What began as a cracking summer in the greenhouse fizzled out, as summers so often do, just as the kids broke up for the holidays. The days they had spent sitting in classrooms gazing out at blue skies and parched earth were swapped for sitting in their bedrooms looking out at the rain. The chillies in the greenhouse haven’t liked it much either. There are lots of fruits, spurred on by that encouraging early spell, but ripening has been slow. To ripen, chillies want consistent warm temperatures and lots of light from warm sunny days. A glasshouse works hard to ameliorate a bad summer, but when the shorter cooler days of autumn come along the game is slightly up. We may have to use a few tricks to get our crop to ripen fully.
The simplest trick is to move the plants indoors, lock, stock and barrel. Clearly for this to work you need to be growing your plants in pots, and ones that aren’t immovably large. You will also need a good space to move them to: ideally a large, south facing window. There is little point bringing them indoors and plonking them into a shady corner. The dependable warmth of the house will bring out their own heat, and that finishing flush of colour. Where it isn’t possible to move the whole thing you might want to ripen them in a chilli ristra, a string of chillies, which looks gorgeous in the kitchen anyway. It works best with long, thin chillies, as chunkier ones will be slow to dry out and are more likely to touch each other and rot. Take a piece of fishing line and tie a good knot at the base. Thread a large needle and push it sideways through the green stem, then repeat with all of the other chillies. Once you have completed a full string, hang it up in a sunny porch or south facing window to ripen and then dry. And then there is the paper bag trick: the ethylene given off by ripe apples is very useful in ripening other fruits, so put your unripe chillies into a paper bag with a ripe apple, seal it up loosely and tuck it away for a few days and you should start to see a change in the colour.
If you still end up with a heap of unripe chillies at the end of the season all is most certainly not lost. They are still very edible indeed. They may not have the sweetness and complexity of a fully ripe chilli, but they will be crunchy and relatively mild instead of hot and fruity (and plenty will be hot too). However it it true that they wont dry as well as fully ripened chillies, so use them straight away. One way of making use of their more vegetable-like nature when they are unripe is to make a fresh chutney to eat with Indian food – not the long-lasting cupboard preserve made with cups full of sugar and vinegar but a light and bright condiment filled with strong flavours to inject a burst of heat when eaten alongside milder dishes. Finely chop a bowlful of unripe chillies (leaving the seeds in if you want more heat, removing them first for less) and fry lightly in a little oil with garlic, cumin seeds, grated coconut, a teaspoonful of sugar and a pinch of salt. Remove from the heat. Chop a big handful of coriander and mint and mix it in and then squeeze lime juice all over and chill in the fridge. You can eat this immediately or store it in the fridge for up to a few days.