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  • Elizabeth Bowman

Langholm Chillifest - hot new festival of friendly fun

The River Esk, Langholm

All scenic roads lead to Langholm (eventually). This small historic hub town of the southern borderlands is easy to miss but contains a thriving colourful community of friendly folks dedicated to the chilli plant. A comfortingly warming idea around which to base an early autumnal weekend. I went with a pal but we met people on their own, of all ages, and couples & families, many with an interest in gardening/ self-sufficiency but all with a sense of adventure and curious to learn more.

Sugar Rush Peach

Venues were spread across the ‘Muckle Toon’ (which recently celebrated its 400th anniversary) - easily walkable, but also with a shuttle bus available - around both sides of the lovely River Esk. Ubiquitous celebrity chef Tony Singh was in his element here, launching events by making his chilli cheese samosas - in this case with chillies plucked directly from one of the huge 187-variety (largest ever shown worldwide) range being exhibited and then available to take home afterwards. My own ‘catch’ included a magnificent Sugar Rush Peach chilli plant to supplement last year’s Bolivian Rainbow.

The Chillifest was announced by the local pipe band, and then the town brass band took over - quickly hotting up and ‘turning mariachi’ when sombreros were placed on their heads. Great fun. Several other types of music played over the day, including at the (*non-trad*) ‘ceilidh’ later. Guest of the day on film and in ‘person’ was Buzzbó the space highland ‘coo’smonaut’ and heroic originator of the ‘space’ chillies which have now been grown as far as Shetland (in fact the local Facebook Langholm Chilli Club group, over 1.3k strong, has members worldwide).

A large range of local Dumfries & Galloway and borderlands businesses from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall were present and our local hotel had an extra range of chilli specialities for dinner - right through the meal from nachos to chilli cheesecake. I found myself toting a glass & recycled silver chilli necklace, badge, green tomato relish, Langholm RFU Pale Ale, Buccleuch estate meat pies from (one of two) local butchers in this food town, local apple turnovers & honey amongst many other delights. Cocktail of the day was the ‘Firecracker’, from a mystery container which was balanced nicely with fresh pineapple in the mix.

Chilli plants in window boxes all year round!

Edinburgh & Borders Masterchef finalist & former national rugby captain Jilly McCord triumphed in a chilli cook-off. Everywhere we were greeted warmly by locals including tireless organiser Mark Hodgson and his ‘nommittee’, and the whole thing felt really inclusive, with some impromptu helping out by visitors at the social club, chilli tunnel and all points welcomed. Even the town hall and local hotels like the Douglas sport chilli plants in their window boxes all year round!

BBC One Show cameras were present to film events including the chilli-eating contest later that day, for those crazy enough to attempt a series culminating in the hottest chilli ever to be recorded. (Thankfully the standby ambulances did not need to be deployed.) Hilarious commentary was provided by the local Chilli Queen who seemed to have an agenda in encouraging fearless competitors to remove their layers as they warmed up.

Along with plenty of other local food & craft (chilli & non-chilli) opportunities to enjoy, a local historian gave us some background on this stronghold of the Clans Armstrong and Elliott (astronaut Neil Armstrong visited, and was given Freedom of the Burgh, hence the space connection).

We left clutching free chilli fruits (with exhortations to save & plant the seeds), along with fully-ripe beautiful chilli plants to brighten up our Christmases. Roll on Langholm Chillifest 2022!

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