The first time I tried St John & Dolly Smith’s “Scotch Bonnet Pickle” my taste buds lit up like someone put 1000 volts through them. It was a blistering simultaneous hit of taste and sensation. The heat-wave receded leaving two questions: Who made this? And: Where can I get some more?
The answer to both involves a Saturday afternoon trek to London Fields. The air is thick with barbeque smoke and hip young couples pitching their voices above the ambient Broadway Market buzz. Chris Smith, founder and sole proprietor of St. John & Dolly Smith’s, looks out of place amidst the leggy, Rayban-and-cuffed-trouser clientele. Small, black-clad from his battered leather jacket (zipped to the chin) to his work boots, he has the twinkle and palpable self-assurance of a born trader.
Greet him and he steps out to say hello, explaining that council regulations only allow licenced stall holders behind the broad table bearing neat rows of homemade sauces and pickles. “Try some” Chris says, proffering a bowl of roughly broken crackers. On the far left is his “Old Nick” Scotch Bonnet Sauce, an invention that exposes commercial ketchup as insipid sugar-sludge. Moving right, there are variations on the theme till, halfway along, squat jars replace elegant bottles as pickles take over from sauces. Brinjal Pickle, Hot Chilli, Scotch Bonnet, Hot Apple Chutney. Every label bears the portrait of a middle aged couple, looking into the distance as people always seem to do in black-and-white photos of a certain vintage. St. John and Dolly Smith didn’t live to see their name and likeness turned into a logo but Chris, the youngest of their three sons, hopes they’d be proud.A lifelong educator, St. John Smith taught at some of India’s best schools, some of which were boarding schools where Dolly’s role was that of house matron. When their two older sons left university they moved to England with 13-year-old Chris. It was the first time he’d left India and his abiding memory is of coming off the boat to see frost so thick on the ground it looked like snow. The utter foreignness of his new home was assuaged by the familiar foods of Bangalore. “Friends were crazy about my parent’s cooking. They would come around with a list of requests for their favourites but my mum and dad were very modest,” Chris recalls fondly. “They always thought ‘oh, they’re just being polite.’”
As the son of gifted cooks, he admits to never doing much in the kitchen. “Why would I, when they could do it better?” One of Dolly’s traditions was taking jars of pickle to school reunions, a flavoursome evocation of shared memories. The company website explains how a meeting with one of his mother’s friends encouraged Chris to rekindle this annual ritual. At first read the story, which involves a chance encounter in a cookware shop, it seems improbably tidy, almost glib. But once you meet him it makes sense. Chris doesn’t wait for opportunity to knock; he pushes open doors and steps through. (His first career as a photographer began when he blagged a pass for a Supertramp gig then took the photos to the record label, which bought them on the spot. The next day he quit his office job and set up as a snapper.) Clever and adaptable, Chris is exactly the kind of cheerful opportunist who can go from taking wedding portraits and glamour shots to bottling chilli pickle.“I didn’t intend to make a business of it,” Chris admits, grey-blue eyes sparking with silent laughter. “But people liked it so much.” Using recipes passed down from his grandmother, he cooked batches of pickle in his tiny kitchen, balancing a seething cauldron across all four hobs of the stove. Steam stripped the wallpaper and the paintwork went into meltdown: “My ceiling looked like a warzone.” Small batches went out to friends, delis, grocers, and specialist food shops. Word spread and slightly unhinged declarations of love and loyalty followed. People drove four hours to buy the stuff. Paid £10 a bottle to have it delivered. Bought it in bulk and stacked it in their pantries as if it were gold bullion. “I don’t worry about sales,” Chris says. “Once people taste it, they buy it.”
As we chat a trio of women stop to sample some “Old Nick” Scotch Bonnet Sauce.
“I’m burning!” one shrieks.
Chris passes her a cracker loaded with cooling Sweet Lime Chutney. “This will help.”
She checks her purse then asks if he knows where a cashpoint is. Most stallholders would be discouraged by this polite exit strategy but Chris gives her directions without appearing to think any more of it. Unlike the solicitous majority of stallholders he mostly ignores the passers-by. It is an indifference born of confidence. You can’t hide a flaming hot jar of culinary brilliance under a bushel.
Making a product so good it sells itself requires other sacrifices. After eight years of scheduling pungent home cooking around his neighbour’s in order to keep the peace Chris moved to an industrial kitchen last year, thanks to an investment from his eldest brother. He also hired his first employee, a Ukrainian student who, true to form, he met as she posted fliers through letterboxes on his street. “I’m not sure why, but I offered her a job on the spot. She is just brilliant,” he says. Unfortunately as a non-EU student she is currently ineligible to work, meaning Chris is locked in a Home Office wrangle to get her a permit. “It’s not that I’m trying to get cheap foreign labour,” he sighs. “She’s enthusiastic, a perfectionist and actually takes an interest in the business. She is by far the best person for the job.”
Legal issues aside, life is a seven-days-per-week routine of driving, shopping, prepping, cooking, bottling, delivering, marketing and paperwork. Most mornings he is up at 2AM in order to beat greengrocers to the freshest vegetables at the vast Western International Market near Heathrow. Then Chris spends hours de-stemming and checking crates of chilli by hand. There is up to a dozen Scotch bonnets in a jar of “Old Nick”, for example, each one inspected by hand. “I don’t use gloves,” he explains. “That way I can feel if there’s a soft spot or a blemish.”Perfect peppers join varying blends of vegetables and spices to make the 10 products in the range. Half a dozen are family recipes; the others are his creations. Number 11 – a stunningly piquant lime pickle – is in development. I dig gluttonously into the sample jar, promising to buy some the minute it’s in production.
Chris’s inventiveness is not confined to recipes. He believes fiercely in his product and is inching his way towards worldwide notoriety. Fans as far afield as America and Scandinavia are scouting for new retail outlets. Another of plan is to turn fanatical pickle fanciers into salespeople by supplying them with goods for home tasting events. “Pickle parties,” he explains. “It’ll be like Ann Summers, but sexier.”
“Is this the one I tasted before?” Chris glances up. The woman he directed to a cashpoint is back, clutching a bottle of “Old Nick”. “My mouth is still burning,” she giggles. “I must be some kind of masochist.”
“I’ve been hoping to meet someone like you,” Chris teases. As she saunters off he grins. She’ll be back. Once people fall in love with his extraordinary chilli concoctions one jar is never enough.