Last month I was invited to Avery Island as part of a group of bloggers for a behind the scenes tour of the McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco Pepper Sauce. Most know Tabasco - it's a national standard of hot sauces - found in almost every kitchen (at least those who like their Bloody Mary's hot), and it's made on Avery Island about 30 minutes outside of Lafayette, Louisiana.
It was a short trip, only two days touring Avery Island, but it really got to me. It got under my skin in a very real way, and it wasn't the peppers. Avery Island has a fascinating history, one that is made of tales of trade, war, and a deeply entwined family history. At the core of Avery Island's story is the family - one half the Avery family, and the other half the McIlhenny.
The family was joined with the marriage of Mary Elisa Avery and Edmund McIlhenny, who was the first one to make Tabasco Red in 1868. The recipe at the time consisted of Tabasco Pepper Mash, Vinegar, and Salt, the same ingredients that are used today.
The island is privately owned, and is inhabited by members of the Avery-McIlhenny family, employees of the McIlhenny family, and some miners who work at the salt mines. The island is a salt dome - beneath the surface are caves that were discovered in 1862 and were highly coveted during the Civil War.
Avery Island is also incredibly picturesque, it is surrounded by Bayous, it has a Bird Sanctuary and Gardens created by Edward Avery McIlhenny, and is populated with large, romantic Oak trees that are covered in hanging Spanish Moss. When you're on the island, there's a sense that you're not alone and a lot of history was written on that island. A few ghost stories were told over the trip, and we, wide-eyed guests, ate it all up.
Ghost stories aside, the Avery McIlhenny family plays a major role in the ecosystem of the island. Tabasco is a family run company, and many members of the family either work or have worked for the company at some point in time. Tabasco is a major employer in the area, many people work for the McIlhenny company for their entire careers (and into retirement), and the company employs multiple generations of families!
The first gentleman I met from the Tabasco company was a wonderful man named Dave Landry - a retired gentleman who continued to work in "guest services", ie touring groups around the island and teaching them how to eat crawfish along the way. I don't think I've ever met a man more loyal to a company in my entire life. It was clear that he was incredibly prideful about the work and the reputation of the McIlhenny company. Can a girl be too old to hope for adoption???
|Meet Dave Landry, A Proper Southern Gentleman|
|Gator Balls, Catfish, Shrimps & Abita|
We stayed at the Marsh House, a large home where the family often celebrates family reunions, and welcomes guests from all over the world. It's a gorgeous home, one of the oldest plantation homes with a newer extension with the main living spaces - the kitchen, sitting areas, and main dining room. On the walls of the Marsh House hang portraits of family members, wedding photos, and family artifacts. The portraits have a bit of a haunting Mona Lisa quality to them - they kind of watch you as you move through the house...
Our first day on Avery Island we were first introduced to the sauce itself - there's nothing like a hot sauce tasting at 9:30 am to awaken your senses! We were with Tony Simmons and Charlie Cheng, Tabasco R&D, tasting through all of the different sauces Tabasco produces.
First of all, I had no idea that Tabasco made so much sauce! This tasting led us through the portfolio of sauces starting with the sweetest and ending with the hottest. We were instructed to taste the sauce straight by dabbing a bit on the back of our hands. We were also served water and crackers if we needed to clear our palates.
|This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is How You Taste Hot Sauce.|
After that we tasted the Garlic Sauce, a product close to the traditional Tabasco Red, but is a bit sweeter and a sharp garlic bite to it. Next we tried the Chipotle Sauce - which can be found in any Chipotle restaurant, and has a wonderfully round smoky flavor to it. The sauce is made from fully ripened (red) jalapeño peppers that are smoked over Pecan wood. Yum.
|Chipotles & Chipotle Sauce|
|Charlie Cheng, the Man Behind the Pepper Sacue|
Onward to the Family Reserve - which is made entirely from peppers grown on Avery Island, and is a blend of 3, 5, and 8 year mash, blended with a white wine vinegar sauce. I must admit, this is my favorite of the sauces, it has a multi-layered depth of flavor, and more roundness thanks to the extra time in the barrel. It's also divine in Avocado Toast.
We had a preview of the Sriracha - which tastes more round and full than the traditional Huy Fong Foods Sriracha. Not to be a traitor, but I think I like the Tabasco version more!!
|Get Ready World: Tabasco Sriracha|
|Baby Tabasco Plants in the Greenhouse|
|Shots of Tabasco in the Warehouse - Obviously|
|Sauce for Testing before Bottling|
But Tabasco is more than just hot sauce - it is a community. Workers eat lunch at the Tabasco Deli, a general store of sorts that makes simple sandwiches. It's charming, efficient, and they make a damn good hot dog.
