It was not the only story on 1 April in the UK newspaper 'The Times' that could have been a joke, but the half-page devoted to 'the chilli so hot you need gloves' was certainly shortlisted

It was not the only story on 1 April in the UK newspaper The Times  that could have been a joke, but the half-page devoted to ’the chilli so hot you need gloves’ was certainly short listed. It claimed growers in Dorset, UK, had produced one twice as hot as any previous chilli. US laboratories rated the Dorset Naga at over 900,000 Scoville heat units - a measure of the capsaicinoids present - nearly double the previous record. 

In 1993 Amal Naj , an Indian-born journalist with the Wall Street Journal  in the US, wrote a book called Peppers: a story of hot pursuits. One pursuit took Naj to Texas A&M University’s agriculture experiment station in Weslaco, Texas, to learn the origins of Scoville ratings.  

Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist, in 1912 devised the Scoville organoleptic test for rating pepper pungency - heat levels. His first sensor was the human tongue. He soaked peppers in alcohol to extract their capsaicin, then diluted with sweetened water until the pungency was barely perceptible. The dilution equals the Scoville rating. 

Then came the high pressure liquid chromatograph, (HPLC) replacing panels of testers whose squirming tongues were being averaged. Unlike tongues, HPLC did not suffer the heat fatigue that restricted them to half a dozen tests a day.  

But Scoville’s unit survived the advance in technology. Naj reported that the world of chillis - some 1,600 at that time - rated from zero to 350,000 Scoville units for the Mexican Habanero. 

I have a small collection of sauces made from ultra-potent chillis, mostly picked up in the 1980s when friends in Washington, DC, US, started a business selling such sauces garnered from across the Americas. They rejoice in such apocalyptic names as Meltdown and Nuclear Hell. 

North Americans take chilli peppers very seriously. They have magazines devoted to the cultivation, cooking and consumption of the fruit. There’s even a Chilli Pepper Institute in New Mexico, dedicated to researching the fruit. (Yes, the chilli is a fruit, not a vegetable or a berry.) My two friends spotted a niche market and combed the US, Mexico and the West Indies for spicy products. One gathered the sauces and fulfilled the orders. The other wrote their sales catalogue in the flamboyant style of a wine taster. 

Meltdown hailed from their home town of Alexandria, Virginia, as did Dave’s Insanity: ’the hottest sauce in the universe’, as it boasted. Nuclear Hell came from Kentucky.  

Hell Sauce hailed from Grand Cayman in the West Indies, which actually has a town called Hell. It’s made from the Scotch Bonnet chilli, closely related to the Habanero and indigenous to the Caribbean Islands. Devil’s Breath is made from Tabasco peppers in North Carolina. The ’fiendishly hot’ Jab-Jab is a Habanero sauce from Trinidad and takes its name from a cry used in exorcising the devil from homes. 

Tabasco from Louisiana is probably the world’s best known pepper sauce. It was invented nearly 140 years ago by Edmund McIlhenny in Louisiana, on an island 140 miles west of New Orleans. Long marketed as a single red sauce, it has recently spawned four new varieties, one is green (mild) and made from Jalapeno peppers, another is Tabasco’s Habanero sauce, claiming a Scoville rating of over 200,000. 

The medical world has long had an interest in the chilli’s pungency. Albert Szent-Györgyi, the Hungarian biochemist, earned a Nobel prize for medicine and physiology in 1937 for his work on ’biological combustion processes’, as the citation read. Time magazine called it the Paprika prize, because he’d shown paprika pods to be a rich source of vitamin C. 

Chillis have been explored for many years as treatments for a host of complaints. But the fruit has found greatest success as a medicine in pain-relief - even for the unrelenting pain of herpes zoster  (shingles). This gives a certain piquancy to the old saying of ’treating fire with fire’. 

David Fishlock