How New Orleans and zydeco music inspired Yarra Valley’s annual Herb and Chilli Festival

How New Orleans and zydeco music inspired Yarra Valley’s annual Herb and Chilli Festival

Words by Annie-Mei Forster

If two days of gorging on food, putting your tastebuds to the test against hot sauces and shaking it out to zydeco music sounds right up your alley, then head to Yarra Valley next month for the Herb and Chilli Festival that’s now in its ninth year.

Clive Larkman and his wife Di own a nursery in the Yarra Valley that has been operating since 1984 and decided they wanted to start a two-day food and wine festival focused on herbs and chillies.

“We decided, because we had some land, that we would do our own herb festival. We thought if we called it herb and chilli it would get more people,” says Clive. “It started off as a small festival, but it’s grown to about 7,500 people.”

Not only is Larkman a nursery owner but he’s a botanist who has been a regular guest presenter on The Big Backyard gardening show on 3AW and ran a restaurant in the UK.

He and his wife adore New Orleans and while they were there, they developed a love for zydeco, a music genre birthed by French Creole speakers which evolved in Louisiana and blends blues, R&B and other styles indigenous to the Louisiana Creoles.

Larkman says he and his wife had been looking for a zydeco band in Australia and, after a lot of searching, found the group Psycho Zydeco who will play both days of the festival.

“My wife and I are very fussy when it comes to music, because we like hearing lyrics in songs. When we were in New Orleans, we saw so many bands but what we like about this genre is that when a band will appear on the street singing and playing, everyone is dancing and having a good time.”

“It’s a toe-tapping kind of music. It’s real music from the soul that’s got a character and a feel to it, so we hope people that come to the festival who really like music will enjoy zydeco,” he says.

Despite running a herb and chilli festival, Larkman admits he doesn’t enjoy anything too spicy. The highlight of the festival for him is trying food from all over the world, and the atmosphere.

There will be over 80 stalls set up with food from Cambodia, Europe, India, South America and more, as well as local bites. Make sure you check out the World’s Hottest Dim Sims, which are pure chilli.

The annual Captain Chilli competition is happening again this year, which is not for the fainthearted.

“The competitors keep eating chillies until they’re the last one standing. Chilli oil, chillies, hot sauce – anything to knock them out,” Larkman says.

“I was a bit unsure about running the competition at the beginning, but after a bit of research we found that no one has ever died from eating chilli in the world.”

Hot Sauce Alley showcases hot sauce companies from around Australia, with herb rubs and blends also on display. To combat the burn of the hot sauces, check out the fresh fruit ice-cream.

“This guy has a machine that puts fruits in the blender on one end and the ice-cream in the other and it comes out together – it’s the best ice-cream I’ve ever had,” Larkman says.

If this is all making you a little thirsty, there will also be plenty of places to wet your whistle, with Punt Road serving local wines, as well as an offering of Mountain Goat beers and Napoleone Cider. If you’re feeling adventurous there’s even a Thai Venom Vodka to try from Logan’s Micro Distillery.

Another not-to-be-missed event is the Australian Chilli Cook Off, where each team cooks a big batch of American-style chilli. The teams are judged by professionals and the public votes as well. A small gold coin donation is needed to taste the concoctions, but all proceeds go to the CFA. There are still a few spots available for the Cook Off, so if you want to enter, get in quick!

Larkman recommends booking your ticket online to avoid the queues and get a free Herb and Chilli Festival hat. There’s also free onsite parking and he encourages you to bring the whole family, plus the dog can come too. There’s also plenty of food available for vegans and vegetarians and the site is wheelchair friendly.

The Herb and Chilli Festival comes to 125 Quayle Road, Wandin on Saturday March 14 and Sunday March 15. Grab your tickets and find out more at the festival website.