I arrived at Chillilicious one gloriously sunny April afternoon to find co-proprietor Stacey Galfskiy chasing chickens round a pleasantly warm polytunnel packed with chilli plants. “Apparently, they really like chillies,” she grinned, which possibly accounts for why recently arrived rescue cockerel Ollie was particularly reluctant to leave. Two minutes later, after finally succeeding in coaxing him into the coop with his hen-friends, Stacey was free to show me round the small farm, near Ceres, that has been home to Chillilicious since the company was founded in May 2011 as a partnership between Stacey and her mum, Tricia.
It was Tricia, in fact, who originally came up with the idea. She rang Stacey in a state of excitement one October afternoon in 2010 to share her vision for establishing Scotland’s first chilli farm. Although it was ‘afternoon’ in Scotland, it was 5 o’clock in the morning in New Zealand – where Stacey was, at that time, teaching snowboarding. Sleepily she agreed to her mum’s ‘crazy’ idea and the rest, as they say, is history… The two entrepreneurial ladies germinated a business plan, created a propagator in a tiny shed beside their house and started growing chilli plants from seed.
Chillilicious was launched officially as part of North Fife Open Studios Festival in 2011 and, to the Galfskiys’ amazement, an army of 1500 chilli fans descended on the picturesque Fife village of Ceres over the first three days, leaving the family in little doubt that there was a hearty appetite in Fife and further afield for their products. From their initial offering of chilli plants, the Chillilicious range has grown rapidly and today includes chilli chutneys, chilli jams and chillililis (try saying that a few times at speed!). All condiments are home-made on the premises by Tricia and are sold in the on-farm shop in jars bearing colourful Chillilicious labels designed by Stacey – who trained at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design as an illustrator.
While the past few years have seen much of Stacey’s time and energy devoted to building up the chilli-growing side of Chillilicious, her ties with artistic pursuits have not in any way been severed, and the business also sells her unique style of fused glasswork – which includes glass bottles that have been “melted down” to create unique and attractive dishes. Future plans include the construction of a fused glass workshop, where courses will be run, but for the moment Stacey’s stunning glass homeware is created in a small kiln in the family garage – testament to this talented young artist’s skill and ingenuity.
Another type of workshop that will be available soon is chocolate making, and Stacey has recently undergone training with Blairgowrie chocolatier Taystful, with a view to launching her own range of Chillilicious chocolate products in due course.
But back to the chillies which were, after all, the main reason for my visit. I have to confess that whilst I had a fairly extensive knowledge of potatoes, I knew virtually nothing about their solanaceous cousins, the genus Capsicum. This, however, was all about to change…
Stacey’s exuded a passion for her subject which was highly infectious – and I wasn’t the only person to think so. The day of my visit happened to coincide with one of the farm’s occasional “flash” winter weekend openings, and even during the hour I was at the farm, a steady stream of chilli pilgrims arrived to worship at the shrine of chilli plants bearing names as diverse as Bangalore Whippet’s Tail, Devil’s Tongue Yellow, Jindungoo and (Warning: skip the next part if you are of a delicate disposition) Peter’s Penis…
As each visitor pondered their purchases in the polytunnel, Stacey talked knowledgeably, confidently and fondly about her plants, as if each of them was part of her extended “Chillicious family”. My chilli education began in earnest as I listened to the stream of information that she imparted to her ready listeners, responding to their (and my) endless questions with boundless enthusiasm. Here are just some of the chilli information “bites” that I consumed during my Capsicum baptism of fire…
“Milder chillies are easier to grow. Very hot ones, such as the ‘Carolina Reaper’, are trickier to germinate.”
“Often people water chilli plants too often and that causes problems. Another problem that growers can encounter is ‘damping off’ where a fungus causes the plant to collapse.”
“The number of chillies on a plant varies depending on the variety – some plants can produce up to 1,000 chillies over the season.”
“You can generally tell the strength of a chilli plant by the leaves: narrow leaves indicate a milder chilli, and broad, wrinkly leaves mean hot chillies.”
“The plants can live as long as six years – some people think their plant has died during the winter, but chilli plants do a forced hibernation, so don’t compost them too soon!”
“As with other plants, chillies need re-potted when their roots stick out the bottom.”
“In the second year, chilli plants will grow more and be hotter.”
“Apache is a medium hot plant which you can harvest from all year. The more chillies you pick, the happier the plant is. Don’t leave the chillies on, as they drain energy out of the plant.”
