Food, wine, travel, music
Based in Louisiana in the heart of the Mississippi delta, I visited the Tabasco factory recently to see the operation. Impressed with the artisan feel and environmental awarness, I was even more surprised at the time that goes into the production of the small iconic bottle of what is a simple, unadulterated product.
For many of us, our first taste of Tabasco was in our first Bloody Mary. The chilli pepper gave the sweet tomato a kick and cured whatever ailed us. Today Tabasco is becoming fashionable and being used in the best restaurants to give a wide range of dishes an easy lift.
Peppers of the capiscum frutescens family are grown in Louisiana to produce seeds for the peppers grown in Africa, Vietnam and South America. The peppers are then delivered to one quite small production unit on Avery Island on the coast in the middle of the bayous, the slow moving small rivers which form the delta of the vast Mississippi river. All 150 million bottles of Tabasco sold every year in 160 countries are produced here.
With roots in Scotland and Co Donegal, Edmund McIlhenny invented the sauce in the 1860s and Paul, a descendent, now owns and runs the factory on Avery Island in the delta. The hot red peppers are the base of the sauce, fermented in local salt for three years. “ As fermentation takes place the mixture bubbles up, and a hole is drilled in the lid of the barrel to release excess fumes. A layer of salt on top ensures it is sealed just enough to allow fermentation to continue. This is removed and the mash blended with distilled vinegar and stirred gently for four weeks before straining and bottling. It’s a simple, pure, unadulterated product, and in 142 years the iconic little bottle with its diamond shaped red and green label has never changed.The heat of spices is measured in scoville units. A bell pepper registers zero Scoville heat Units, while a jalapeno registers 1,500, a cayenne pepper 30,000 units and the habanero a scorching 200,000 units. The Capiscum frutescens pepper used in Tabasco registers over 50,000 Scoville heat units. A little goes a long way. I tasted one chilli pepper which was ten times hotter than the regular pepper sauce. It took 20 minutes for my mouth to come back to life. I was given a shot of Bourbon to cool the palate. This was wishful thinking and not to be recommended for note-taking, though the day looked less grey and rainy for a while.
Hamilton Pope is in charge of the maintenance of the bourbon barrels which are imported from the Honduras. He works in the calm, slightly musty, near darkness of the cellar.Modern production after fermentation, along with bottling is high tech, and the facility is a mass of stainless steel tanks and banks of temperature controls, gauges and gadgets all ticking and swishing calmly, the rich red and orange colour swirling like an oil painting in progress. A huge advantage for Tabasco is that the peppers can be harvested all year round. The sauce is made in small batches all day and night, every day of the week. Modern production after fermentation, along with bottling, is high tech, and the facility is a mass of stainless steel tanks and banks of temperature controls, gauges and gadgets. The leftovers of seeds and skins are sold for capsicum flavouring in the food industry, some blended into cheeses. The pepper mash is also used in large cauldrons of boiling water for cooking local blue crabs.
Bees are kept on the island and sugar plantation mulch from local farmers is used to fertilise the oak trees. It’s an eco-friendly development.
There are competing pepper sauces in the marketplace, but none I tasted have such depth of flavour. This comes from the long fermentation and care in using peppers at their perfect point of ripeness. The peppers are measured against a stick called a ‘petit baton rouge’ to judge their ripeness. Try Tabasco as a condiment instead of pepper, especially in burgers and tomato sauces and look up the internet for some Creole recipes. They will give your repertoire a lift.