This weekend in the Yarra Valley, hot heads and green thumbs alike swarmed to the aptly named Lovely Nursery for the 11th Herb & Chilli Festival. Featuring over 80 stalls, live cooking shows, hot wings, fresh chillies and chilli chocolate chip cookie eating contests, and a whole host of fresh herb and chilli plants to take home, the festival really offers something for everyone in terms of entertainment, taste and ensuring a great day out in the Yarra Valley.
Situated in Wandin, about an hour’s drive from the CBD of Melbourne, the crowd was buzzing with excitement, with the festival returning for its first full event since the COVID-19 lockdowns. The queue of expectant guests saw a queue waiting hundreds of metres from the entrance for a day of chilli infused fun for the whole family – including well-behaved dogs (can confirm that the dogs I encountered were very good boys).
As you enter through the gates, you walk through a large nursery filled with plants for purchase. including a large range of chillies, fresh herbs, and veggies, all from local nurseries in the area. It is a plant lovers’ paradise, and if you are anything like me, you won’t have left empty-handed. Walking through chilli alley, there are many different companies showcasing their latest and greatest hot sauces, chilli sauces, chilli and herb oils, rubs and BBQ sauces.
With over 80 exhibitors around the festival, there were still plenty of other things to see and do. I stopped to watch some live cooking demonstrations using fresh herbs and chillies from the nursery. Mrs C’s chilli oil highlighted some easy dinner party recipes with their mild and hot oil with a cultured chilli butter bread followed by a tzatziki without lemon and dill, utilising the flavour in their oils to create a unique flavour. Later in the day Melbourne chef Sally Meaden cooked barramundi with a chimichurri sauce with an Asian twist that looked easy and fun to make, as well as tasting incredibly fresh. Regrettably, the first chef didn’t arrive at 10:30am so we only got to experience the two.
A huge crowd pleaser were the competitions that varied from the Stinger Winger Challenge ( a race to see who can the hottest of hot wings the quickest), Hottest Chilli Eating, and – my personal favourite – Shot’n’Holler, which saw contestants downing a shot of tequila, followed by a shot of hot sauce, and then yelling. The crowd decides the winner based on the holler – it is an insane level of fun and a real crowd-pleaser. The St Johns Ambo’s were on standby for any chilli-related injuries, armed with plenty of cups of milk and buckets for when the heat got too much. The hosts for each competition were fun and ready to rile the crowd up to get involved. Contestants can sign up during the day but had to get in quick as the limited spots filled up fast. Each competition ran twice daily and the winners received an impressive chilli-themed prize pack worth over $400. A huge shout out to those brave contestants – you could smell the heat coming off you from the seats!
Being constantly surrounded by food all morning really works up an appetite. Fortunately, there was a huge food court on site with plenty to choose from. It’s not all hot sauce and chilli dishes either; there was something for everyone’s tastes. After watching the chilli and wings eating competition, I took the safe option of a slow-cooked beef brisket with chips and slaw, courtesy of The Smoke Pit. The meat melted in my mouth, and the slaw wasn’t drenched in sauce, which allowed the red cabbage to retain a lot of its crunch. It was really was hard to pick as there were plenty of options here. Who can say no to crumbed calamari in a cone? Milkshakes from the Jersey Bros were also available, as well as the popular Zuya, offering incredible African BBQ dishes.
This is a festival to explore on an empty stomach, as there was so much incredible food to taste and buy – you will want to try it all! There was plenty of tables and chairs for couples and families and areas for larger groups. I went in the peak of lunch and still managed to find a spot to eat. While you are enjoying your lunch, there was a separate stage for local bands in the food area, consistently providing some great entertainment for the duration of the festival. It was a great touch and a way to unwind after the madness of the chilli competitions.
For the little ones, there was a dedicated kids area with pony rides, activities and a hands-on animal and reptile petting zoo. Just enough to keep them entertained in between the rest of the family doing other activities.
The Herb & Chilli Festival went above and beyond my expectations. Set in a beautiful nursery in the Yarra Valley, there were plenty of places to park, and the local firies were on hand to make sure everyone felt safe on one of Melbourne’s hottest and windiest days. The large amount of vendors showcasing their sauces, chillies, rubs, and jerky elevated the atmosphere, and certainly warrants a two day festival. If you add in wanting to watch the competitions, live-cooking demonstrations, and other entertainment, you can easily spend the whole weekend here and not run out of things to see and do.
The crowd were fantastic and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I enjoyed the day here (admittedly I MAY have bought a few too many plants), and the vibe of the festival helped create an atmosphere of fun. It’s been a tricky few years for tourism in Victoria, and it’s great to welcome back events like this that showcase incredible quality local produce and the passionate people behind it. The Herb & Chilli Festival is now a regular event in my calendar for years to come.
Find out more about The Herb & Chilli Festival HERE.