Think you're hardcore when it comes to food? Did you celebrate National Curry Week by wolfing down a £2 Flaming Fiery Phall from Morrisons, apparently the hottest supermarket curry ever?
If you're nodding your head to both those questions, have you thought about this – entering a proper chilli-eating competition. Hundreds of people watching you eating raw chillies – blisteringly hot ones too – and not being allowed to drink any fluids in a bid to combat the searing pain. The sort of competition that sorts the men out from the boys, the professionals from the amateurs.
I've been there, done that. Didn't get the T-shirt, but only because they weren't selling any. And I'll you this – I was a boy.
Ever wondered how hot the chillies are in one of these competitions? I have a one-word answer – very. This is serious stuff.
Chillies are rated in Scoville units, with a Jalapeno – generally considered relatively hot by Joe Public – about 6,000 units. A Scotch Bonnet –generally considered incredibly hot by the public – is a more impressive 300,000 units. In competitions, we’re talking bad boys up in the millions of units – the Carolina Reapers, the Trinidad Scorpions (if only they were grown locally rather than thousands of miles away – we could be talking about the Paulsgrove Habanero or the Fratton Reaper!)
At a festival in north Hampshire a few years ago, I decided to take part in a competition. I'd happily eaten curries regularly since the late ’80s. Mainly up to Madras heat, though I could manage a vindaloo with a lot of huffing and puffing and a vast amount of water. I had occasionally, if drunk and feeling brave (or stupid), taken a spoonful of a friend's phall, though instantly regretting it – pulling a face as if I had been whacked in the nether regions with a cricket bat.
'How hot could these chillies be?' I pondered as I took my seat at the table. I was soon to get my answer. Very.
I managed to eat four without reaching for the glass of milk in front of me. Once you'd drank some milk, you were eliminated. By that stage, though, I was beginning to fade. My mouth was on fire (I imagine chewing razorblades would result in less pain) and my left arm had begun to spasm, which was slightly alarming. I started the fifth – measured in the high hundreds of thousands of Scovilles, possibly even the low millions – but no way could I finish it. I drank the milk, thus becoming the first person to bail out – though I noted quite a few others quickly followed, as if no-one wanted to be the first to quit. I had no such worries, better to quit than to vomit in front of an audience (and the TV cameras who were recording it for The One Show on BBC).
Still, as they say, better to have taken part in a chilli-eating competition and quit first, than never to have taken part at all.
But even those sort of events are nothing compared to the range of chilli sauces on offer at festivals, or online.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the tale of 'Satan's S***'. It is not for the faint-hearted. The story or the sauce.
A few years back, while happily munching freebies at the Bath Food Festival, I came across Pete's Chillis – a Brighton-based company with a cheery selection of hot sauces.
At one end of their stall was a large piece of paper with an imposing Skull and Crossbones image and the words 'if you have ever wondered what it's like to taste molten lava, ask for our behind-the-counter sauce'. Well, something like that anyway. It was the aforementioned sauce, 'Satan's S***'.
One very small piece of sauce, miniscule even, was spread on to a bit of cracker and into my mouth it went. It was beautiful, delicious – a wonderful sweet taste, like angels crying on your tongue (for those of you who remember Paul Hogan's beer adverts in the ’80s). For the first 10 seconds. Then hell on earth kicked in. Impressively violent hiccups, a waterfall of tears cascading down quickly-reddening cheeks, and a taste sensation like nothing I'd ever known. Christ, it was hot. To prove it, I let out a muffled cry of 'Christ, this is hot' as the guy behind the counter attempted to stifle a grin (he failed). I could hardly string a coherent sentence together for 10 minutes. I am not making this up. I'm sweating just thinking about it.
In The News every Saturday, the Weekend magazine contains a wine column, full of words such as 'palate, 'nose', 'minerality' and 'finish' – it's the language of the bourgeoise and it makes me laugh. For example, here's one from last week – 'It has a fabulous bouquet with green apple and a touch of brioche, followed by a crisp citrus palate with some minerality in the background before a gorgeous, lively finish. Just needs a plate of oysters to accompany it.'
