Food: Chilli brand is dream come true (literally)
Producing her own range of chilli oils and sauces made from sizzling Scotch Bonnets is a dream job for Joyce Gannon – and in fact it’s thanks to a dream that she discovered the perfect recipe. . .
Joyce Gannon can still remember the first time she tasted the warming elixir that is Mama Ntsama’s legendary chilli oil. From the moment it passed her lips, she was quite literally hooked, the spicy fusion of Scotch Bonnet chillies and an assortment of secret ingredients, tantalising her tastebuds and rejuvenating her soul.
“I was sat around a table with my Cameroonian friend, who had cooked couscous with vegetables,” Joyce recalls. “Her mother had given her some homemade chilli oil, but my friend doesn’t like chilli so she gave me the oil to add to my portion. Oh my goodness, it tasted amazing! Once I’d had it, I was obsessed!”
From thence onwards, when Mama Ntsama made her yearly pilgrimage to see her daughter, she’d bring five litres of chilli oil, which Joyce, husband Les and their children devoured with gusto!
“I asked Mama for the recipe, so she wouldn’t have to keep making it for me, but she said ‘My daughter’, as she called me that, ‘this is the only gift I bring for you, so allow me the pleasure of making it, and one day I will give you the recipe’.”
Sadly, Mama Ntsama passed away before she’d been able to reveal the secret ingredients. Joyce tried everything to replicate the heavenly flavours of Mama Ntsama’s kitchen, but to no avail.
However, in 2009, something remarkable happened. “I went to bed on a Friday night and I had this amazing dream in which Mama was in my kitchen, showing me how to make her chilli oil,” explains Joyce incredulously. “There she was in her long flowing gown, with her hair wrapped up, and all the ingredients laid out on my work surface.”
When Joyce awoke, she told her husband she was going to London to buy the best Scotch Bonnets she could find. “I was back by 8am and cooking! When I finished, my children were jumping around the kitchen shouting ‘Yes, it’s Mama’s sauce’, and my husband said it tasted like ‘heaven’, so I knew I’d cracked it!”
Joyce began sharing bottles of her homemade oil with friends – and decided to try selling it at a market at Wood Green Animal Shelter, near her Papworth home.
“I cooked pasta with the chilli oil and people loved it, so I thought perhaps I could make this a business.”
And that’s exactly what she did in 2017, continuing Mama’s legacy through her incredible sauces, naming the business after the inspiring Cameroonian matriarch.
Alongside the classic chilli oil, Joyce’s collection includes garlic and ginger, lemon and thyme and fire roasted pepper flavoured oils and sauces, alongside chilli jellies, made from Bramley Apples.
The Gannons converted their double garage into Joyce’s kitchen, where – when she’s not working in customer services for Cambridge City Council – she’ll disappear for hours. “I take real joy in producing every single jar,” she explains. “The process takes around 23 hours, so sometimes I go into the garage at 3pm and don’t emerge until 4am; I just get so absorbed. The pleasure of making it, I can’t describe.”
Ntsama’s is a family affair, with Joyce’s daughters pitching in on business development, her niece helping with production and Les selling the condiments on Cambridge Market.
“We eat the chilli oils and sauces every day to add flavour and warmth,” explains Joyce. “The sauces go well in curries, Chinese stir fries, and pizza bases, and the oil is wonderful in soups. I even add it to my gravy,” Joyce smiles. “Our chilli jelly makes a brilliant glaze for salmon too. I almost polished off a whole jar with lentil crisps while watching Strictly!”
As well as selling via the website and Amazon, the chilli products – which are vegan friendly and additive free - are available at Full Circle, Cambridge, and Budgens, Comberton.
With her spicy creations spreading joy near and far (they’re a huge hit in Scotland!), I wonder what the late great Mama would make of Joyce’s success?
“She’d say ‘you go girl!’ because this was her passion and her love. She’d be glad she was able to finally give me the secret recipe,” Joyce smiles.
Find out more about Ntsama’s at ntsama.co.uk
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More by this authorLouise Cummings