SUNDERLAND — Some like it hot.
Some like it a tad sweet. Still others like it dried and smokey.
Different people like different types of peppers, and they’re all welcome to enjoy the multifaceted and versatile food at Chilifest in Sunderland this weekend.
Wife and husband Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, owners of Kitchen Garden Farm, started the festival in 2012 to bring together anyone passionate about their favorite ingredient and the event has morphed into an occasion that draws 1,500 to 2,000 people over two days.
“We found there wasn’t a tremendous market for peppers in the area. We loved growing them, but we couldn’t sell a lot of them, so we decided to do the festival to celebrate the foods that utilize these peppers around the world,” Pam said. “(There are) are varieties of peppers that grow around the world, but we grow them right here in Sunderland … because they’re real essential to cuisines around the world and we’re real food lovers.”
The event will run from noon to 5 p.m. at Mike’s Maze of Warner Farm on Saturday and Sunday.
Jess Wissemann of Warner Farm said the festival will be held adjacent to the maze and the children’s play area at the farm.
“We are longtime friends with the Kitchen Garden farmers,” she said. “At a certain point, we realized their festival would have great synergy with Mike’s Maze. We really loved the festival and we think it really adds a lot to what we we’re doing here at Warner Farm. It’s, we think, the perfect fit.”
The weekend’s list of festivities includes eight bands (four each day), various chef demonstrations, a do-it-yourself pickling tent and “Hot Sauce Alley,” featuring local hot sauce makers. There will also be a chili cook-off for professionals on Saturday and a hot sauce competition open to the public Sunday.
“The festival has turned into peppers being the inspiration, but it’s really, truly a community celebration. It’s just the highlight of our season,” Pam said. “I remember the first or second year, just looking up one day on a beautiful Saturday at a chili tasting and realizing we had created something that was really exciting to people. I hadn’t anticipated it becoming such a thing.”
Dave Schrier, former chef at The Alvah Stone in Montague and current chef/co-owner of Daily Operation in Easthampton, won the chili cook-off three years in a row and this will be his fifth Chilifest. He said Daily Operation buys corn and tomatoes from Warner Farm and it’s great to hang out at another locally-owned business. He referred to Chilifest as a working-class event that acts as great therapy in the middle of a busy time of year. Schrier said he plans to demonstrate how to cook a Chinese dish called “dan dan noodles,” which contains pork and chilis. He said he will use chili peppers from Kitchen Garden Farm at the 4 p.m. demonstration.
Pam’s husband, Tim Wilcox, said Chilifest maintains a significant but fairly low-key atmosphere. He compared the preparations to that of planning a wedding, with having to work out arrangements for food, music and tent rental.
“It’s grown into this nice community event and there are people who look forward to it every year. Most of all, it’s just a great way to involve the other businesses that we work with throughout the year,” he said. “We enjoy it. It’s a lot of extra work this time of year, when we’re already pretty crazy, but I don’t think we could give it up at this point, because it’s kind of taken up a life of its own.”
Pam and Wilcox started the farm on one acre of rented land in 2006 and have since expanded to 50 acres. Pam said Kitchen Garden Farm grows more than 100 types of peppers on 2 of those 50 acres and has developed new varieties of its own. She also said the farms makes three srirachas (original, habanero, and ghost pepper) and two salsas, with its own chili peppers, onions, tomatoes and tomatillos. Pam said the plan is to pick 30,000 pounds of peppers for sriracha this year. She said peppers have a six-week season, but making hot sauces out of them means people can enjoy them all year. She said the farm has roughly 20 workers this time of year and they all have lunch together, using the three srirachas every day.
Pam also said different chili peppers have distinctly different flavors, colors and shapes, and drying them provides yet another dimension of taste. She said the farm’s crops include Thai chilis, Caribbean seasoning peppers, Italian peppers and Hungarian paprika.
“They’re really fun to pick. They’re just like colorful jewels hanging there and when they’re really ripe and ready, it’s just, it makes me feel rich. They’re shiny, they’re colorful — they’re just gorgeous,” she said. “We do a lot of harvesting and 5,000 pounds of peppers are processed each week.”
Pam said Calabrians are probably her favorite. She said they are darkly pigmented and taste great sauteed, fresh, pickled or on pizza.
Jess Wissemann at Mike’s Maze said Chilifest brings together part of a network of farmers and business owners who support one another.
“It’s our favorite day at the farm,” she said.
Bart’s Ice Cream of Greenfield tends to offer a special pepper-inspired treat at the festival, Pam said.
More information about Chilifest, and links to an events schedule and how to buy tickets, is available at https://bit.ly/2x81kZh.
Reach Domenic Poli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.