Food: Newmarket's Chilli Freaks turn up the heat
Having tasted some of the world’s best fermented chilli products, Tim and Kathy Stafford started home growing peppers - with career-changing results
Trinidad Scorpion, Carolina Reaper, Scotch Bonnet - chillies with such fearsome names, you can almost feel your tongue tingle and your face flush at the thought of their fiery intensity. However, in the capable hands of artisan chilli producers Tim and Kathy Stafford, these home-grown beauties are transformed into scrumptious fermented chilli sauces, jellies and salsas, which finely balance flavour with heat.
The Staffords are veritable ‘chilli freaks’, as their company name attests. Tim is a heat-seeking missile, having savoured the world’s most mind-blowing chillies (his ‘go to’ sauce is the eye-watering Chilli Freaks 7 Pot Next Level).
Kathy meanwhile is a green-fingered goddess, faithfully tending the myriad of chilli pepper plants grown in the couple’s third of an acre Newmarket plot, ranging from gnarly Chocolate Habaneros and punchy Dorset Nagas to fruity Ghost Peppers and dainty Thai Chillies.
“I’ve always loved gardening so enjoy experimenting with different chilli varieties,” explains Kathy, with a distinct Aussie lilt. “Tim often finds me talking to the chillies and sometimes singing to them!” she laughs.
The couple lived overseas for 18 years, moving to Melbourne, Australia, in the early 90s, where Tim managed an international packaging company and Kathy worked as a nurse. Tim’s job took him travelling around Australia, America and Asia, where he discovered new, exciting global flavours.
“Within those three regions, all the best sauces were fermented-based, so had a completely different taste,” recalls Tim. “Whenever I had a great meal, I’d ask how it was made and often ended up in the kitchen having a demonstration! Our sauces today are based on the experiences we had tasting cuisine outside England.”
The couple began growing and fermenting chillies Down Under, and on moving back to England and inheriting a greenhouse, continued their green-fingered endeavours.
Harvesting the jewel-like fruits, Tim and Kathy’s first condiment was a Sriracha-style garlicky, chilli sauce, made from fermented Thai peppers. Friends and family were given test pots, and were so impressed by the authentic flavour, they urged the couple to sell their warming concoction.
Chilli Freaks officially launched as lockdown hit last March, but Tim forged ahead with designing product packaging, printing labels and building the company website.
And when restrictions eased Chilli Freaks set out their stall, quite literally, at Newmarket and Ely markets. “The response was phenomenal!” says Kathy.
Chilli Freaks’ range caters for chilli beginners up to spice aficionados.
“We start with some cracking handmade chocolate truffles and fudge, based on a 100 year old recipe by Kathy’s grandmother,” enthuses Tim. “The truffles have a brilliant velvety texture, and a lovely warmth.”
There’s a rich chipotle ketchup, created with the couple’s youngest son in mind. “He won’t touch chilli usually. But he tried the chipotle on his pizza and loved it!” Kathy smiles.
Moving up the Scoville Scale, there’s sauces, salsa dips, pickled habaneros and chilli jams, rising to the scorching 7 Pot Next Level, which contains seven fermented chillies.
“Our fruity chilli jam is one of my favourites; I put it in my porridge in the winter for warmth before I go to the market,” explains Tim. “The chilli jelly, which is amazing with cold meat and cheese, is a best seller; one customer has it as a sticky glaze on pan fried halloumi.”
Kathy swears by the fruity Caribbean Chilli Sauce. “I marinate chicken in it, or have it as a dip,” she enthuses. “It’s got fruity pineapple and fermented scotch bonnet, which blend beautifully with the spices.”
As Kathy and Tim don’t outsource – they grow, ferment, cook and bottle - all their products are vegan-friendly, allergen and gluten-free, whilst the labels, bottles and packaging are recyclable.
It’s still early days for Chilli Freaks, but Tim and Kathy are so busy that they gave up their day jobs in October to pursue their passion project full-time.
“We’ve had fantastic repeat custom, especially from customers with intolerances, who are delighted they can finally enjoy chillies,” says Tim. “We may have launched the business in the worst economic time, but we continue to grow, which is tremendous!”
Shop Chilli Freaks range at chillifreaks.co.uk or catch them at Ely Market on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays
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More by this authorLouise Cummings