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.

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.")

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. Voilàune 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.

The diverse growing locations also ensure that the company gets a steady supply of peppery raw materials despite disease outbreaks or insect attacks in one place or another.

Tanks full of the mash arrive on trucks. Then the mash is transferred to the barrels. We meet Hamilton Polk, who's been with the company 35 years and is one of a handful of master coopers in the country.

A giant fan moves air through the cooperage attached to the warehouse. Even though it's barely 9 a.m., beads of perspiration glisten on his face and his shirt is soaked in the humid air. But he moves with energy through the barrels he's reconditioning. He and a co-worker grind the charcoal-covered interiors down to bare wood and then fit them with new lids that have small, one-way plastic ports that allow the barrel to exhale as the pepper mash ferments.

Some of these barrels are almost 90 years old, he says. When retirement finally comes or a barrel is damaged beyond repair, he cuts them in half for sale to garden shops for use as planters. Or he sends them through a chipper. The chips get bagged and sold to barbecuers to add a peppery, smoky flavor to food on the grill.

After the barrels are topped off with mash, the lid is pounded back into place and covered with a thick layer of salt from mines on the island. The salt absorbs any gas and liquid seeping through the plastic plug. The mash won't see the light of day for three years.

When the aging process stops, the mash is poured into 1,800-gallon, white-oak mixing vats: 12 barrels of mash to a vat, which is then topped off with high-grade vinegar and a dash of island salt. Large paddles slowly stir the brew for about 28 days. When the sauce is deemed ready for bottling, it's run through a strainer to remove seeds, skin, and pulp.

While the liquid heads for the bottle, seeds are dried and packaged for sale, the skin is dried and chopped for use as a seasoning, and other byproducts find their way into heat rubs.

The red liquid in the glass bottle has been the company's staple since founder Edmund McIlhenny hit on the formula shortly after the Civil War ended. Only in 1994 did the company begin to add new sauces to its repertoire.

"We found as people became more experimental about the types of food they eat, there was a desire for different flavors and different levels of heat," explains Tony Simmons, the company's executive vice president.

Their first entry: Tabasco green pepper, followed by a garlic pepper sauce, habanero, and chipotle. This summer, the company has added a new line – sweet and spicy, which has an Asian influence and ranks as the least torrid of the line.

Like many sauces, these new flavors emerged from the palate of one man, Paul McIlhenny, the family-owned company's president. The company also has two food scientists on the staff.

"Paul loves food, loves flavors, and he's sort of got a list he's given them of things he wants to investigate," says Mr. Simmons. When the scientists come up with something they're happy with, "they take it to Paul. If he's happy with the product, he brings it to the senior management team and lets us all decide if we'll release the product."

How does the company expect to find a "replacement palate" when Mr. McIlhenny turns over the reins to a successor?

Simmons laughs and acknowledges that it's "not an easy thing, to have the palate and love of food. Some of it comes more naturally to [members of the McIlhenny family] because we grow up with it at a very early age. Our families are very involved in the business. We have a good crop of young cousins coming along behind us that we're keeping an eye on. Some of them love food and love the business.... But it will be hard to replace Paul."

To be sure, Tabasco is not the only hot sauce on the shelf. But where else are you going to find the history, the snowy egrets and their young, and the gators slowly cruising among the trees?

Only on Avery Island.

For more information on touring Avery Island, see www. tabasco.com/info_booth/faq/avery_visit.cfm. Factory tours take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except major holidays.

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