I’ve been harvesting the last of my chillies. I don’t like them too hot, but I do find lots of uses for them, from cooking to pain relief and magic.
When Christopher Columbus set sail to find a new route to get the extortionately expensive black pepper cheaper, instead he found the New World and something just as good – chillies. It was his naming them pimiento (‘red pepper’) that caused the confusion that still exists with the name – they are not really peppers at all, but part of the solanaceae or nightshade family, and so related to potatoes and tomatoes. The confusion doesn’t stop there – they are also called chile, chili, cayenne, paprika and pimento.
Many villages in Central America are named after the type of chilli they grow and celebrate special fiestas in their honour. There are many hundreds of hybridized varieties of bell pepper and chilli in various shapes, colours, sizes and degrees of heat. Most varieties are derived from the annuum species, though C. frutescens is also popular. The heat is identified in Scoville Heat Units, with bell peppers rating 0, cayenne 2,500-4,000 and habaneros up to 300,000!
Fresh chilli peppers can be used to make soups, stews, curries, chillies, spicy drinks, sauces, chutney and pickles. Chilli powder and cayenne pepper are ground from the fruit of capsicums. Chilli powder is usually a blend of several types of chillies. It can be added to meat or vegetable dishes, pasta and eggs. Chilli pepper helps stimulate saliva, which is important for digestion as well as preventing bad breath.
Chillies were called Uchu by the Incas and revered as a deity, one of the four brothers of a creation myth, and brother of the first Inca king. In his Suma y narración de los Incas (‘Narrative of the Incas’), the Spaniard Juan de Betanzos included the story of the four Ayar brothers – Uchu, Manco, Cachi and Auca – who with their four sisters-wives lived in a mountain cave called ‘Storehouse of Dawn’. It had three windows, one of which looked out to the sky, one to the underworld, and one to the world of the living. The brothers and sisters left the cave in search of a suitable place to settle. Ayar Cache (‘Salt’), was so powerful he could break mountains, so the siblings became afraid, and sent him back to the cave, where he was walled up. Then remaining sibling travelled through the Andes, planting seeds wherever they stopped. When they the foot of the mountain Quirir-Manta, Ayar Uchu (‘Hot Pepper’)  became a stone shrine on the top of the mountain, where Inca youths went in order to be transformed into adults. Here the two brothers, Salt and Chilli Pepper, seem to represent shamanic opposite realms, one connected to the cave and earth, and the other connected with mountains and the sky.
Chilli peppers have certainly played their part in rituals of shamanic travel. The pre-Columbian tribes of Panama used chilli in combination with cocoa and other plants to enter into hallucinatory trance, travelling to the world above or the world below to negotiate with spirits on behalf of humankind.  In the Amazon, chilli is sometimes added to the hallucinogenic medicines that shamans use for healing rituals and vision quests. The Aztecs also loved drinking Chilote, a liqueur made of fermented agave pulp, chilli and herbs; this liquor is the basis of today’s Tequila and Mezcal. If you don’t have access to these, try this instead:
1 pint vodka
Prick the chillies and put them in a bottle and top up with the vodka. Leave to infuse for a week, then strain off the vodka into a clean bottle.
COUNTER MAGIC AND PROTECTION RITUALS
In Central and South America chillies were traditionally used in counter magic, protection rituals and to drive out evil spirits. Sprinkled around the house they were expected to ward off evil daemons and vampires, while burning them along with garlic and other pungent spices was intended to fumigate and purify the house. In Latin American countries it is also a popular counter-magical device to ward off or cure the effects of the evil eye. Strings of chilli peppers were used for decoration or worn as a protective necklace.  Hang a string of dried chillies in your kitchen as a protective charm, or put a wreath of chillies and died lemon slices on your front door. Add chilli powder to incenses of protection and banishing. Add chilli powder to incenses of Mar and fire to increase their power.
½ part basil
¼ part black pepper, ground
¼ part chilli powder
½ part clove, crushed
¼ part dill seeds, crushed
½ part garlic powder or garlic salt
½ part lemon peel
Chillies have long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac spice, their fiery nature was thought to ignite the flame of passion. The Aztecs were known to use Chillies for this purpose, often mixing them with other aphrodisiac plants such as cocoa and vanilla. Share some Chilli Chocolate with a lover.
Chilli Hot Chocolate
750 ml milk
½ vanilla pod
1 cinnamon stick
1 red chilli, deseeded
130g dark chocolate, grated
2 tsp. cocoa powder
Put the milk, vanilla pod, cinnamon stick and chilli in a saucepan over a medium heat until boiling. Set aside for 10 mins to infuse. Strain the liquid into a clean pan over a medium heat (don’t boil) add the cocoa powder and chocolate, stirring until smooth. If you wish, serve topped with whipped cream.
They also have many medicinal uses, classified as having anti-inflammatory, analgesic diuretic, stomachic, antianginal, antioxidant, detoxicant, antibiotic and sialagogue actions.
The hot and spicy taste of chilli is due to a compound called capsaicin, which is a natural pain killer. Capsaicin depletes a neurotransmitter called substance P, which is responsible for sending pain signals to our brain. This is very helpful in relieving pain in cases of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia as well as shingles, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, muscle and back pain.
Infused Chilli Oil
10-12 fresh chilli peppers
500 ml vegetable oil
Put the chillies and oil in a food processor or liquidiser and whizz up. Put the mixture in a glass jar and leave in a cool, dark place for 10 days. Strain the liquid through fine muslin into a sterilised bottle.
4 fresh chillies (cayenne) chopped
170 ml sunflower oil
1 tbsp. beeswax
Put the chillies and oil in a double boiler and simmer for 40 – 50 minutes. Strain out the chillies and return the oil to the pan. Add the beeswax and stir until it has melted. Pour into warmed, sterilised glass jars. Apply directly to your joints. Cayenne contains a substance called capsaicin which helps reduce pain by blocking pain signals to the brain. Wash your hands afterwards and avoid touching the eye area.
Chillies aid in breaking up and moving congested mucus in cases of colds and flu. They are also rich in vitamin C, which helps the immune system fight infections. Eating hot peppers increases the flow of blood and loosens the secretions of mucus in the sinuses, thus relieving the congestion that causes sinus headaches.
Blend 2 tsp lemon juice with 1 tbsp. honey and a pinch of cayenne pepper for a homemade cough syrup. The honey is soothing, the lemon reduces inflammation.
By pouring hot vinegar upon the fruits of Capsicum all the essential qualities are preserved. This vinegar is an excellent stomachic and good as a gargle for sore throats.
125 ml water
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp salt
Pinch chilli powder
Mix the ingredients and use it as a gargle several times a day to aid a sore throat. For laryngitis, substitute honey for the salt.
Lotions and creams containing capsicum are thought to be safe for most adults when applied to the skin. However, side effects can include skin irritation, burning and itching. Capsicum can also be extremely irritating to the eyes, nose and throat. Don’t use capsicum on sensitive skin or around the eyes. Don’t use capsicum on damaged or broken skin. Do not use on children.
Eating chillies is safe for most people, but very hot chillies can cause stomach irritation and upset, sweating, flushing, and a runny nose. Very large doses over a period of time may cause more serious side effects. Do not use if you are breastfeeding, and stay on the safe side and don’t use capsicum if you are pregnant. Stop using chillies at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery. Take care if you take anticlotting medications including aspirin, as capsicum may increase the effect. Avoid if you take Theophylline.
© Anna Franklin, condensed from The Hearth Witch’s Kitchen Herbal, Llewellyn 2019