TABASCO: GETTING SAUCY ON AVERY ISLAND
There are very few mornings when I don’t wake up to at least one invitation to go on a press trip. I am very grateful that anyone thinks I might be worth spending their client’s money on, but the truth is that precious few of the offers have much appeal and I turn nearly every one down with a polite e-mail.
A few weeks ago however, I received a mail from one of my favourite writing clients, www.askmen.com, to whose site I contribute a weekly column. The mail asked me if I was interested in representing them during a press trip to Avery Island, the home of the McIlhenny Co. producers of Tabasco Hot Sauce.
For once I was definitely interested. Not only am I a bit of a fan of Tabasco and use it in many recipes but, I had also already marked down a visit to their factory on my wish list for my new project. Fed, White & Blue is a journey that will see me travel around the USA finding out what it means to become an American through the food they eat, part of my own move towards first residency and then citizenship of this remarkable country. It was a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and a week or so later, I found myself boarding a plane for one of my favourite cities in the world, New Orleans.
Avery Island is situated about 2 ½ hours drive to the west of The Big Easy. It is not strictly speaking an island, more of a raised dome of salt surrounded by marshes, swamps and the famous Louisiana bayous. The salt is the reason that Avery Island was first inhabited by the local native American tribe and provides all the salt used in the production of Tabasco right up to today.
Tabasco was first produced in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny. His chain of confederate banks had failed during the American Civil War and he returned to the family island to find other ways of making a living. He began making a hot sauce for his own use, using local peppers, salt from the island’s mine and imported vinegar from Bordeaux. The name of the peppers “Tabasco” was taken from the local Indian dialect and meant “place where it is hot and humid”. It was the perfect climate for growing the peppers and Edmund’s hot sauce soon began to become a regular addition to the bland food of post war Louisiana. It soon began to gain wider popularity and, thanks to Edmund’s assiduous record keeping, we know that its fame spread rapidly to the rest of the United States and, in 1874, even across The Pond to Britain.
Tabasco is still a family business and many of the clan live on the island alongside a large number of the two hundred strong workforce. David Landry is a perfect example. He was born on the island and has worked for the company for over forty years. He was the perfect guide during our time on the island.
Our tour of the facility was not planned to take place until the next morning. So, after depositing our bags at the island’s guest accommodation and grabbing a Boudin Po’Boy for lunch at The Tabasco Deli, the staff commissary, we had chance to see much of the island.
Included in our tour were The Jungle Gardens, created by E.A. McIlhenny in the early part of the 20th Century as a place to relax and as a sanctuary for the endangered Snow Egrets which had almost been hunted to the point of extinction. We were also warned to keep an eye out for the alligators who call the local swamps their home and are not too keen to receive visitors.
All of this, plus the long drive from the city just about had us beat. But, not so beat that we could not enjoy a bit of Louisiana hospitality that evening at local restaurant Shucks. As the name might lead you to believe, it specialised in oysters. I love oysters, but unfortunately, they no longer love me and I had to watch as my companions cleared the best part of a hundred assorted bi-valves from the table while I concentrated on my duck and sausage gumbo. It’s a hard life I lead, but I soldier on.
The following morning, after a delicious breakfast of crawfish Étouffée, we finally got chance to see where Tabasco was made. Joining Dave Landry as our guide, was Harold “Took” Osborn, another family member who was now Vice President of Agriculture for the McIlhenny Co. He is a larger that life character whose main task in life seems to be giving everyone he encounters as hard a time as possible, but his love for his work and the family product is tangible.
He began by explaining that Tabasco only contains three ingredients, salt, vinegar, and of course, the proprietary species of hot peppers. Given that the facility on the island produces nearly 750,000 bottles of sauce a day it was hardly a surprise when he informed us that most of the peppers are now grown abroad on plantations in Latin America and even Africa. To maintain quality, the seed for the peppers is still grown on the island and sent to the producers with enough Avery Island salt to make the mash for the sauce.
Pepper pickers are given a stick called “Le Petite Baton Rouge” painted in the colour of a perfectly ripe pepper so they know which ones to harvest. These are mashed with salt the same day as they are picked and then packed into containers to be shipped back to the island. Once they return, they are sealed in used Bourbon barrels to allow the mash to age for three years in a vast warehouse that can house over 60,000 barrels.
After we had visited the greenhouse where the seeds are prepared, Took led us to the cooperage to meet master cooper, Hamilton Polk who has also been at the company for well over forty years. His job is to prepare the barrels and cover the lids using a layer of salt. This will harden during the ageing process to form a protective seal from bugs.
His other task was to give visitors to the island the chance to become members of the “Not So Sacred Order of The Not So Silver Spoon”. An award for those people who have been “lucky” enough to have a taste of the raw mash. It was, Took told us rather gleefully, ten times as hot as the final Tabasco sauce with which we were all so familiar.
We dutifully lined up to each dip our little fingers in the mash which Mr. Hamilton had retrieved from an open barrel. The air in the cooperage was soon filled with the spluttering of all of us and we were warned to wash our hands immediately because of the inevitable and painful consequences if we wanted to use the bathroom later on. Duty done, Took presented us with an honorary tasting spoon and declared us members of what he claimed was a very exclusive club. I have my doubts, but I am very proud of my spoon.
After the mash has aged, it is drained of the brine created by the addition of salt and then milled to remove excess solids. The remains are then mixed with vinegar and the flavours allowed to marry in large tanks for a further thirty days. During this stage of the process, the contents of the large containers are stirred. It is at the same rate as the original barrels were stirred by hand and is one of the only parts of the whole production of Tabasco that uses any mechanisation at all. Finally, the contents of the containers are strained and the result is the familiar red liquid that has become the world’s most popular hot sauce. This is then bottled and sent out to over 160 countries in containers that carry labels printed in over 20 languages and dialects.
The whole task of producing Tabasco takes five years. That’s two to germinate the seeds and grow the peppers and three to age and process the mash. I may well have been a great fan of the sauce before, but the opportunity to visit the island and to see the production process of the sauce at the source has definitely given me a whole new appreciation of what I use so often in cooking.
That little bottle with its familiar diamond label will never seem quite the same again.