A visit to the high temple of hot sauce
Kick it up a notch with 'cuisine piquant' after a visit to the home of Louisiana's famous hot sauce.
AVERY ISLAND, LA.
Mine is a family of diverse palates. Over the past 30 years, for instance, my British-born wife has progressed far beyond bangers and mash. But cuisine piquant? Leave that to the three offspring and me. As far as I know, they represent the third generation of our clan to embrace Tabasco sauce with little hesitation. (I don't know about my grandparents; Dad never said anything about it when he introduced me to the rosy liquid when I was on the verge of "tweenagehood.")Skip to next paragraph
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So, after all these years of my shaking fiery red drops onto everything from clam chowder to scrambled eggs, a recent trip to southern Louisiana would have been incomplete without a pilgrimage to the high temple of hot sauce: Avery Island, home of Tabasco and its offshoots.
High, of course, is relative. Here in the land of Cajun fiddles, fried gator tails, and gumbo, 160 feet will do. The island looms in the distance not long after you peel off US Highway 90 roughly two hours west of New Orleans and head south on State Road 329. It's the road's southern terminus – a wooded hill that looks as though someone had plucked it from Kentucky's horse country and dropped it into the middle of bayou country.
Indeed, it's one of southern Louisiana's five salt domes – large formations of underground salt more buoyant than the surrounding sediment. So they push up against overlying sediment layers, forming large bumps in the landscape.
Island also is relative. Avery is an island in much the same way a moat-girdled medieval castle is an island. You cross a bridge spanning Bayou Petit Anse, which joins a network of other bayous and canals to surround the hill with a necklace of water. Voilà – une île.
It's 8:30 a.m., and George Segura, with the McIlhenny Co.'s marketing department, meets us beside a trim little tollbooth on the island side of the bridge ($1; exact change welcome).
Portions of the company's Tabasco plant here are open for self-guided tours. In addition, tour buses come regularly from nearby New Iberia. But today is a down day at the end of the company's four-day work week, and Mr. Segura has sacrificed a free morning to take us to some of the areas not seen on tours.
"We're gonna start with the peppers and end up at the money," he says with a grin, the latter referring to a swing by the homes McIlhenny family members retain on the island and to a chat we'll have later with one of the company's executives.
The star of the bottle is Capsicum frutescens, the pepper the company has used in its sauce for 138 years. At roughly 1-1/2 inches long, the peppers are small but potent. As measured in Scoville units, which rate a pepper's heat, these pods fall into a class second only to culinary blowtorches such as Scotch bonnets and habaneros.
We stop along the roadside at fields covered with neat rows of pepper plants. Out of 120 acres devoted to the crop, only 40 to 50 are cultivated each year. The rest lie fallow. Once picked, the peppers provide seeds for the growers worldwide who supply the company with the "mash" (pepper liquid, pulp, and seeds) that will become Tabasco sauce. In the distance a small band of pickers works its way through the field, comparing the colors of the pepper pods against small sticks – le petite baton rouge – painted the same shade of red as ripened peppers.
Segura takes his baton rouge in hand and steps up to a nearby plant. He plucks a pepper, crushes it between his fingers, and then shares the oil with us.
The clear liquid is still an inch from my tongue when perspiration begins to bead on my forehead and my scalp tingles. Yep, it's hot. I take not-so-discreet swigs from a water bottle.
Our next stop is the mash warehouse, an enormous building loaded with row after row of stacked white-oak barrels. The barrels brim with peppers crushed immediately after picking at farms in Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Colombia, as well as in Africa. Demand for the sauce has long since outstripped the capacity of Avery Island's fields to supply the peppers.