Hey, Rosita I hafta go shopping downtown

For my mudder she needs some tortillas and

Chilli peppers.

From the song Speedy Gonzales.

Words and music by Kaye, Lee and Hill

The Californian rock group and the words of the song made famous by Pat Boone are convincing evidence for the fame of chilli peppers in the Americas. And rightly so. Chillies are well known and much used in American cooking, and have been for a long time. However, if you take a cookery book from almost any country in the rest of the world you will soon find recipes that include this ingredient. Yet 5,000 years ago chillies only grew in the mountains of southern Brazil. And as little as 500 years ago no European or north American country had any idea that they existed. The only old world spice used to pep up foods was pepper, piper nigrum, and this was the one that Columbus was hoping to find on his voyage, he thought, to the Far East.

By 1492, birds, and possibly humans, had ensured the spread of chillies the word is derived from the original Nahuatl Indian name to central America and the Caribbean, which is where Columbus found them. His ships carried the plant back to Spain and from there it spread like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean and eastwards, leaving a trail of characteristic fiery dishes in its wake.

Just think of penne allarrabiata, spaghetti allaglio, olio e peperoncino, sardella from Calabria, Indian curries, Indonesian sambals and so on. From the Far East, chillies returned westwards across more northerly latitudes to give us Hungarian goulash and various other hot dishes throughout northern Europe, until they reached Britain. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had carried the new plant to Africa where, again, it spread rapidly and soon became a part of the staple diet. It is strongly suspected that the slave trade from Africa to North America resulted in chilli peppers reaching there long before the Pilgrim Fathers did. So the chilli pepper from south America once again colonised north America but this time from the old world.

The chilli pepper (various species of capsicum), the only spice to come out of the Americas, now rivals pepper as the most widely-used spice on a world scale. Why has it been such a success?

Nutritionally chillies are very rich in vitamin C and in carotenes. The hot ingredient, capsaicin, has medicinal properties which are still being investigated and developed. Lowering of blood pressure, improvement of blood circulation and reduction of cholesterol are all claimed as beneficial effects. But rather than for their nutritional or medical benefits, chillies are used for that heat they give to cooking. The active agent is, again, capsaicin, and the amount of this present in the chilli determines its hotness. In 1912 an American, Wilbur Scoville, developed a scale of hotness for capsicums. The idea was to measure, by tasting, how many times the chilli extract had to be diluted before its taste disappeared. So we have the Scoville scale on which sweet peppers, peperoni, come in at 0 and pure capsaicin at 16,000,000.

Listed in the box below are just a few of the thousands of varieties of chilli pepper now to be found in various parts of the world. Some of those from India and the Far East would surely have a very high rating.

Of course, for most of us these super-hot chilli peppers hold little interest. Any old chilli pepper will do to give a little zest to our cooking, but in Italy peperoncino is an important and prized ingredient in certain dishes and the further south one travels the hotter the spice. In Calabria, for example, there is a whole range of peperoncino-based dishes, including fresh sausages. A friend even makes peperoncino jam, using the fruit in the same way as one might use blackberries or strawberries.

There is, worldwide, a real cult of the hot chilli and there are plenty of websites devoted to the plants, with all kinds of information, history, Scoville rating, availability of seed, growing instructions, recipes and so on. Just key in chilli peppers or peperoncino on your search engine. The sites make fascinating reading.

If you want to try growing your own chillies start with seeds of Thai Dragon, Habenero, Scotch Bonnet and Tepin. This last one claims to be the worlds hottest.

In March set the seeds in pots next to a window inside the house. When the plants are bigger and the weather warmer they can be put outside on a south-facing balcony, but they may make slow progress unless they get really hot sun. It is not usually until the end of July that they become actually useful in the kitchen. Thai Dragon is very hot. Scotch Bonnet is almost impossibly hot. The Tepin fruits ripen much later, in October.

The Scoville scale

Variety Scoville Rating

Peperone (Italy) 0

Peperoncino (Italy) 100500

Peperoncino (New Mexico) 5001000

Jalapeno (Mexico) 2,50010,000

Cayenne (India, Nepal) 30,00050,000

Habenero (Caribbean) 80,000300,000+

Scotch Bonnet (Caribbean) 80,000300,000+