We know it fuses well with orange, coffee and milk but lovers of the Joanne Harris book – and subsequent 2000 Hollywood film – Chocolat will be well aware of the natural pairing of chocolate with chilli.

It may be an unlikely union but the two go together like Christmas and turkey – in fact, they have done for thousands of years.

For most of its 4,000-year history, chocolate was consumed as a bitter beverage, rather than the sweet edible treat we love today.

Anthropologists have found evidence chocolate was produced by pre-Olmec cultures living in present-day Mexico as early as 1900BC.

We also know the ancient Mesoamericans who first cultivated cacao plants found in the tropical rainforests of Central America fermented, roasted and ground the cacao beans into a paste that they mixed with water, vanilla, honey, chilli peppers and other spices to brew a frothy chocolate drink.

Chilli peppers are something “chilli king” Alan Lodge knows all about.

Alan is the owner of Battlesbridge Mills Garden Centre in Battlesbridge where every imaginable chilli, spice and herb plant is sold.

It’s the time of year when Alan and his staff at the nursery are getting ready for the spring and when gardeners across Essex start thinking about next year.

The garden centre specialises in helping everyone perfect their own garden – from the basic and small to the large and extravagant – and they have put together some lovely pre-order plant collections as everyone looks forward to the warmer weather and getting into the garden again.

But you can enjoy the fruits of your labour now with plenty of winter plants and spices – and chillies are no exception, especially when it comes to whisking up a hot, hot chocolate.

With the evenings being chilly and the mood more festive what better drink than a hot chocolate to warm you up?

But why not add some proper heat to your hot chocolate with a hint or two of chilli.

Alan said: “How hot you go is completely your choice. Fresh or dried chillies are ideal. As with anything chilli related, always add less first time around and then addmore to taste if needed.

“If you are adding fresh chillies, you can grate half a teaspoon in a mixture – for dried chilli powder, spoon it in.

With dried, add around half the amount of fresh for the same heat level. All types of chilli will work but these are some of my favourites for hot chocolate...

“For the mild drink, jalapeno works very well. It’s not too hot but will add a nice zing. If you are looking for more of a spicy hit, I like to add orange habanero. It also brings a slightly fruity flavour to the drink.

“For the brave, look no further than carolina reaper, the current hottest chilli world record holder. It can be hard to find fresh this time of year but is available in dried form. This chilli is a great conversation point at any Christmas party!”

  • Visit battlesbridgemills.com