Chilli Fest

Peter McCaughan gets fired up for naga infused stout, live tunes and... jewellery stalls?!

With this year’s Open House Festival also comes another Chilli Fest, Belfast’s annual foray into fiery tastebud hell. Capsicum junkies come from far and wide to gather in Custom House Square, sampling the wares of international chilli merchants and soaking up the incandescent atmosphere.

As always, there are a vast array of stalls at the festival, a handful of them selling dried chillis, unusual condiments (chilli jam anyone?), red hot beers and sauces designed with the express intent of melting the consumer’s oesophagus.

However these stands are greatly outnumbered by an array of craft and jewellery stalls. And while it is great to see merchandise available for all the family (as opposed to just die-hard spice fans), for an event of this nature I rather expect a little more chilli.

Another major difference to previous years is that the festival takes place entirely outdoors, whereas before it has been inside (and just outside) a beautifully lit marquee. This is largely due to the earlier June date of organised for this year's Open House, as opposed to the usual September. Luckily the gamble on Northern Ireland’s famously unpredictable weather pays off and the scorching sun cranks the heat up even further.

There is a jovial atmosphere this year (perhaps in part due to the chilli-induced endorphins pumping through the heat-addicted enthusiasts’ veins), and there are some very welcome new additions to the festival.

The busiest of these is the BBQ pit, which offers burgers, sausages, hog roast and – the highlight – spiced brisket. This is an alternative to the delicious Cajun Café, who have also expanded their menu to include gumbo, pork and beans, various chilli bowls and vegetarian alternatives.

Other attractions include a hairdressing tent, offering bouffant rockabilly/Betty Page style cuts, helium karaoke, beer tents as well as mysterious-looking caravans on either side of the square – home to sporadic and energetic jams by various musicians including Morgan O’Kane, fresh from his show at McHughs.

These performances are hot, sweaty, cramped and downright good fun – definitely the most welcome innovation for this reviewer. The whole festival is appropriately accompanied by music from bop and stroll band The Urban Voodoo Machine on the Saturday afternoon, and everybody’s favourite acid country peddlers Alabama 3 on the Sunday. Both bands offer a perfectly enjoyable (albeit slightly forgettable) soundtrack to the proceedings.

As the heat starts to build in both the arena and the bellies of the punters, the most eagerly anticipated part of the afternoon looms: the legendary chilli eating contest. Any sense of decorum goes out the window, as a display of vomit-laden lunacy, courtesy of a tireless MC and a selection of (possibly unwitting) contestants follows.

With every passing round of the contest, the whole chillis which must be gobbled rise in potency, climbing further and further up the Scoville scale. Unfortunately it is too early in the growing year for the notorious naga chilli (used in the creation of smoke grenades) to make an appearance.

Luckily, however, there is a selection of some other seriously hot peppers, as well as a naga-infused stout which appears in the sudden-death final. Fortunately for the victims there is a paramedic crew on standby, just in case.

Perhaps the event is better suited to the later date of September, serving as a spicy pick-me-up at the end of the summer with a greater variety of actual peppers on display. However, a great turn-out and some spectacular attractions still ensure a sizzling afternoon.