Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Dorset Naga

Michael MichaudIt's every chilihead's dream to find the world's hottest pepper. We go through phases of seeking all the heat we can handle, delving into extracts and maybe even cap-surfing until we either tire of it, hurt ourselves or settle into simply eating fresh peppers regularly.

April fool’s Day 2006 will go down in history as the day that Joy and Michael Michaud, pictured here, announced to the world that they had hazarded upon the world's hottest pepper. From there, the story began its whirlwind tour of misinformation, mistrust and hoaxism. The April Fool's Day joke is that this story didn't break on April Fool's Day. The story was published on March 31st, in the Bridport News a newspaper local to the area of Dorset where the Michauds reside. The media then picked it up and ran with it... on April fool’s Day.

Joy and Michael Michaud live in West Bexington, a small rural village in the county of Dorset, England. They both hold a Doctorate in grassland agronomy. Joy's is from Aberystwyth University of Wales and Michael's is from Texas A&M. Michael is American. Michael is co-author of the book; Cool Green Leaves and Red Hot Peppers. Michael contributes articles on his work with immigrants and the vegetables they grow. One such article appeared in a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) magazine, The Garden, entitled: The World in an Allotment - Gardeners from Different Communities.

For their part-time chili business, the Michauds grow 8 other chilies and tomatillos. All the chilies, with the exception of the Thai hot are grown in the soil in polytunnels, a UK version of a plastic sheet hot house. The Thai hot and some other chilies sold at shows as decorative, edible house plants are grown in pots where they thrive. Joy and Michael spent the last weekend planting out this year's crops.

For the past several years, Joy and Michael have been selecting the best and the brightest of the offspring from a Bangladeshi pepper, the naga morich. The pepper, which ripens to a rich red colour, is preferred by Bangladeshis to be picked and used green. Their intention for selecting these plants was to get larger, heartier fruit, with stronger, larger plants. They are aware that culling the way they did is really going the long way around, but they are quite satisfied with the resulting plant. The line for which they have applied for Plant Variety Protection (PVP) (Plant Cultivar Protection in North America) has been given the name ‘Dorset Naga’.

In a personal interview, Joy said, "We don't know whether our chilli is the hottest in the world or not, probably not, it is just that we had it measured." The truth is that based on two independent HPLC tests of the Michaud's Dorset Naga, their cultivar, planned or accidental, currently holds the highest HPLC count for anything other than an extract, or does it? Interestingly enough, there is yet another chili from Assam, India, called the bhut jalakai or raja mirchi (ghost or poison chili) and it supposedly registers a reading of 1,041,427 SHU. The Michauds believe that the Dorset Naga, the naga morich, the bhut jalakai, the raja mirchi, and other landrace naga varieties, (all C. chinense peppers) from that region, North Bangladesh/North East India, may all be related. During the interview, Joy expressed surprise that there was so much excitement generated over their peppers. After all, such hot peppers are common in the ethnic shops catering to immigrant Bangladeshis where they found their naga morich peppers. With a laugh, Joy writes, "Michael's favourite quote is that these chillies are the world's best kept secret. Only him, me (sic) and a million Bangladeshis know about it!"

Joy tells us that this year's Naga crop is about 1-2 feet high already and they expect the fruit to be ready to be picked by late July. Once grown, the Dorset Naga is easier to tell from the naga morich, mostly because the plants themselves grow twice as tall and the fruit are much larger.

naga morich & Dorset Naga

Shown here, side by side, the naga morich is on the left, the Dorset Naga, on the right.

Regardless of when the fruit are ripe, don't expect to be able to buy any fresh Dorset Naga unless you live in Britain. The Michaud's will only ship to a British address.

The Michauds also sell to a few selected sauce makers, their main buyer being a Bangladeshi family. A few years ago the Michauds’ regular buyer had let them down and they had masses of naga laden with fruit and no one to buy them. Joy contacted the Bangladeshi sauce makers, who weren't really sure they wanted the peppers. Joy sent them a sample anyway. Once they had the pepper in their hands, they changed their minds and suddenly, Joy and Michael couldn't grow enough! Last year the Michauds had to limit their hot sauce maker to only 10 kilograms of fruit a week. The majority of the chilies the sauce maker needs are imported from Bangladesh.

