Clive Larkman grows chillies for his Yarra Valley produce company.

Clive Larkman grows chillies for his Yarra Valley produce company. Photo: Joe Armao

The chilli, it seems, is hot in more ways than one. Three years ago when Clive and Di Larkman decided to organise a festival to celebrate the vast range of produce at their Yarra Valley company Renaissance Herbs, they wanted to call it the Herb Festival. But herbs don't seem to cut it with the public without a little help from their fiery friends.

''We quickly realised that we had to rename the festival if we wanted it to work,'' Clive Larkman says. ''Herbs weren't interesting to people on their own whereas chilli attracts a crowd. So we went with calling it the Herb & Chilli Festival and had 3000 people show up that first year and more than 4000 last year.''

The Herb & Chilli Festival is on again this year as part of the 2014 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and Mr Larkman is expecting an even bigger crowd, drawn by the 60 or so stallholders, cooking classes, musical acts, showbags, fiery chicken wing-eating competitions, a chilli con carne cook-off and of course, the chance to sample and buy up to 40 different types of chilli.

Red hot chilli peppers.

Red hot chilli peppers.

So what's the attraction with this fruit (it produces and holds its seeds as they ripen, so it's technically a fruit) that makes it capable of pulling a crowd?

''I think a lot of the attention comes from this sort of 'macho chilli and beer culture' where people try to see how much heat they can stand,'' Mr Larkman says. ''But more recently chilli is attracting more of a food crowd. I have chefs asking for particular varieties of chillies … People are starting to realise it's not just about the burn but about the flavour, too.''

It makes sense that the profile of chilli is changing in Australia, given the booming interest in the flavours of South America, a place where chilli has been cultivated for about 5000 years.

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's gastronomy committee member Tony Tan believes that we are experiencing a second wave of chilli awareness. ''Australians now appreciate and are quite comfortable with the heat of chillies because of all the Asian food they're used to eating,'' he says. ''But now we are eating more food from Mexico and from South America … people are looking for a different chilli experience, using chillies like jalapeno, habanero and serrano rather than bird's eye and green chilli.''

Still, there's something a little thrilling about the capsaicin burn (the fiery, tongue-burning element). There may be an amazing variety of flavours in the thousands of types of chillies but it seems it's still the heat that makes them hot.

The Herb & Chilli Festival is at The Home of Renaissance Herbs, Romantic Nursery, 125 Quayle Road, Wandin on March 16-17. herbchillifestival.com.au or 9735 2962.