In the latest instalment of the people behind the food series, I speak to Mike Price, founder of Prices Spices to find out all about his chilli growing, spice and chutney making and expansion into Indian takeaways during COVID. [Disclosure – Mike fed me for free when I was there.]
If you have a certain image of an artisan producer in your head, Mike Price probably isn’t that. The Leamington Spa-based founder of Prices Spices may love to get creative in the kitchen, rustling up chutneys, pickles and spice rubs from the crop grown at his farm near Stratford. But he’s also a shameless lover of tech, combining any arty-farty creativity with an uncompromising attention to the minutiae.
Step into his unit near Hampton Magna just outside Warwick and you see it everywhere, from the automatic vacuum tootling around the floor to the mini conveyor belt to speed up his operation, not to mention the tripod complete with gyroscope that he lends me to level up my own operation by way of the video you can find at the bottom of this post.
A former developer at Aston Martin, what Mike does now perhaps couldn’t be more different – though his background runs through every single thing he does as part of Prices Spices in the form of his tech-savvy set-up and constant innovation.
What started as “growing a few chillis” saw him starting making chutneys to use up a particularly large crop one year, then grew into the thriving artisan business he’s got now, with a whole flurry of Great Taste Awards for his creations to prove how good he is. Enter COVID-19 and like many businesses he pivoted and added Indian takeaways to his repertoire.
“I was working full-time at Aston Martin and started growing the chillis, probably in 2010/2011. In 2013 I grew too many chillis on a massive scale and thought, ‘what am I going to do with these?’,” Mike tells me. “Somebody convinced me for £20 to go and do London’s first chilli festival, the Festival of Heat, so I went down there. I probably sold about £500-600 worth of produce and was more than happy with that so kept going, did another chilli festival at Christmas and the rest is history. Two years later I quit my job at Aston Martin.”
Mike now has his own chilli farm based at The Farm in Snitterfield just outside Stratford as well as the unit in Hampton Magna. The growing process starts in mid-February in heated propagators before his chilli plants are transplanted to 1 litre pots where they stay until the start of May before being planted out into 20 litre pots.
“They’re about a foot tall when they get planted in the chilli farm,” he says. “By mid-July they’re a metre-and-a-half and in September they’re about 6-7ft, and we’ll get anywhere between 1kg-5kg of chillis from them.” The number of varieties he grows varies – last year it was 70 but this year Mike decided to only grow 20 because of the chaos caused by COVID.
He sells some of the chillis wholesale, as well as making his own spice rubs and chutneys. He’s even designed his own app, ‘iHarvest’ that stores every single possible bit of data relating to his chilli crop as well as his recipes.
When it comes to those recipes, I ask him how he comes up with his award-winning rubs, pickles and chutneys. “I dabble with a few different ideas,” he says. “Having made a few different things over the years I know how I want things to taste. I wanted my chilli to be slightly spicy, flavoursome with some herbs in there as well as slightly smoky.
“It’s just making something that’s a bit more bespoke. If you’re going to put an artisan price tag on it, it’s got to be artisan. You cant just whack a bit of sea salt in a packet and say, ‘yeah I made this’. “
It’s obviously paid off, with a volley of Great Taste Award certificates decorating the wall of the unit. But he’s not content to stop there, and with a global pandemic affecting sales, he has started offering Indian takeaways at weekends too.
That means during harvest season (which has just happened) he spends the first days of the week picking chillis, makes his preserves, seasonings and chutneys on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then Thursday, Friday and Saturday is dedicated to his Indian food that is delivered on Saturday evening to Warwick and Leamington Spa and the surrounding area.
If you’re wondering why you would need to order from Prices Spices when there are undoubtedly plenty of Indian takeaways to choose from in the area, you may want to check out the menu. While there are a few ‘British Indian Restaurant’ staples on there, his dishes also incorporate what he calls more authentic offerings, from Rajasthani Laal Maas to Chettinad Chicken, Sylheti Beef, Goan Prawn Curry and various Naga Curries.
Like the chilli growing business, the evolution into takeaway food was something he almost fell into by accident. “I cooked a couple of meals one night and my wife said I should offer them to the Whatsapp group for the people in our road and they went down a storm. It’s grown from there really.
“What I’m doing is a bit different to what people might be used to. A lot of dishes will be a bit drier or have less gravy. The Rajasthani Laal Maas is almost a refined lamb Rogan Josh and I do a Sylheti Beef which is slow cooked in an aromatic, loose sauce.
“My King Prawn Chilli Masala is almost Indian, Thai and Malaysian in one, with lemongrass, lime leaves, fresh curry leaves and slow roasted peppers. We’ve got a couple of standard dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala – I mean, it’s the nation’s favourite curry so it’s got to be in there.”
The curries are delivered cold so there’s no temperature holding issues, and you simply pop them in the oven while you’re munching on poppadoms with Mike’s chutneys and raita then serve up. He’s even built his own small tandoori oven so he can make chicken tikka and sheekh kebabs. I get to try the former and it’s every bit as good as one I’ve had from a more traditional Indian takeaway.
Paneer stuffed peppers are packed with a veg-studded curry packed with flavour, while the Sylheti Beef is a firm fave with me – the beef falling apart and the sauce packing a proper punch.
Tarka Dhal was creamy and subtle, and a great contrast to the more chilli-laden dishes, but it was Mike’s King Prawn Chilli Masala, another Indo-Thai-Malay fusion whipped up right there in front of me and packed with meaty prawns in a sauce singing with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilli, roasted red peppers and more.
It’s a feast fit for a king and much-needed fuel before Mike decides that rather than just watching him carefully weigh out the chilli con carne mix I’ve seen him mix while I’ve been grilling him, I should get involved. Who would have thought that weighing out 100 small bags of potent chilli mix, heat sealing them and labelling them up could be a therapeutic way to spend a Monday.
Of course, I have to ask him about COVID. What effect has it had? Will he survive? He’s refreshingly optimistic and confident that by constantly tweaking his offering, ditching what doesn’t work amid a global pandemic and coming up with new ideas that do, that he’ll survive.
“You’ve got to be really optimistic and just keep thinking that whatever you try you can learn from what did and didn’t work and change things up accordingly,” he says. “The year is what it is. You can write 2020 off – actually you can write the first half of 2021 off probably, but just keep trying.”