The annual Herb and Chilli Festival returns to the Yarra Valley this March

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The annual Herb and Chilli Festival returns to the Yarra Valley this March

“There'll be nothing hotter in Australia than what you'll find here”

Returning for its tenth year, this year’s Herb and Chilli Festival is a celebration of all things hot, with a two-day buffet of food, music, competitions, demonstrations and entertainment.

Adding some serious zest to Wandin over two huge days in March – Saturday, March 19 and Sunday, March 20 – the fiery festival is a homage to the spicy side of life, thanks to Clive and Di Larkman.

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11 years ago, the couple – who run Yarra Valley company Renaissance Herbs – decided to organise a festival to celebrate the vast range of products they were passionate about. While a herb festival was the initial plan, they quickly realised they needed to add some heat to the event if they wanted to truly carve a place within Melbourne’s food and wine scene.

“We wanted to run a festival for herbs because we’ve got a lovely property and always thought one day we could do something on it. But then we worked out if we tried to run a herb festival, we probably wouldn’t get anybody but if we ran a herb and chilli festival, it could easily attract more people,” Clive says.

“It started quite small but we’ve gotten a little bit bigger every year with record numbers seeing 7500 people and more than 100 stallholders.”

While the festival didn’t run in 2021, like many festivals around the country, the mecca for iron-tongued spice-lovers is back and better than ever with its tantalising program.

Upon entry, you’ll be greeted with a huge range of festival stalls, both old and new, dedicated just to plants, freshly grown herbs, rubs, jams, spice mixes and more than 40 varieties of chillies on sale. Here you’ll be able to enjoy an abundance of free samples and tastings, as well as purchase the goods to take home and cook up a storm.

If you think you can defeat the heat, Hot Sauce Alley is where you’ll find a huge spread of chilli-based foods on offer with sauces, relishes, and rubs certain to tickle the tastebuds. With an endless cavalcade of hot sauces to try, you’ll also be able to find Chipotle BBQ, Smoked Jalapeno, Blair’s Death Sauce and so much more.

“Down Hot Sauce Alley you’ll also find five to seven people selling the absolute hottest sources in Australia,” Clive adds. “We’ll usually have hot sauce aficionados coming who will just spend hours here testing every hot sauce on offer.”

You’ll even be able to buy bottles of your favourites so you can keep the party going way past the weekend.

Over in the international food court, you’ll be spoiled for choice with more than 20 food stores showing off their styles and taste from all around the globe. Spanning over 2,000 square metres, you’ll be able to sit down and dine on your meal, or meals, with live music happening throughout the area.

“We have a waiting list and we handpick every stallholder to make sure we’re offering the most unique and best food we can,” Clive explains. “People don’t want pies, baked potatoes or hot dogs, they’re coming to a food festival and they want to try new and different cuisines – and you’ll only find one type of each cuisine.”

From the World’s Hottest Dim Sims (made from pure chilli) and slow BBQ feasts to desserts and fresh fruit ice cream for when your mouth is on fire, there’s bound to be something for every taste. If you’re the experimental type (and if you’re at a chilli fest we imagine you are), we recommend swinging by the deli section where you’ll find delights like Salamis, Turkish delights, jerky and smoked fish.

To wash it all down, you’ll find a range of beer, wine, spirits, non-alcoholic beverages and excellent coffee on offer with a focus on small brewers, boutique distillers and local wineries. For fans of spicy daytime cocktails, you’ll also find an abundance of spicy creations to test your tastebuds. Think the likes of Chilli vodka, chilli beer, and spicy vodka. OR perhaps chilli kombucha is more your style? 

Alongside all the food, you’ll also find four massive stages providing entertainment galore.

If improving your DIY meal repertoire is what you’re after, check out the Cooking Stage where chefs and cooks will share their expertise, tips, tricks and favourite recipes, or if you’d prefer to get in amongst the action you can put your gob to the test with the ever-popular ‘Stinger Wing Challenge’ or the ‘Captain Chilli competition’, with the latter offering the title of ‘Captain Chilli’ to whoever can consume the hottest food items in the quickest time. Here, Mexican wrestlers will be demonstrating their incredible craft and schmoozing with the crowds so be sure to swing by the competition stage to witness exactly that.

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 with a small gold coin donation needed to taste the concoctions.

Heading up the main stage multiple times across the two days is Sydney-based roots act Psycho Zydeco with their blend of Cajun, blues and swamp – adding their kick to an already spicy weekend. Inspired by the sounds of New Orleans and Louisiana, the Psychos – as they’re dubbed by fans – are a melting pot of drums, guitar, sax, washboard, accordion and the occasional industrial-sized triangle.

“Psycho Zydeco has been going since 1981 and toured the world with their music. It’s a toe-tapping kind of music, formed out of Louisiana Creoles, which combines blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock and Cajun fusions. It’s just really fantastic music and everyone just loves it once you start listening to it,” he says.

“They [Psycho Zydeco] performed at our festival in 2020 and then broke up. We convinced them to reform for our 2021 festival which didn’t go ahead so now we’ve got them back for another round.”

Along with a few ripper sets from Psycho Zydeco, there will also be live performances from Inka Marka, whose stunning sound reflects the traditional music and instruments of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, and local country, jazz and blues singer-songwriter Garry Marr and John Rees. Plus, there will also be Peruvian Folkloric dancers and acoustic musicians in the beer garden.

An event dedicated to foodies and eager heat gladiators of all ages, kids will have a great time at the festival with plenty of entertainment such as face painting, pony rides, jumping castles and a petting zoo. There will be plenty of vegan and other dietary-friendly options, plus the dog can come too.

The best part is this festival isn’t one that will break the bank.

“Once you walk through the gate, all the entertainment and activities are completely free,” Clive says.

“Every vendor has to offer free samples and tasting so the only cost is whatever you want to eat or buy. Drinks are available at standard bar pricing and each food vendor must offer at least one dish under $10.”

Festival-goers under 14 are also free, as is the parking.

And as a lasting gift, every ticketholder will also get their hands on a free herb and chilli growing e-book and plant if they’re looking to bring a slice of the festival home with them.

The Herb and Chilli Festival comes to 125 Quayle Road, Wandin on Saturday, March 19 and Sunday, March 20. Grab your tickets and find out more at the festival website.