Traditionally, when people think of Tabasco, they think of spicy heat. It's a hot sauce, after all. But more often than not, cooking with Tabasco is used as a flavor additive, imparting the signature aged pepper flavor to food!
We were treated to a gorgeous meal by Chef Brian Landry of Borgne at the Marsh House surrounded by family members of the Avery McIlhenny family. All of the dishes used Tabasco in one way or another from savory to sweet.
|Chef Brian Landry - Schooling us in Cajun Cuisine|
We started with a Grilled Goat Cheese with the Chipotle Sauce and Celery Marmalade. Then we were on to a gorgeous dish of Charred Octopus marinated in Buffalo Hot Sauce and served with a Sunflower Salad, Chickpeas, and a Honey Yogurt Dressing. Ok, I must make a confession here, I usually can't stand octopus, but this dish was fantastic. The smokey savory sauce worked really well with the meaty texture of the octopus, the heat cooled with the yogurt sauce. Gorgeous.
The third course was a Cajun dish - Garlic Clove Louisiana Shrimp served with Charred Eggplant, Fregola, Sherry, and Garlic Pepper Sauce. The depth of flavor in this dish was exquisite, and left me convinced that all shrimps should be served head-on for the greater good of mankind.
The final savory dish was a Herb Roasted Amberjack served with steamed mussels, and a spring rice salad with a vinaigrette made from Tabasco Red.
Dessert was a Sweet Potato Hand Pie - this dish was one of my favorites - made with Tabasco Sweet and Spicy, Dark Rum Ice Cream, and sweet and spicy candied pecans. The pie had a sweet, sugary coating and a filling of complementing flavors of sweet potato and that Tabasco heat that we now know so well. Avery Island has me converted: hand pies forever. I am in love.
We were also treated to a cocktail course with the legendary Kirk Estopinal of Cure in New Orleans. A bartender that I've respected for a long time, but have never had the privilege of meeting until now. He's incredibly humble, and has a refreshing, almost youthful optimism about cocktails and drinks. It's evident that he's always thinking about new ideas from how fruit has changed over the last 100 years, to flavor combinations, to how we as consumers experience cocktails. While discipline is a necessary part of crafting cocktails, it's refreshing to speak with someone in the industry who has an attitude that is more playful and experimental.
He demonstrated three different cocktails made using Tabasco products from shrubs to syrups. The sauce acts similarly in cocktails as it does in food, it brings heat, but also a lot of savory flavor into the drink.
|Kirk Estopinal, Finishing Off Cocktails|
One of my favorite drinks was the Red Medicine, a refreshing drink perfect for a summer afternoon made with Tawny Port, fresh citrus, and Tabasco Habanero sauce.
Tawny "Little Blood"
Created by Kirk Estopinal
1 1/2 oz tawny port
1/2 oz cold water
20 drops Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce shrub
1 barspoon mezcal
Pinch of salt
Muddle citrus and pour liquids over fruit. Top with salt.
Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce Shrub
2 tablespoons chartreuse elixir vegetal or yellow chartreuse
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce
Stir all ingredients to incorporate
Another divine cocktail was Kirk's take on a Tequila Sunrise, made with a Raspberry Chipotle Shrub. Behold the lacing of the syrup in all its beauty:
I'm looking forward to experimenting with Tabasco Pepper Sauces in my own cocktails! Stay Tuned!
We were also treated to a fantastic traditional lunch at the Trappers Camp where we went on Airboat rides, jammed with the Cajun Band, and ate more crawfish. I ate my body weight in grilled oysters topped with cheese and Garlic Tabasco Sauce and those sweet crawfish.
While I normally swear by raw oysters, these grilled beauties have become one of my favorite delicacies whenever I visit Louisiana. They are plump, juicy, and fantastic with a few dashes of Tabasco!
|Ladies on Air Boats!|
There's so much history on this little amazing island, and even more wonderful people. At the end of my stay, I left astounded by the hospitality, craftsmanship, and pride that is rare in this day and age. From those gorgeous yet haunting Oak trees, to the wild deer that appear in the morning mist, to the depth of flavor of the Tabasco Special Reserve Sauce, I really fell in love with Avery Island. Following this trip, friends have reached out to me, sharing their own heartwarming stories of adventures and memories of the island. I feel incredibly blessed to be introduced to the Avery/McIlhenny family, welcomed into their home, and had the opportunity to learn so much about Tabasco, an american company deeply entwined with the traditions of family, cuisine, and Louisiana.
Until the next adventure..