“Chilli strength is measured in Scoville units, named after Wilbur Scoville, the American pharmacist who developed the ‘Scoville Organoleptic Test’. For example, a Jalapeno’s strength is around 10,000 whereas one of the most powerful chillies that Chillilicious grow is the Carolina Reaper, which is 2.2 million Scoville units….”
As the flow of facts continued unabated for about ten minutes, it became apparent to all that when it comes to chillies, Stacey certainly knows her onions!
One of the chilli pilgrims was “looking for something with a decent heat to it”, according to his wife, who added: “He was so disappointed with the flavour of the chillies he’d bought at the supermarket that he decided to become a chilli farmer and grow them for himself.”
It transpired, as we chatted, that the couple had recently taken ownership of a greenhouse and that this would be their first venture into growing their own food. Their excitement at the prospect was tangible, and I’ve often wondered since how they are getting on with the plants they eventually chose – after a long and serious deliberation process!
I discovered that Stacey’s devotion to the humble chilli plant does not stop at growing and selling – when we popped our heads round the door of the tiny balmy propagation shed, she pointed to a shelf of chilli plants that she was “chilli-sitting” for a grower in Perth while he was away on holiday. “He wanted to be sure they would be properly looked after while he was away,” she explained, confirming my rapidly growing impression that chilli-growing can become compulsive.
Of course, one extremely important aspect of plant care for anyone involved in horticulture is bug control. Stacey told me that she favours the natural predator approach to dealing with the pests that are the bane of every plant grower’s life, so the farm purchases tiny ladybird larvae from a company called Greenhouse Sensation. The larvae are then introduced to the polytunnel, where the emergent adult ladybirds will snack on any unwelcome aphid visitors. Carnivorous plants also form part of her chemical-free anti-bug armoury.
While Stacey served two more customers in the shop, I felt obliged (wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me!) to sample a few – OK, all – of the “taster” chilli jams and chutneys that were set out on a table, and this inevitably led to the subsequent purchase of several jars of these tangy delicacies to share with family and friends. My own personal favourite was the ‘Jamaican Me Crazy!’ chilli jam.
Next, as Stacey was still busy, I went for a stroll around the farm, where I encountered her partner, Tom, a professional landscape gardener. He was kind enough to pause his irrigation duties to give me a quick tour of the premises, and as we walked, he pointed out the stunning conservation pond, talked about their plans for a wild flower meadow and biodiversity trail, and told me a bit about the history of the site:
“There used to be a flax mill here, and when they knocked the buildings down they basically just buried the rubble, so it’s been a huge amount of work to clear the site – but we’re getting there now.”
He showed me a sandstone Tudor Rose which they had discovered while clearing the area, and which they have now embedded into a wall at the entrance to the farm, retaining a link with the past among modern structures such as the new bungalow that is the Galfskiy seniors’ family home, the two polytunnels (one of which will be devoted to “Pick Your Own”), the attractive chalet-style chilli shop and the peek-a-boo demo kitchen where Tricia spends several days each week producing the company’s home-made condiments.
While acknowledging Tom’s contributions to the attractive landscaping that has been carried out at the farm, Stacey also gave a lot of credit to her dad, whom she refers to as a “master of all trades”. Although he works in the oil and gas industry, he devotes much of his ‘free’ time to hands-on projects during his regular trips home from the rigs.
Stacey’s vision, she explained, is to create a place “where people can come and sit on the grass and chill – and hopefully buy a few chilli plants at the same time!” While she was serving another couple of eager chilli fans in the shop, I sat outside in the sunshine. Thrushes were singing, the wood pigeons were cooing, a couple of crows were cawing, the stream that feeds the pond was burbling, a slight breeze was ruffling the leaves on the trees, and the sunshine was blazing overhead.
As I sat, appreciating the unique atmosphere and contemplating the power of chilli peppers to attract people to a small farm in Fife, it struck me that what the Galfskiys have achieved is extremely impressive: they have built a dynamic, award-winning, home-based business, and have enhanced it by creating an idyllic and inspiring rural setting for visiting customers to enjoy.
The flax-growing days of this delightful part of rural Fife may be over, but the chilli-growing days look set to continue apace, and I have little doubt that Stacey’s dream of Chillilicious being ‘the’ place in Scotland to go and chill while choosing your chilli plants is very close to becoming reality.
Chillilicious will be at the 5th annual Crail Food Festival on Saturday in the Food Market Emporium and at the Harbour Lunch on Sunday – tickets on sale now.