Hot Rocks

Dan May – rock roadie and musician-turned-photographer-turned-hoticulturalist-turned-cook is author of the hottest cook book of the moment. Jane Pikett talks chilli in chilly Northumberland

Exciting news. Chillis make you thin (the heat – the ‘diet-induced thermic effect’ – helps the calories burn; bring it on!).
Plus, they are good for warding off vampires, deterring marauding elephants and treating vertigo (not necessarily at the same time). Who knew?
Dan May knows all this and more about chillis, including how to grow them very successfully in Northumberland; further north than anyone else in the world, no less.
He also knows how to cook every variety of chilli imaginable in thousands of combinations, which is why his new (first) book – The Red Hot Chilli Cookbook – is the food book of the moment and, in publishing terms, hotter than a very hot habanero (sorry!).
This may not have much to do with the fact that Dan, a former musician and roadie, used work with (wait for it) The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it does have everything to do with the fact that he is a man inspired to rare levels of culinary creativity by chillis and the wonderful places in the world where they are more usually grown and revered.
“I travelled for a long time working as a landscape photographer and fell in love with chillis, the people who grow them and the food they cook with them. It all came from there,” says Dan, chopping onions and chorizo in the huge kitchen of the former village rectory he calls home.
A born optimist, he began growing 60 varieties of chillis on the bleakest, most wind-ravaged edge of the Pennines in 2005 and discovered to his surprise that they thrived. Dan – who had never before thought himself a horticulturalist or a farmer – was suddenly the owner of the world’s most northerly chilli farm.
He readily admits that he didn’t at the time require another career, but he did have rather a surfeit of chillis, so what to do but set up in production?
Thus Trees Can’t Dance – now one of the UK’s best-known names in chilli sauces, marinades and condiments – was born. The business currently grows more than 70 varieties of chilli and produces an ever-expanding range of sauces, spice mixes, jams and marinades sold all over the UK. The range is stocked in major supermarkets, specialist delis and independent stores and it has now moved from its original former stable block to a factory unit in Haltwhistle, Northumberland.
“But there’s been no real career plan,” says Dan, a 43-year-old father of four whose working life has been varied, to say the least. “It’s all by accident, really.”
As a musician and roadie in the late 1980s and early 90s, he worked with the likes of Faith No More and, as mentioned, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This was followed by success as a rock photographer, covering Glastonbury and taking portraits of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Lenny Kravitz among others.
Dan then went on to work as a travel and advertising photographer in the United States capturing the arid landscapes of the US South West. It was here that he acquired a taste for the vibrant, chilli-laden cooking of New Mexico and Arizona.
Trees Can’t Dance chillies and sauces have been so well received by aficionados that Dan has even managed to sell salsa to the Mexican owner of a US chain of Latino grocers.
He says he is happiest day to day in the family kitchen, which is decorated with exquisite canvases by his artist wife, Becky McKenzie, and where the big dresser shelves heave with Kilner jars stuffed with dried chillis of many varieties.
“I have cooked forever – since I was a kid – and I love it. I love to cook every sort of dish, from the very simple to the preposterously time-consuming, and the act of cooking and feeding people is where I am most happy and most at home,” Dan says.

Hence, most days the big ivory four-oven Aga is engaged in the creation of new recipes (another book will follow – it seems there is no limit to the chilli recipes this man can invent…) and the kids – three boys and a girl ranging in age from two months to nine years – have the genes to develop their own discerning palates and gifts for horticulture.
It may be chilly outside, but inside, all is very warm indeed.
The Red Hot Chilli Cookbook is priced £16.99 from bookstores and Amazon

Trees Can’t Dance
Dan May’s chilli sauce company was so named because of the place trees hold in folklore around the world.
“The idea of a dreaming tree, somewhere of permanence to go and sit, think and solve your problems, is a common theme not only in Celtic tradition but also in the cultures of Native American Indians, from which most modern chilli plants originated,” he says.“You may not be able to solve all your problems by thinking about them, but combine it with dancing, and – who knows?”

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