Eastnor Castle Chilli Festival - Report
Somewhere in the depths of Hereford lies an English castle of such magnificence, it would be a shame if people didn’t get to visit it. Surrounded by lush, green countryside, trees that are 100’s of years old and a lake of splendid tranquillity, Eastnor Castle is quintessentially British and a brilliant setting for a chilli festival.
For the past few years, the good people of Eastnor have asked us to attend this festival in order to arrange and host a chilli eating contest on each day of the event. Considering the setting, brilliant festival organisation & proximity, it takes us no time at all to agree to be part of something fantastic. This year was no exception.
Arriving at the festival, you take a leisurely walk from the estate entrance to the main festival area within a few minutes. The stroll along the driveway is almost worth the entrance fee on its own! Overshadowed by tall trees and stimulated by a wide variety of flowers, the short walk is nothing other than pleasurable. The path leads you to the main courtyard of the castle where some of the UK’s top chilli product producers lay in wait with their concoctions. You might be forgiven for thinking that there was a lot of sauce on offer but the variety of these sauces were incredible. From African inspired sauces from Bim’s Kitchen, British pallet-pleasing products from Wiltshire Chilli Farm, deadly looking sauces from Grim Reaper and medieval potions from The Chilli Alchemist. There was no shortage of flavours and culinary inspiration for any chillihead. Of course, there was way many more chilli-infused goods on offer such as crisps, jams, gummy bears, plants, fresh peppers, cakes (we really enjoyed a chocolate orange & chilli sponge), caramel, alcohol…the list feels endless. The choice of hot food was also good and included an array of spicy dishes from Taste of India, fresh hog roast, pierogi (Polish dumplings), Jalapeno poppers and Thai noodles. The award for longest queue goes to the Churros & Chocolate stall who didn’t see any daylight all weekend due to the sheer volume of people looking to indulge in their sweet Mexican treat.
Unlike previous years, the weather was a little more sinister with regular threats & promises of rain. However, this didn’t stop people descending upon Eastnor in their thousands. By 10am each day there was a queue to get in to the festival, something you don’t always see.
Even if chilli isn’t your thing, there was still plenty to try and do at this festival. A selection of cheeses, garlic products, sweet treats, oils and drinks were available to those with a low tolerance to chilli. Furthermore, there’s the Knight’s Maze if you fancy getting lost for an hour! Failing that, a nice stroll around the grounds is an easy way to enjoy a few hours.
Whilst the bulk of the traders are placed around the courtyard more could be found on the lawn, a downward stroll in to a grassy basin where people can picnic, enjoy live music and enjoy more food. Eastnor Castle hire a stage for all the musical acts and it’s this very stage where we host the chilli eating competition. With space for only 10 contestants, the popularity of this competition always leaves us oversubscribed with a reserve list of names nearly as large as the main list!
As usual, the bulk of the contestants were men with only 1-2 women brave enough to take part. Come 2:45pm when the competition started, the lawn was filled with people ready to either cheer on their contestant friends or experience a little schadenfreude. This year, we started (arguably) easy with the early rounds. A few Padron peppers were the opening round, soon followed by Jalapenos, Bullet chillies and Cayenne. The videos will show you just how far people went & who took the prize hamper made up of donated products from all the generous traders at the festival.
Whilst Eastnor is just over an hour from our homes in Bristol, we decided to stay in Ledbury, a mere 7 minutes from the castle. Whilst the hotel we stayed in was adequate, we are all fans of ‘proper’ pubs and Ledbury has a few to pick from. A local had recommended The Prince of Wales which was just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. It’s a pub located along an alley that looks Dickensian and full of character and inside was similar, full of old oak beams and crooked ceilings. It had charm and, more importantly, cider! However, before we had ordered our first pint, we were greeted by the landlord who instantly recognised us.
“You’re the chap who spent a lot of time on his hands & knees in pain in New York!” he said looking at Jay as we all lined up at the bar.
“Oh…and you’re ChilliDave!” he said as he inspected us in our Clifton Chilli Club tops.
“First round is on me chaps!”
We spent the evening in The Prince of Wales talking chilli, having a lot of laughs, chatting with locals and enjoying our cider. So much so, we went back the following evening for more of the same.
We travel to many festivals each year but there is something special about Eastnor Castle Chilli Festival. Maybe it’s because it’s the first major chilli festival of the season and an occasion for us to catch up with chilli friends who we may not have seen for 6-8 months? The setting of the festival is also sublime and one to look forward to. Then there’s the organisers. We mainly deal with Sarah who has always been a pleasure to work with and very well organised. Nick, the ex-groundsman, is also worth a mention and whilst his health prevents him working at Eastnor these days, he is still treated like one of the family and always takes an active interest in the chilli community.
All in all, it was another great weekend and definitely one of the chilli festivals we recommend people visit if they can. There is something for everyone and the atmosphere is lovely. Whilst we don’t know the 2017 dates yet, we imagine that they will be Sunday 30th April and Monday 1st May 2017. Keep an eye on Eastnor Castle’s website & save the date!