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Tiffani Sherman

A local nursery hosts its annual homage to the pepper, drawing hot sauce makers and pepper growers from around the state.

Friendly fire
Published June 20, 2003

CLEARWATER - Here are three key words for this weekend's Pepper Extravaganza at Beckett Lake Nursery: mild, medium, hot.

It's what you get when you combine dozens of varieties of peppers, from the sweet green bell to the hot habanero, with vendors, contests and tingling taste buds.

The nursery, 2251 Montclair Road, is hosting the sixth annual free festival Saturday and Sunday. The event draws pepper growers, hot sauce makers and others from all over Florida.

Maryon Marsh, 62, co-owner of the Misting Shed in Dover, will bring about 80 different kinds of pepper plants to sell.

"They go from mild and sweet to oh-my-God, I have no mouth left," she said.

The hotter ones sell first.

"There's definitely a bunch of people out there who like it hot," Marsh said.

Her plants cost from $2.50 for little ones to up to $10 for 2 gallons of fire-producing potential.

There's a lot to learn about peppers.

For example, dried peppers are hotter than fresh ones.

There's also a way to measure a pepper's heat called the Scoville scale. Here's a quick primer so you know what you're talking about at the Pepper Extravaganza:

Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville started the whole thing in 1912. At first it was a subjective taste test, but now uses more sophisticated chemistry to measure the level of compounds known as capsaicinoids.

They make peppers hot.

A sweet bell pepper is a zero on the Scoville scale. A pepperoncini rates 100 to 500 Scoville units. A jalapeno scores 2,500 to 8,000. Cayenne tips the scales at 30,000 to 50,000 and the mighty habanero will burn your tongue quickly with capsaicinoid levels of 100,000 to 325,000.

During the festival, more than 20 vendors will sell and let you taste everything from the expected hot sauces and salsas to pepper beer and habanero Belgian chocolate truffles.

"It's a pleasant aftertaste, kind of a warming flavor," said John Basagic, 55, owner of Diadre Fine Chocolate in Dunedin. His habanero truffles sell for a $1.65.

He bought the pepper he uses at last year's extravaganza.

The vendors are coming from all over Florida. One of the most recognizable may be Tahiti Joe.

"I'll bring everything and I'll be cooking," said Joe Turner, 44, of West Palm Beach. "I'm in my little Tahiti Joe getup."

The secrets to his award-winning Polynesian Hot Sauces: honey and clam juice.

"It's got flavor to back up the heat," he said.

Tahiti Joe is one of the professional hot sauce makers, but contests can help you see how your homemade hot stuff compares to others.

Saturday is amateur salsa contest day. Sunday will put hot sauces up against each other. Entering the contests is free, but is limited to the first 20 entries.

And don't worry: Along with the pepper peddlers, there will be plenty of drink vendors, too.

If you go

Beckett Lake Nursery's free sixth annual Pepper Extravaganza is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the nursery, 2251 Montclair Road. Cooking demonstrations are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. both days, and a pepper-growing seminar will take place each day at 1 p.m. Call (727) 796-7950.

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