Some Like It Hot

Yes! We are big winners! And have the trophy to prove it. At the weekend James and I achieved a long-held ambition by coming first in a chilli cook off.

There wasn’t a London heat (heat! Arf!) this year so we entered the Hertforshire event and are now on our way to the UK final in September. Whoop!

 Smug faces.

Smug faces.

I’ve always loved spicy food but it was only a couple of years ago that I fell down the rabbit hole of the UK chilli scene. Having evolved my own recipe for years I was fascinated when I came across the chapter in Heston Blumenthal’s book Further Adventures In Search Of Perfection about chilli con carne. He describes the huge competitive cook offs held in America and I began to wonder if any happened here. Googling led to the UK Chilli Cook Off Association. At first I just wanted to go along, see what it was like and what sorts of things other people put in their chillies, but eventually the little “why not?” voice made me enter.

We came a close-but-no-cigar 8th (out of 20) in the 2013 London heat but had so much fun we've wanted to do another one ever since. We’ve been to various chilli festivals around the country too and, honestly, chilli people are just the nicest people. I think it must be all the endorphins the brain releases as a response to capsaicin-pain

But no further events were forthcoming in the capital so we decided to go further afield.

Which is what led us to Purwell Primary Schooin Hitchin for their first Food Festival, incorporating the Herfordshire Chilli Cook Off.

chilli cook off
chilli cook off

We showed up, dragging a wheely suitcase containing gas stove, (surprisingly heavy) gas, pans, knives and ingredients and had a great day. Cook Off rules stipulate four hours cooking time but, after the initial chopping/browning/mixing phase, a lot of that is just simmering so we had plenty of time to meet staff, parents and children from the school and chat to stall holders in the sunshine.

 Our not-strictly-accurate ingredients list. There was no coriander in it this time round but there was a prune. Sorry. 

Our not-strictly-accurate ingredients list. There was no coriander in it this time round but there was a prune. Sorry. 

I don’t think of myself as a competitive person but I am definitely wrong about this. We started off the day thinking it was just a bit of fun but as the cooking time wore on I wanted more and more to win.

It was judged by Purwell’s headmaster Mr Richard Cano, himself a veteran of several cook offs, Ben Jackson of chilli sauce company Capsicana and Andrew Turner, executive chef of London’s Hotel Cafe Royal.

The period where the judges disappeared off to taste and confer was pretty tense. We tasted the competition and agreed it could go either way so were very pleased to be announced winners.

 Getting underway...

Getting underway...

 Just before serving.

Just before serving.

So many thanks to the lovely people at Purwell and here is our triumphant chilli recipe. Its the first time I’ve ever tried to write it down and no doubt it will continue changing as the years go by. Think of this as a freeze-frame snapshot.

Andrew Turner gave me some good tips I’m keen to experiment with before the final so who knows what the next incarnation might be. I think I’ll stick with shin but revert to using mince rather than chunks. And will be dry toasting my cumin seeds and cinnamon stick before they go in. Updates in September…

(A note on suppliers: I get my chillies and Mexican oregano from The Cool Chile Co and my La Chinata smoked paprika from Brindisa.)


No Smoke Without Fire Chilli


  • 1kg shin of beef, bone-in
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 50g butter
  • 2 large onions
  • 3 red peppers
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp cocoa powder
  • 450ml beef stock
  • 3 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tin black beans
  • 1 tin kidney beans
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp Mexican oregano
  • 2 tsp dried chipotle chillies
  • 1 ½ tsp dried pasilla chillies
  • 1 tsp dried habanero chillies
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 tsp maple syrup
  • 1 square dark chocolate
  • 1 prune
  • 1 fresh Scotch bonnet chilli
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • smoked Maldon sea salt
  • pepper

To Serve

  • Sour cream
  • Spring onions (finely sliced)
  • Fresh coriander (roughly chopped)
  • Cheddar cheese (grated)


  1. Remove the beef from the bone and divide it into 1cm cubes. Keep the bone.
  2. Heat the olive oil and half the butter in a large pan and brown the beef in two or three batches (crowding the pan will steam the meat). When each batch is done remove it and set aside in a bowl.
  3. Slice the onions and peppers. Crush the garlic. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and slowly sweat the onions until they go translucent. When they begin to take on a little golden brown colour and add the peppers.
  4. Once the peppers are starting to soften, add the garlic. After 30 seconds add both paprikas and the cumin (grind the seeds in a pestle and mortar). Stir the spices into the vegetables and cook for a minute or so until they become fragrant then put in the cocoa powder.
  5. Return the meat to the pan (with its bone - the marrow will give the sauce a glossy richness). Add the tinned tomatoes and enough stock to give plenty of juicy sauce for the meat and veg to swim around in. But not so much it’s watery (remember there are beans to go in a bit later).
  6. Chuck in the cinnamon stick, oregano and all the dried chillies and leave to cook over a low to medium heat for an hour or so, stirring occasionally.
  7. After an hour drain the beans and add them to the pot along with the vinegar, maple syrup and a square of dark chocolate. Pierce the Scotch bonnet a few times with a knife point, Stir it and its prune friend deep in the middle of the chilli.
  8. Season and allow to cook for at least another two hours, stirring occasionally. Basically, you need three hours for the shin to get tender but the longer it cooks, the nicer it will be (a competition chilli needs to be done within four hours). Although if it looks like it’s beginning to get too dry add more stock or water. Taste for heat every now and again and, if you find it getting too much for you, fish out the Scotch bonnet.
  9. Once the meat is tender, remove the bone, cinnamon stick, prune and Scotch bonnet if it's still there) and chuck them away. Check again for seasoning and balance it with more salt, sugar/maple syrup and pepper. Possibly even a tiny, tiny bit more vinegar.
  10. Serve in a bowl (or with your carb of choice - rice, tortillas, jackets potato etc) topped with sour cream, grated cheese, finely chopped spring onions and coriander.


Ifs And Ands

  • Chilli is an intensely personal thing and therefore any recipe is really just a combination of one person's "ifs and ands". Obvious variations include using mince rather than chunks of beef or several different kinds of meat. Finely chopped bacon or chorizo could be nice additions. If time isn't an issue stewing a whole lump of brisket in the sauce until it's tender enough to be pulled apart with forks is delicious.The man in the shop where I bought my gas canister claimed to use rattle snake  but I think he was just showing off.
  • The beans are infinitely variable too. Dark coloured beans look nicer purely because they blend in better and make for a more homogenous dish but if you’re not so shallow as to be bothered about looks, chickpeas would bring a nice nutty quality.
  • Experiment with different types of chilli and spices. The three I use bring smoke, heat and grassy, fruity flavours but there are many, many others out there. I have given up on ground coriander but I know some people who add lots to give an almost curried taste.
  • Felicity Cloake leaves out the tomatoes. I generally think she is great but I can't get on board with this. I like her use of coffee though. 
  • Add a tiny bit of whisky (Bourbon would seem most appropriate) or a squeeze of lime juice just before serving.
  • I stole the prune idea from Bob Plager, two time World Chili Champion (they spell it with one 'l' in America) and it works well, adding a little subtle sweetness. Billy Franks (who won in London in 2013) uses orange juice. Just don't, whatever you do, recreate my dear friend Ruby's student experiment of adding banana.