As you might have noticed already, another great passion of mine are chillies. This includes cultivation from seed, harvesting (of course) and making my own hot sauces, powders, hot dishes etc. (more in the Chilli Sauces section on OccupationExpat) and there is obviously nothing better than to combine 2 or more hobbies in one activity, which I have done when I travelled to Albufeira in the South of Portugal.
I was living in Spain at the Costa del Sol at the time and had already been growing chillies for a number of years. In order to gain more knowledge and to get to know other like-minded growers and hot food lovers I joined several chilli growing groups on Facebook. One of the guys I met in one of the groups was Romeo Santos (no, not the singer), a Portuguese chap who, I would later find out, was born and has been brought up in Germany until his parents eventually decided to return to Portugal.
I do not quite recall what my actual plans for my visit to Albufeira were. Probably I did not even have any since I always liked being spontaneous. I told Romeo that I would love to visit and see his setup as he is one of the guys who went one step further than most of us and actually managed to start a profitable business with our hobby in common. I had tried one his sauces, Manga Mel (Mango & Honey), of which he had been sending free samples to anybody who wanted one. The only thing he asked for in return was a photo of the bottle with a typical scenery of the recipients country of residence. The below was my contribution – recognise the place?
So without making big plans, I threw 2 mattresses in the back of my Sprinter panel van, grabbed my wife Bruna who happens to be from Brazil and therefore a fluent Portuguese speaker and headed off to Portugal. It took us about 4.5 hours to get there in the mediterranean summer heat. I remember some lush 40 °C when we passed through Seville with no aircon in the van. Heaven on earth for me, purgatory for many others including Bruna.
Romeo had given us his mum’s address as a meeting point but my old, outdated Navman S50 did not do me the favour of finding the place. A Google Maps printout would have probably been more useful. Getting hungry and slightly stressed out I tried to ring Romeo, only to find out that he must have given me an invalid number, there we were, hundreds of miles from what we used to call home, without functioning navigation or possibility to contact our host. Bruna could not believe that her GERMAN husband could be disorganised enough not even to double check a phone number. It later turned out to be just one digit off and was probably completely unintentional 😉
I, myself do not always need a plan, though. I enjoy being 100% spontaneous and just going ahead without knowing what will expect me.
Eventually I managed to go online on my Nokia E63 which must have cost me a kidney or two in roaming costs on my Spanish prepaid card. On the Facebook page of Romeo’s company Piri Piri & Co. I got the number of Rui, one of his partners who agreed to meet us at the restaurant we had spent the last hour in front of and now decided to have our late lunch in. To my great surprise Rui had a 100% English sounding accent as he had just returned from Devon where he had spent the better part of the new millennium. As a German speaking English with a Scottish accent due to my time in Scotland, I always love to meet other people that managed to master the English language in a similar way.
Rui finally guided us to the house of Romeo’s mum where we were supposed to meet. We turned out no to be too far off after Bruna asked for directions at a driving school but we had missed one left turn and went right instead. Once there, we have been provided with a key for the main gate and an empty house that was located right next to their chilli farm. We were able to park our van inside and use the bathroom of the empty house. Romeo had run an extension cable to the yard so we could charge our phones.
After we had been made familiar with the facilities, we followed Romeo to a little shop in Ferreiras, a part of Albufeira. I believe that the place used to be a bistro and therefore came with a professional kitchen. For some reason we were really lucky and our visit to Piri Piri & Co. coincided with the grand opening of their new shop – the first one of this kind in the whole of Portugal!
The place had been beautifully decorated with lots of chilli-related memorabilia, flyers had been printed out and the sign at the door read:
O MELHOR PIRI PIRI DO ALGARVE – THE HOTTEST CHILLIES IN THE ALGARVE
On Friday morning, the 28th of June 2013, one day before the new Piri Piri & Co. shop was about to open, we woke up after having slept well in the back of our van and were overwhelmed by the Portuguese hospitality when Mrs. Santos served us breakfast on a little table out in the yard. It was already warm enough to enjoy this treat shirtless when the morning sun hit and Mrs. Santos’ dog “Pimentas” (Portuguese for chillies) kept us company.
It did not take long for Romeo to make an appearance in order to check on the chilli plants. If you are living in this part of Europe, you want to start your day early before the heat in the polytunnels gets unbearable.
Behind the house a little path led through vast fields of chilli plants, 4×1000 sqm to be exact, to the biggest greenhouse I have seen until today. Not only had I been hit by a very sweet heatwave when entering, I also felt like Fox in Wonderland or a fat kid locked inside a chocolate store. So many plants, so many different colours and varieties.
After Romeo headed off to the store, we went to a local beach in order to enjoy a bit more of the Portuguese morning sun and some “latinhas de cerveja” sold by one of the numerous Brazilian vendors that could be found there.
Later we met the guys at the store and after taking a quick shower there, we helped them with the preparations for the store opening in the morning. Labelling bottles, bagging dried chillies and stamping sell-by dates onto the products before enjoying a well-deserved BBQ with German beer and chilli sausages I had brought with me. I also went to pick up some things from a local print store with Rui in one of their company cars. I noticed that the car had no seatbelts and I was informed that any car registered in Portugal before 1998 is not required to have a seatbelt.
Then the big day had finally arrived – Saturday the 29th of June 2013. After another another great breakfast in the yard provided by Mrs. Santos, we got started in the greenhouse. Romeo handed me a crate and a pair of scissors – some healthy looking plants and lots and lots of fresh pods would be needed.
After another quick visit to beach, we went to the store and joined the festivities. I can easily call this on of the “hottest” days in my life. Not because I ate some ridiculously hot stuff, but because everything I ate had a t least a bit of heat in it, resulting in my motto: “Nothing must be hot but anything may!”
My 2 favourites were “Brutal” a sweet liqueur made with chilli powder and Romeo’s own honey (yes, he is a beekeeper too) filled in a skull-shaped bottle and “Bunga Bunga” a salad mix made of the crowns of some the 3 hottest chillies known at the time with garlic and bay leaves, which went great with crackers.
The opening was a huge success and well-attended not only by locals, but also some English residents and holiday makers.
Rui’s birthday cake Romeo preparing “Bunga Bunga”
On Sunday morning, shortly before we went back to Spain, I was given the opportunity to harvest some of the superhots from the greenhouse myself and almost got carried away again. All in all it was a great “hot” experience and I am buzzing to go back ever since.
In the 2.5 years since we have been there, Piri Piri & Co. moved twice into bigger shops and the guys opened a hot food bistro in Albufeira. They made it into Portuguese television several times with their “Bifana mais picante do mundo” – the hottest bifana in the world, had to deal with flood damages, closed the bistro and moved once again.
Unfortunately I was never able to visit the Bistro but the guys made an agreement with the new owners, who will keep offering some of their products including a monthly “Bifana mais picante do mundo” event.
They now have an ONLINE SHOP in English, Portuguese and German and are planning on opening a small physical store next to the farm again.
If you happen to be in or around Albufeira any time soon, make sure to give them a shout. Their contact details are on their Facebook page I linked above and they are usually quite responsive.
Thanks for reading, please also check out my YouTube Channel where I will also be making a “HOT DESTINATIONS” series soon.