I know what you're thinking – 'what's minerality?' And where do I buy oysters in North End? Anyway, let me try to describe 'Satan's S***' for you using the vocabulary of a wine journalist.
Here goes. A hint of sweet wickedness on the nose, followed by an unhealthy dollop of pure malevolence on the palate, leading (via a hostile spell of hiccuping) to a deleterious minerality, providing unwanted images of a truly harrowing rollercoaster ride, with a smirking Satan at the wheel, through the darkest, deepest recesses of Dante's Inferno.
A bit different to a classic French red, in other words. And you can forget the oysters too – you won't taste them. You won't taste anything in fact, as your mouth is on fire.
Had I visited Pete's Chillis’ website, I would have known what I was letting myself in for – pain. 'If you buy this product you release us from any responsibility for any damage it may do to your system, physical or mental. You will need to sign away your soul to buy a jar,' so the chilling description goes. There's more, though in fairness you should have got the picture by now. 'We've put in a blistering 12 million scovilles of heat in this little pot so it will last a very long time. This is for the chillihead from hell. When you're descending into the fiery pit take a jar of this to brighten the way.'
Interesting use of the word 'brighten', that's for sure.
That is hot, obviously, but you can buy hotter. Boy, can you buy hotter. I give you Grim Reaper and Oblivion, which sound more like white knuckle rides at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park. One company is also selling an ominous looking bottle called Death Cap, complete with 13 million Scoville units of sheer torture.
'Warning, dangerous if misused,' states the website. 'We cannot call this a sauce – it is an extract and should be treated with the utmost respect.This should never be directly ingested. Please begin with a cocktail stick dipped in the extract and then add it slowly. Very dangerous.'
Crikey. Sounds like plutonium or a substance that Superman or Flash Gordon's enemies would use in a bid to blow up the planet – and not something you'd add to a few bits of chicken and some chopped up onions in a frying pan.
It gets worse – or, if you're a chillihead, better. A sauce jauntily titled '10-minute Burn' was removed from sale at some UK chilli festivals after customers who tried it experienced hallucinatory effects.
Heard of Hell Unleashed? You have now, and it costs almost £20 a bottle from those nice people (or total sadists) at The Chilli Pepper Company
They tell potential customers. 'Is this the hottest sauce in the world? We think so. To be absolutely sure, we have had it analysed by Warwick University’s Health Research Institute Laboratory. When they sent us the test certificate, they commented in their e-mail that 'this is not a sauce, it is a weapon!'
Double crikey. Conjures up images, doesn't it, of movies celebrating life a long time ago. 'Choose your weapon?' asks a pirate, who is then surprised when his adversary charges at him waving a bottle of Hell Unleashed. 'Beware the Scoville units of doom' he might well shout as he charges.
And now we come to a little beauty called '16 Million Pure Crystal Capsaicin'. A tiny 2ml amount of basically death in a strong laboratory vial (test tube) inside a foil envelope. The company selling it online states 'it should never be opened and consumed'. They add, in large, alarming letters, 'THIS IS A COLLECTOR'S ITEM. IT IS ILLEGAL TO ADD IT TO ANY FOOD OR BE SOLD AS AN INGREDIENT.'
There are health benefits to eating chillies, though possibly not the '16 Million Pure Crystal Capsaicum' extract. Eating chillies can promote weight loss, by speeding up the body's metabolism and can also reduce high blood pressure. In contrast, a large spoonful of 'Satan's S***' can increase blood pressure – and possibly weight loss via a different method.
The internet is full of stories regarding chilli eaters who have ended up in hospital, or worse (there is a gruesome story of a guy who died after eating a ridiculously hot curry). I will let Steve Diep, though, have the last word on the subject.
After winning a chilli eating competition in Australia in 2011, he quipped: 'No words, mate. In pain. In the stomach. Headaches.'
He added: 'I should have listened to my mum, I shouldn't have done it.'
Mums are usually right, aren't they?