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Pepper Fest celebrates the sizzle and the sweet of North Carolina’s hottest crop

Pepper Fest returns Sept. 23 to Chapel Hill’s Briar Chapel, bringing together local chefs, brewers and fans of spice.
Pepper Fest returns Sept. 23 to Chapel Hill’s Briar Chapel, bringing together local chefs, brewers and fans of spice. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

Don’t put peppers in a corner.

Sure, they’re hot and spicy, as if flames could grow on a plant. But don’t sleep on their sweeter side, their fruitier side, the side that isn’t searing, but more warm and tingly.

Pepper Fest returns this month for the 11th year. Hosted by sustainability advocate Abundance NC, the Pepper Festival celebrates the bounty of Carolina peppers, which includes some of the hottest on earth and cooler varieties first bred here. The annual event hooks up local farmers who grow peppers with the chefs who cook them and a public that can’t seem to get enough of them, no matter how many times they’ve been burned.

Pepper Fest started in 2007 as a one-off tasting event for a new kind of cooled-off habanero developed by local farmer Doug Jones. The festival has grown into an annual gathering of those who like it hot, attracting nearly 3,000 people eating up about a half-ton of Chatham County peppers.

Around 50 restaurants, breweries, distilleries and food artisans will craft dishes and brews highlighting North Carolina peppers, serving bites to thousands. Dishes will come from restaurants like Elaine’s on Franklin, La Residence, Harvest 18 and Angelina’s Kitchen, a two-time winner for best dish at Pepper Fest. Breweries like Fullsteam, Mystery and Vecino and distillers like Fair Game and TOPO will serve spiced drinks to sample, plus run a cash bar.

This year, Pepper Fest is taking on a “Wild” theme, building on the foraging trend and encouraging chefs to build their dishes around what can be readily found in the Carolina wilds.

“North Carolina is home to one of the top places to forage for wild, seasonal ingredients,” Tami Schwerin, founder of Abundance NC said in a release. “We want to encourage citizens to enjoy these lush, highly nutritious foods, support our farmers and hence boost our agricultural economy.”

Abundance NC has made Pepper Fest its signature fundraiser of the year and since starting the event, has raised more than $400,000 for sustainable farming research.

This will be the last Pepper Fest in the Briar Chapel development between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, the event’s home for most of the past decade. Organizers say attendance has outgrown the residential community and that it will be moved nearby for next year, though a location has yet to be determined.

Pepper Fest is from 3-6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23. Tickets are $30 and include all food samples. Tickets for children ages 6 to 12 are $5. For tickets and more details: http://pepperfestnc.org/

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