The current hottest chilli, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, measures approximately 2,000,000 Scoville units