Cork Chilli Company: Too Hot to Handle?

Cork Chilli Company is set to host its first-ever eating competition at its stall at Douglas Farmer’s Market, in aid of St. Vincent de Paul. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with company head Gary Barriscale about what potential contenders are up against, and SVP regional co-ordinator Gerry Garvey about the challenges the charity faces this winter.

It’s a novel idea, albeit one that resonates with both pop-culture kitsch and the county’s growing reputation for homegrown food production. A chilli-eating contest: competitors square up to the specialist produce of the Cork Chilli Company, a Douglas-based start-up, and test their mettle, as the heat intensifies with each round. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak of constitution, but oddly enough, Cork’s first chilli showdown, happening on October 6th at Douglas Farmer’s Market, is the product of popular demand. The company’s stall has been kept busy by the adventurous palates of the city’s foodie community, who called for the competition to take place.

Gary Barriscale is part of the team behind Cork Chilli Company, and while the idea is an opportunity for potential competitors to sample a wide range of palate-testing peppers, all proceeds from donations raised by entrants go to St. Vincent de Paul in Cork, a cause close to his heart, as his father was deeply involved in the charity’s activities in the city and county. “It was the obvious choice for our business. We grow more than forty different varieties of chillies here in Cork, so we have the means and raw material to be able to run the competition. Several of our customers had asked about doing one, and running it as a fundraiser seemed like a much better reason to put it on, rather than doing it just for fun alone.”

St. Vincent de Paul has been a source of support and help for people in need throughout the country for generations, assisting families and individuals through difficult times in their lives with the help of public donations. This winter poses the greatest challenge in a generation for the charity, as living costs skyrocket amid an unprecedented housing crisis, and weather events continue . Gerry Garvey, South West Regional Co-ordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, speaks on the importance of fundraisers like this. “We can’t help out people in need unless we get donations and fundraising coming in. It’s particularly important at this time of year, because we’re just into back-to-school costs, and with cold weather now, we’re going to have huge costs for heating, as well as our everyday costs. Now until March is an important time. People are struggling to pay mortgages and meet rental costs, especially people on welfare, which hasn’t risen in line with living costs. People are under immense pressure.”

Barriscale’s family connection to SVP informs his decision to run a fundraiser for the charity, but the other part of this story is also born from homegrown efforts, with the Cork Chilli Company quite literally growing from a window box. “The interest originally came in 2013, from a fascination with growing a few chilli plants on the windowsill at home. In 2014, I filled my window sills with chilli plants, and started a night-course in horticulture to learn proper growing skills. Around that time, I also became very interested in hydroponics. I found it fascinating, as it eliminates the traditional soil-borne challenges with growing, but it also adds many other challenges. In 2015, we built our first polytunnel in the back garden, and in 2016, with the help of some friends we built our first commercial-sized polytunnel. The number of plants has increased every year since then, and all are grown hydroponically. (The same year), we started developing our range of chilli sauces. We had just two to begin with. We also did our first farmers market on 1st of October 2016, selling sauces, fresh chillies and chilli plants. We moved to Douglas Farmers Market in December 2016, where we have been ever since. We continue to develop our range of products, and as of this week we have 8 different sauces, ranging from very mild to blisteringly hot, with several in between to cater for all tastes and heat preferences. We’re happy to keep things small for now, concentrating on growing quality chillies, and making high-quality, small batches of delicious sauces.”

There’s been plenty of interest in entering the contest, but as of yet, very few have been brave enough to line out. For those that fancy themselves brave enough to tuck into some speciality chilli – what exactly will be served up, and how will a winner be determined? “The contest will be run across a series of rounds, with participants able to withdraw at any stage. The chillies will begin at a mild heat, and will increase in heat, based upon the Scoville Scale of chilli-pepper heat as the rounds progress. Each contestant will receive a single chilli in each round, and will be required to eat the entire chilli but excluding the stalk. Chillies likely to feature in the contest will be Jalapeno, Ring of Fire, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost Chilli, Moruga Scorpion to name a few, and culminate with the world-record holding hottest chilli, The Carolina Reaper, if anyone makes it that far. The winner will be determined by being the last remaining contestant willing to continue in the contest. In the event of a tie, remaining contestants will be given an additional minute to consume as many chillies as possible, with the winner being the individual that consumed the most whole chillies in the time.”

So, with the gauntlet thrown down and the terms outlined, what’s the interest been like, and more to the point, in the spirit of good fun that events like this are about… what’s at stake? “Loads of people are interested in coming to watch, but what we really need is people to put their mouths where their money is, and enter the contest. The prize for the winner is incredible: a lifetime’s supply of bragging rights… and possibly a small trophy. All going well, we would like to make it an annual event, where the champion can defend that title again next year.”

Initiatives like this are a lifeline for St. Vincent de Paul, providing fun and unique experiences for people to partake in, that come from others’ passions and bring help local communities together for the cause. But with the challenges that lie ahead, fundraising is of utmost importance. Gerry Garvey explains how people can parlay their life’s loves into helping the effort. “Lots of people do fundraising efforts. Schools often do food and clothing appeals, we often have independent companies come to us and ask how to get involved. Our biggest fundraiser are our Flag Days, starting from October, through to the end of December. If people want to organise individual fundraisers, they can reach out to us and speak with our regional fund-raiser Anna McKernan, and lend a hand with our ongoing campaigns.”

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