The Dorset Naga, although large for their size, are very thin skinned with a large cavity, so the Michauds get about 200 fruit per kilo. The plants are so bushy, that Joy actually has to search for the chilies. Perhaps she should call it the Hide and Seek Naga! Joy picks all of the peppers herself. They are so hot; she won't let anyone else do it. Interestingly, the peppers are not always bush-ripened. The Bangladeshis who eat the naga prefer the peppers green.

Michael and Joy joked that they should set up a competition to see who can come up with a hotter pepper. Michael figures it would be a great way to get more people intermingling with the Bangladeshi communities; they would go into their shops, where meeting the people and talking with them will help break down barriers.

If you are going to go around to the shops that Bangladeshi immigrants frequent, you might find these little green chili pods that don't look special, but there they will be. The Bangladeshi pepper is always sold green, so it is hard to extract viable seed, but the Michauds managed it, so it is possible.

At the moment the Michauds are not selling seed of Dorset Naga. They have applied for plant variety protection and the seed is likely to be available after this year’s season. There has been a sudden flurry of naga seeds being sold on the internet, but this is not Dorset Naga, and may be the seed collected from the unripe fruit sold in the ethnic shops. It is also rumoured that some of the seeds might actually be the PCP Red Savina.

We had a customer of ours bring us a plant he called a Mr. Naga. After showing the pictures of Mr. Naga to Joy, she concurs, Mr. Naga was most definitely a naga morich. So, indeed, we have had the honour of tasting the now famous pepper. What's sad, is that last fall Mr. Naga lost all of his leaves and one of our employees thinking him dead, tossed the plant. In case you are wondering, the fruit on Mr. Naga was the hottest pepper I have ever tasted and it actually left our Peppermaster feeling like he'd been punched in the chest. It took his breath away and he had to sit down.

Mr. Naga pepper

The fruit of the now defunct Peppermaster Mr. Naga plant.

I asked Joy if she and Michael eat the peppers they grow, and if so, what their favourite way to eat them was. She told me that they do eat the peppers, just not the Dorset Naga, it is too hot for them. She made the point that they both love the habanero and its wonderful flavour, asking if I had ever tried using it for tomato ketchup or for a fruit-based pasta sauce. Then she commented that they used a habanero specially bred for its mildness. Lover of the habanero that I am, I would love to taste this mild-bred habanero, even if I would end up adding heat afterwards.

Over the years, Joy and Michael have come to specialize more and more in chilies, but they continue to grow other crops. The Michauds sell a lot of Mexican chilies and as such they grow the vegetables that would go best with those chilies, hence the growing of tomatillos. In a chili business like theirs, the Michauds need to offer a variety of peppers, covering the full range of heat, so, they have always included a hot habanero pepper. To be able to supply all the chilies in their catalogue right from the beginning of the season they aim to synchronize the first harvest of their chilies. This was difficult with the habanero as these peppers tend to ripen later than other types and normally should be picked ripe. But when, a Pakistani friend mentioned a fruity flavoured Bangladeshi chili eaten green. A little checking and it turned out that the chili was a habanero and because it is traditionally eaten in its green stage, could be picked several weeks earlier than usual. That was the beginning.

Joy and Michael would like everyone to know that they aren't fraudsters. They aren't about to claim that their peppers are the hottest anyone could get. The only claim the Michauds have made is that these two HPLC tests were carried out on a pure sample of their peppers. The tests, both conducted by reputable American HPLC testing facilities, recommended, Joy adds, by people in the US chili industry, gave their pepper sample an average score of over 900,000 SHU. They have sent their results to Guinness to apply for the World Record, and in the event that Guinness, and indeed the rest of the world would like more proof, wait a while, the Michauds intend to retest this summer.

It's funny that two agronomists who prefer the milder peppers should develop something so hot they can't eat it. In fact, both Joy and Michael downplay the macho chili eating, lovers of peppers, they prefer to enjoy their flavours whether, mild or hot.