We visited the Great Dorset Chilli Festival at Wimborne St Giles on a sunny summer Sunday. Find out what this popular food festival had to offer chilli pepper fans and foodies.
Where would you find the world’s hottest chilli peppers?
Mexico? India? Jamaica? Dorset?
Yes, that’s right. Dorset.
Look under the polytunnels at Sea Spring Seeds in West Bexington near Bridport and you’ll find the bright-red Dorset Naga – one of the world’s hottest peppers. It’s so hot, farmers need to wear protective gloves when they remove the seeds.
It’s appropriate then that Dorset is home to one of the UK’s most popular chilli festivals.
For one weekend each year in late July or early August, the olde-English gardens of St Giles House near Wimborne accommodate all manner of music stages, marquees, stalls, bouncy castles, ice cream vans and everything in between for the Great Dorset Chilli Festival.
We made the short trip across the New Forest to the festival – now in its sixth year – on the Sunday. We arrived about an hour after the gates opened at 10am.
Marshals directed us efficiently down one of the estate’s lanes and into the grassy car park. From there it was a short walk to the site entrance. Entry was £8 – £6 for those organised enough to book in advance. Kids under 10 went free. Well-behaved dogs are welcome, hence why we decided to leave Tilly at home.
The first thing I noticed when we entered the site was the beautiful setting. St Giles House is apparently a bit dilapidated on the inside in places while the owner – the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury – sets to bring it back to its former glory.
The outside on the other hand is simply stunning, with the 400-year-old house bounded by handsome gardens that contain an eclectic mix of wild flowers and immaculate lawns.
It’s no wonder that the house and estate are an increasingly popular location for anything from weddings to music concerts and running races.
Today, the chilli festival was split into several interconnecting sections dictated by avenues of middle-aged trees that line the views from the house.
The main section by the entrance included the all-important beer tent as well as a music stage. When we arrived, there were already lots of people sitting on the grass enjoying the sunshine and the bluegrass/blues sounds of Stompin’ Dave.
As you’d expect at a chilli festival there were tens of stalls dotted across the site selling spice-themed food and drink including Jamaican, Mexican, Thai and Indian street food and items such as chutney, chilli jam and chilli chocolate to enjoy at home. Chilli plants were on offer too.
There was even chilli cider and real ale from Essex’s Broxbourne Brewery. Naturally, I had a taste of both – they were surprisingly refreshing rather than over-the-top spicy.
The festival catered for more sensitive palates too with food fest classics including burgers, ice creams, pizza and paella also available.
Chilli cook off
Not long after we started exploring the site we stumbled on the area dedicated to the regional heat (no pun intended) of the National Chilli Cook Off competition. Here, various chefs were tending to their bubbling chilli-con-carnes in anticipation of the afternoon’s tasting.
There were lots of smiles among the participants but this is serious business – teams have just four hours to prepare and cook their chilli with judges scoring each dish out of 10 for appearance, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste.
No one was revealing their recipes. But I spotted participants adding some “secret ingredients” including bourbon whiskey and smoked sausages. Meanwhile, the three-piece Mariachi Band wandered through the crowds playing Mexican folk music.
The next avenue was flanked by even more food stalls and vendors selling items such as clothing, dog treats and outdoor cooking implements.
There were also a couple of bouncy castles and trailer rides to keep the kids entertained. That said, most children were happy to run around on the estate’s vast expanses of grass.
After catching the end of Teruko Chagrin’s cookery demonstration, it was time for something to drink. So we made a beeline for the beer tent.
Unfortunately, most of the ales were already polished off. Luckily, there was still a good choice of ciders left and I was delighted to see that the tent had an ample supply of Sherborne Cider, produced a couple of miles south of my home town of the same name. I promptly ordered a pint of their medium cider and I wasn’t disappointed. I might need to pop by to get a box next time I’m back to visit the family.
With my thirst taken care of, the next stop was for food. But with so many options, I didn’t know which stall to choose – everything looked and smelled so delicious.
In the end Tiff and I settled on a vegetarian curry from the Peckish Peacock food truck: Tiff had the “lunchbox” (chickpea spinach curry infused with tamarind and mango, served with cumin rice) and I went for their roti wrap (a chapatti wrap stuffed with our chickpea and spinach curry and garnished with fresh herbs and chutney).
We also grabbed some deliciously fluffy pakoras.
With our cider and curry in tow, we then pitched up with a picnic blanket in the shade of an ancient tree on one of the house’s many lawns to eat our food with our friends Hench and Kirstie, their toddler Harry and their three-month old Hadley.
Chilli sauce tasting
After lazing in the afternoon sun for a short while we had another wander and stumbled on the chilli sauce tasting tent.
After Saturday’s chilli sauce competition, today was a chance for the area’s finest chilli jam and spicy chutney makers to show off their creations.
I aimed high and had a taste of one of the hotter sauces on show. A big mistake that put me out of action before I’d even began. It wasn’t until I had a lick of Tiff’s Purbeck ice cream that the feeling in my mouth came back.
Soon, the crowds in the main part of the festival site thinned out as people headed over a little wooden bridge towards the house for the falconry display from Mere Down Falconry. I’m not usually one for bird acrobatics but I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the antics of the hawks, R2 and D2 as they swooped in from up high in search of their food.
The festival was still in full swing once R2 and D2 had had their fill. Unfortunately though, it was time for us to make tracks. So we didn’t get to see the chilli eating competition, where contestants are required to complete a health questionnaire before they can enter!
A great day out
I have to admit I was sceptical about the Great Dorset Chilli Festival before my visit as I thought I might get bored. In the end, I had an interesting day and there’s so much more we could have done if we’d had a bit more time. Plus, the setting is spectacular and worth the entrance fee alone.
Maybe next year I’ll have a munch on a Dorset Naga? Or maybe not…
Info: The Great Dorset Chilli Festival takes place over a weekend at the end of July or the beginning of August. Email info [at] greatdorsetchillifestival.co.uk to get involved in next year’s event.