When Christopher Columbus left for Asia sailing westward in 1492, he was looking to safeguard Europe’s supply of highly prized black pepper from the Spice Islands.

Of course, he never got anywhere near, landing accidentally in the New World – where, instead, he discovered the plants in the genus Capsicum. These little pepper pods then blazed a trail to India, China and Africa – transforming the cuisines wherever they landed.

We cautious Brits have had a slow-burning love affair with chillies – beginning in the 19th century when we developed a taste for curry.

Rich in vitamins A and C, this fiery fruit has now become a national obsession and we’re all scattering flakes, drizzling infused oils and pounding pastes. Scoffing ever-hotter mouthfuls used to be the stuff of dares, but with the fever spreading like wildfire, our palettes are now used to these base notes enhancing our food flavours and tantalising the taste buds. In fact, chilli-based artisan products, ranging from chutneys to cheeses, jams to gins, will either leave you drooling…or crying!

While some it hot, I’m far from a heat freak. But, with such a smorgasbord of spice on offer at Millets Farm Centre’s seventh annual Chilli Fiesta last weekend, I just had to take part in the fiery fun for all the family.

An Oxfordshire garden centre wasn’t the place I was expecting to encounter a Cajun Bum Bandit, Bhut Kicker or a Foo Kin Shi Tot on a Sunday afternoon.

I don’t know my Scoville scale from my elbow, but the magic ingredient in all this is a medicinally active element called capsaicin – which excites the pain receptors in the mouth and supplies the rush of happy endorphins that chilli-heads crave. In fact, it’s nothing short of a legal addiction resulting in a wholesome natural high – that also clears the sinuses very well indeed. A mild Jalapeno scores 'only' 2,000 units compared to the official world’s wildest Carolina Reaper at a ring-stinging rating of 1,500,000 – which exceeds military-issue pepper spray and no doubt induces some sort of semi-hallucinatory state.

I’m told, cooking with this particularly potent pod can resemble a scene from Breaking Bad.

Chilli varieties run into the hundreds. There are yellow ones, red ones, long and short ones. Mexico produces many of the most famous types – from plump citrusy habaneros grown in the Yucatan to glossy cherry-coloured cascabels with their distinctive tobacco twang.

With the largest selection available anywhere in the UK, you could even choose your own fledgling plant to take home and farm your own homegrown goodies.

However, not forgetting a pint of local milk from the Farm Shop too. In case of tongue-numbing emergency, the best heat extinguisher by far is dairy – so never let a slurp of ice-cold Gold Top be far from hand. You’ve been warned!