Westshore Chillies - chilli growing in Banks, Southport

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 August 2014

Up to four tonnes of chillies are produced by Joe and Debbies farm

Up to four tonnes of chillies are produced by Joe and Debbies farm

Copyright: Martyn Hicks Photography

A family survived being hit by icebergs and went on to become one of the UK’s top chilli producers

The farm grows medium-hot fruits - Photographer: Martyn HicksThe farm grows medium-hot fruits - Photographer: Martyn Hicks

When it comes to supermarket purchasing patterns, some things are a given. One is that it’s the chaps who buy the beer and, perhaps less obviously, they also purchase the chillies.

These little fruits with the ability to make grown men weep have been eaten for thousands of year in South America, but it’s only in recent times that they have become part of our everyday diet.

And despite all the jokes about the weather here, Lancashire has one of the UK’s biggest and best growers. Westshore Chillies is based in the county’s salad belt at Banks, near Southport.

Using glasshouses covering around two hectares, this family business satisfies our increasing appetite for capsicums by growing, harvesting and packaging four tonnes of chillies every week. They supply directly to Sainsbury’s and Booths and indirectly to most major stores, including Waitrose.

Debbie and Joe at the farm gateDebbie and Joe at the farm gate

Westshore is run by husband and wife team Joe and Debbie Johnson along with daughter Ashleigh and nephew Robert and their success is largely thanks to the iceberg lettuce.

‘We were salad growers but suddenly icebergs came in from Europe and we had to diversify,’ says Debbie. The bland icebergs took the UK market by storm but, happily, the Johnsons were quick to adapt and they took the bold step of growing chillies.

‘We’ve been farming here for 30 years but we were forced to make the change 19 years ago,’ says Debbie, who was born in Southport. ‘Chillies were a bit of a rarity when we first started and there were very few growers in this country. There was a smattering of interest but as they’ve taken off, so have we. For once, we got our timing just right!’

Dealing with supermarkets means they must have the highest standards. Part of that involves the Red Tractor marque which aims to ensures UK food is produced to exacting standards of food safety and hygiene, animal welfare and environmental protection.

The couple walking the glasshouses, looking for aphids - Photographer: Martyn HicksThe couple walking the glasshouses, looking for aphids - Photographer: Martyn Hicks

‘Lots of people offer accreditation,’ says Debbie. ‘But Red Tractor is the sign that I look for and I’ll chose those products above all other.’

She is also full of praise for Booths who have helped them develop the business.

While they don’t have organic status, thousands of Westshore plants are grown in rockwool substrate without the use of chemicals and pesticides. Aphids are dispatched by mother nature using tiny wasps.

‘We have grown just about every kind of chilli but things like the very hot scotch bonnets really need the consistently hot weather conditions we can’t guarantee. Our chillies, Serenade and Fresno, are in the medium range of the heat spectrum.

‘When we first started growing them the older generation wouldn’t even think of trying chillies but now there is chilli in just about everything and every recipe has it. Men have progressed from the barbecue to the kitchen and it seems to be the one ingredient they will invariably use.’

Westshore also grows chilli plants in pots for retail outlets and Debbie has considered moving into chilli jams and oils.

‘But to be honest, this is a seven days a week business so we have enough on our plate. We are sowing in late January, planting at the end of April and harvesting from late May onwards so there’s not much time for anything else.’

So when it comes to eating them, does she have a favourite dish? ‘Absolutely! I love it with king prawns, onions, broccoli and pasta with some cream. Delicious and very fast.’

The hot ticket

If you want to spice up your life, Holker Chilli Fest is being staged at the Holker estate near Grange-over-Sands over the weekend of September 13-14. This is a food festival with a difference with 30 stalls selling chilli produce and a chilli-eating competition. For more details go to www.holker.co.uk. Meanwhile, Red Tractor Week takes place between September 15-21. www.redtractor.org.uk

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