Some like it hot
A red-lettered warning comes with the Dorset Naga, one of the chile pepper varieties East Millinocket native Michael Michaud, a 1975 UMaine plant sciences graduate and agronomist, sells through Peppers by Post mail-order seed company in England:
“Please use with the greatest of caution. Under no circumstances should one of these chiles be left where an unwitting person, especially a child, might handle them.”
Michaud, his wife Joy, and their organic garden employees wear gloves to handle the pepper. After four years in development in their West Bexington, Dorchester greenhouses and poly-tunnels, the heat level for the Dorset Naga was measured in laboratory testing for a 2006 BBC “Gardeners’ World” program at 1.6 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the hottest heat level ever recorded for a chile at the time. The Michauds say the wrinkled, wedge-shaped red peppers “with a distinctive fruity aroma” average around 1 million SHU. For comparison, Tabasco red pepper sauce rates at 2,500-5,000 SHU.
The Michauds also grow dozens of other unusual, colorful fruits and vegetables, including creative hybrids, for their other mail-order business, Sea Spring Seeds.
They spend spare time in agricultural events, such as curry-judging competitions and fairs, or offering tutored chile tastings.
What is your current occupation?
I have a number of occupations, all of which are land-based in one way or another. For example, my wife, Joy, and I grow and sell fresh chiles through the post (hence the name of the company, Peppers by Post). We also have a vegetable and herb seed company, Sea Spring Seeds. As part of our activities, we buy bulk seed, repackage it and sell it mail order in small retail packs. Likewise, we also produce our own seeds — mainly chiles — many of which are our own varieties. This includes the Dorset Naga, one of the hottest chiles in the world. We also produce “bonsai’’ chile plants in small pots that easily fit on a kitchen windowsill. The fruit are ready to pick, and can be used by keen cooks to spice up their cooking. In addition, I do a bit of garden writing, mostly of the “how-to” kind. For the last 10 or so years, I have been researching the vegetables and herbs found in immigrant shops and gardens. I not only write about my findings, but some of the varieties I found have made their way into the Seed Spring Seeds catalogue.
Where is your business located?
We work from home and from our small holding located behind the house.
What is the size of the business?
We employ mostly school students, who usually come on Saturday mornings. The number of employees, all part-time, varies according to the season. It has been as high as seven or eight and as low as three. For the Dorset Naga, we have an international clientele, with customers in Australia, Africa, Thailand and Europe. Did I mention the U.S.? My brother is the official importer, and he sends the orders out for us from his home down south. We produce thousands of Dorset Naga seeds each year, most of which we manage to sell.
How did you get started in the mail-order seed business?
We have been in the growing business for over 20 years; Peppers by Post for 15 years; Sea Spring Seeds, four or five years. After developing the Dorset Naga chile, we decided to produce seeds of it ourselves. We started Seed Spring Seeds as a way of selling the seed, and in the last two or three years have added more varieties to our catalogue.
Were chile peppers always part of your life?
Until we started selling fresh chiles through the post some 15 years ago, we had very little to do with chiles. We still don’t like scorchingly hot food, preferring to eat the larger, milder chiles instead of the smaller, hotter ones.
How does one create new lines of peppers?
We develop ours in two ways: (1) from accidental crosses that occur between two varieties growing in the same greenhouse and (2) from land race varieties collected in immigrant shops. We could make our own crosses, but so far, this has not been necessary.
How do you measure the heat?
We use one of the university laboratories. The technicians extract the heat-causing chemicals called capsaicinoids from dried fruit and measure their concentration by means of HPLC (high-pressure liquid chromatography). The equipment they use is quite expensive and sophisticated, and I have only a vague idea of how it works. The concentration of capsaicinoids is expressed in Scoville Heat Units. Ordinary jalapeños measure about 2,500 to 10,000 SHUs, which is hot enough for most white people. Habaneros can measure in the hundreds of thousands, and the Dorset Naga sometimes tops a million SHUs.
Do you personally eat hot peppers?
My wife and I prefer the milder types of chiles. Unfortunately, I start to hiccup if my food is too hot, a characteristic I inherited from my mother.
How do you eat or cook with a red hot pepper like some of the extreme varieties you produce?
The Dorset Naga is derived from the Bangladeshi land race Naga Morich pepper. The Bangladeshis seldom cook with it. Instead, they either rub it over their plate before the food is served or nibble on the fresh fruit as they eat their food. They also eat it green because it has less heat than when it is red.
How does one cool the burn if the pepper is too hot?
They say dairy products. My Bangladeshi friends offer me yogurt if they see me struggling from too much chile.
I’ve been reading your book, Cool Green Leaves & Red Hot Peppers, a Guide to Cooking with Vegetables. Do you have a favorite spicy dish that utilizes some of these extreme peppers?
No. The hot ones are just too hot. Chiles should be used to enhance the flavor of food, not detract from the enjoyment.
Your summer schedule appears to be very busy.
Yes, we are extremely busy: seven days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day until the fall. We sell our seeds, plants and fresh fruits at various food festivals and agriculture shows, and I occasionally give cookery demonstrations using chiles.
What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?
The clichéd response would be my children, and I am going with the cliché. My son has done a degree in biochemistry and is just starting a master’s in chemistry. My daughter is doing history at university and is destined to do wonderful things.
How long were you at UMaine?
Seven years, on and off, before finally getting a BS in plant science in 1975. It took me two attempts, seven years and numerous changes in majors to get a degree from the University of Maine. But in the end, it was worth it.
Why did you choose UMaine?
I wish there was a very noble reason for choosing UMaine, but there isn’t. Coming from the back woods, I didn’t have the confidence to look at a university too far from home. And since UMaine was 60 miles down the road, it was the logical place to go. It proved, fortunately, to be the right choice.
How did UMaine prepare you for what you are doing today?
Studying at UMaine gave me the background I needed to pursue a career in agriculture. The department, Plant and Soil Sciences, was staffed by capable people committed to doing a good job of teaching.
Most memorable UMaine moment?
Talking to a Chilean student, and realizing the profound sadness he felt at the overthrow of Allende (this was in the early 1970s). It was the first time I understood the effects that catastrophic international events can have on ordinary people, even in Maine.
What was your favorite place on campus?
The library: a repository of knowledge waiting to be quietly absorbed.
While in Orono, I spent too much time …
Finding a major.
Favorite professor or mentor?
Cecil Brown, professor in the Plant and Soil Sciences Department. He was compassionate, knowledgeable and generous. There is a departmental scholarship in his name.
Class that nearly did you in?
Statistics. I lasted about a month, then dropped it.
Best UMaine tradition?
I liked the buzz of Homecoming in the fall.
If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have…
wasted time pursuing sociology.
Advice to UMaine students today?
Pretend to listen to your parents, then go with your instincts.
How did your UMaine experience shape who you are now?
Career-wise, my UMaine experience did everything to shape me. Good teachers and interesting classes stimulated me to pursue a career in agriculture. And agriculture has been great fun: the Peace Corps in El Salvador; a master’s from the University of Florida; Ph.D. from Texas A&M; research and teaching at the University of the Virgin Islands; international inspector for the organic industry; vegetable grower; garden writer. It doesn’t get much better.
Image Description: Michael Michaud