Published on July 10th, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
The heat of the moment
Hand-made chilli products are proving a success for one North East producer, writes Alastair Gilmour
It wasn’t the extractor fan that forced a County Durham chilli sauce manufacturer out of his new premises, it was the breeze outside. Victor Nwosu had been renting a space in an office block that had been fitted out as a research kitchen by neighbouring KP products. It seemed ideal for mixing and cooking the Wiga Wagaa chilli recipes he had been producing at home – until the neighbours complained.
“When KP moved out, County Durham Council asked if anybody needed a kitchen for anything, so I thought I’ve got to try it,” says Victor. “So I moved in in January 2017 and after two months was asked to move back out.
“Although the extractor was taking all the smells away it was drifting back into the offices. However, I was welcome to buy what I needed from them, so I moved into a unit nearby on Tanfield North Industrial Estate which has worked out really well as I have a lot more space – although it’s now getting too small for what I want to do.”
Victor trained as a biochemist and has a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry and worked in research for some time, partly in Germany, which was ideal – as long as the grants lasted. When they inevitably dried up he went into pharmaceutical sales for a few years with a couple of large organisations.
“Eventually the company I was working for was downsizing with only two of us required out of five in similar roles and we had to reapply for our jobs,” he says. “I thought, ‘oh-oh.’
“By then – this was 2014 – I had been playing around making sauces at home. I love travelling, eating and making up recipes and people who came round to the house used to ask me to make them some sauces. That was it, I thought about doing it professionally.
“I started off with a couple pots and pans, mixing and cooking everything at home. My wife was OK with that, it was the neighbours I was worried about. I never had any formal complaints, but when they started to tell me they always knew when I was cooking, I realised it was time to do it elsewhere.”
Then came the KP kitchen and those pesky neighbours again. The current Wiga Wagaa unit is for all the world a large kitchen with long benches, four ovens, fridges, freezers and a host of utensils. This is where he cooks up African Curry Paste, Coconut Cooking Sauce, Chilli Jam, Chilli Mayonnaise, Chilli Oils, Naga Peanuts, and much more.
His principal outlets are food fairs and a regular spot at Newcastle Quayside Sunday Market, although he supplies a variety of shops such as Knitsley Farm Shop, Consett; Brocksbushes, Corbridge; The Grocery in Heaton, The Coop in Newcastle; Blagdon Farm Shop, Northumberland; Cross Lane Organics, Barnard Castle and Lindisfarne on Holy Island.
“The name Wiga Wagaa doesn’t actually mean anything,” he says. “It came about when I was having groups around tasting different sauces and one guy probably put too much hot chilli in his mouth and came out with ‘wiga wagaa’. I googled it to check that it wasn’t anything rude, but didn’t come up with anything, so I used it.
“Some people just make sauces, some just pickles, and I was making only chilli sauce to begin with, but realised people will probably only buy one bottle a month – if that – and I can’t make a business out of that amount. Then the chilli oils came along, the chilli paste, chilli jam, and the mayonnaise.
I asked people what they wanted to see and it was the mayonnaise and jams.
“We now have about 20 different products in the range – ten of which have got Great Taste awards. And everything goes well with beer, especially at barbecues.
“It’s difficult finding the food fairs that will give you the return on investment that you need. I’m doing one in Shrewsbury at the weekend while my wife is on the stall at Newcastle Quayside, which works out quite well when you add it all up at the end of the year.”
Victor took Wiga Wagaa to a chilli fair in Hanover in Germany for two years in succession and last year was awarded third prize in one of the categories. Then he’s off to the Eindhoven Chilli Festival in November, trying to get an international foothold. But, as he stresses, you never know how successful these things are going to be, but you’ve got to try them.
He says: “We’ve just about outgrown our unit now and have to have somewhere else to store things like the gazebo which takes up a lot of room. We also need more freezers, but there’s no space for them. You have to plan ahead, what you’ll need for next year, the quantities of chillies you’ll need which go in the freezer.
“I’m a researcher, I don’t make my sauces by sticking to the recipes you find in cook books. Sometimes I’ll taste and know there’s something missing, something that isn’t blending properly with the chilli, nutmeg and cinnamon. I might use some basil or ginger to get it how I want it.”
With Scotch Bonnet and Jalapeno varieties in the chilli mix, it’s not difficult to understand what Victor Nwosu’s friend meant when he reacted: “Wiga Wagaa”.