Fire down below: Surviving Italy's chilli eating marathon

By Silvia Marchetti for CNNUpdated 8th September 2014
When it comes to competitive eating, Maurizio Capocchiano clearly has a fire in his belly -- as you'd expect from the reigning champ of the Chilli Eaters' Marathon.
"I was weaned on chilli, my mom used to sprinkle it on my baby bottle to stop me from sucking it," he says proudly.
Held in the picturesque cliffside town of Diamante in southern Italy, the marathon is the eye-watering highlight of an annual Chilli Pepper Festival that celebrates obsessions with super-heated seasoning in the surrounding Calabria region.
Last year Capocchiano gulped down 560 grams (19.7 ounces) of diavolilli, the so-called "little devils" that are typically the hottest peppers found in Italy.
His dream is to beat the record of 800 grams, a feat that will cap a lifelong passion for piquancy.
Hot tea
"I started loving peppers when I tried Penne all'Arrabbiata with spicy tomato sauce -- delicious," he says. "Now I put tons on all pasta and sometimes even in my tea."
Capocchiano and nine other challengers will be closely monitored by a panel of judges and doctors as they attempt to shovel as many 50-gram dishes of finely cut chilli peppers as possible down their inflamed throats.
No water is allowed, only olive oil and bread are on hand to turn the heat down.
The red yellow and green hot peppers are fresh from the fields, picked by Diamante's women.
Male and female fire eaters of all ages compete in the marathon, seated at a big table in front of the public.
Hot desk: Red, green and yellow chillies on display.
Courtesy FestivalPeperoncino.org
The winner is treated to a week's free hotel stay for two in a local resort and to a personal driver who picks them up at the airport.
"Just like a rockstar," says Capocchiano.
Competition is tough. Participants train all year round, taking part in local eating contests. Only the best get to go to Diamante.
Victory, says Capocchiano, requires a cool head and a stomach of asbestos and steel.
"A tongue or throat on fire will not always stop you. The tricky part is making your tummy accept all that chilli: the peppers create gastric juice. You need a good dose of meditation to keep the chilli in your belly."
Another hazard, chilli seeds stuck between teeth, have been known to drive participants to quit the marathon and reach for a toothpick.
Unpleasant side effects
Giovanni Polimeni, a former winner, last year flamed out after swallowing chilli dishes too quickly.
"I wanted to beat the record so in the first minute I devoured three plates of peppers. My intestine started grumbling and I had to slow down."
Due to these unpleasant side effects he's been forced to give up competing and now only eats chilli for pleasure.
Thousands of spectators and chilli addicts from all over the world are drawn to the marathon.
"We've had foreign participants, too. It's nasty but it's also fun to watch other people stuffing their mouths, turning red and suffering like hell", says Enzo Monaco, the festival's organizer.
Beyond the competition, the chilli festival features food fairs, cooking shows, spicy movies, satirical performances, chilli-inspired jewelry and fashion and street jazz mixed with local music called Taranta.
There's even a beauty contest aimed at selecting Miss Chilli -- who, predictably, is deemed the hottest woman in town.
It doesn't stop there.
Chilli love and sex potions and herbal cures are also on sale, making use of the pepper's supposed aphrodisiac powers and antiseptic ability to tackle colds and bronchitis.
The heat is on: Chilli eaters battle it out.
Courtesy FestivalPeperoncino.org
Calabria, the region surrounding Diamante, is Italy's kingdom of chilli and is famous for its tangy cuisine.
Chilli aphrodisiacs
"Peppers here rule," says Monaco. "People add chilli to all their dishes, even to a cup of milk and fruit salad."
During the September 10-14 festival, city walls and houses are literally covered in red, green and yellow chilli pepper braids. They're seen as a good luck charm and, according to local belief, they scare demons away.
A museum and an academy have been founded to study and promote chilli culture and tradition with branches across Italy.
"We're spicy people and love all things spicy -- meaning erotic, hot, strong, healthy, extraordinary. Chilli pepper is Calabria's brand. Life without chilli is plain boring," says Monaco.
The local signature dish is spaghetti with fried garlic, oil and peperoncino. Chefs in Diamante have created new versions of it by adding bread crumbs and anchovies. Penne with N'Duja salami also tops the menus.
Bars serve "Afro," an aphrodisiac cocktail made of chilli, orange peel and citron.
"Locals believe it really increases sexual desire", says Monaco.
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