Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tabasco Tour of Avery Island

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
Mr Landry brought us to the Boiling Point for a feast of crawfish, alligator balls, catfish, corn on the cob, and Abita!  He taught us how to make sauce using mayo, Tabasco, and cajun garlic sauce!  Eating crawfish is a messy task, but sometimes a lady has to get her hands dirty to enjoy the good stuff!

Hey Buddies!

Gator Balls, Catfish, Shrimps & Abita
Throughout the next few days, we met many members of the family including Tony Simmons, President and CEO, Harold Osborn (Took), the Senior Vice President of the McIlhenny company, as well as many cousins, wives, dogs, all of whom welcomed us into their home on such a magical island.

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.
We started with the Sweet and Spicy Sauce, a sweet pepper sauce targeted towards asian cooking styles.  We then moved on to the Buffalo Sauce, a sauce that is typically used in high volume for foods such as chicken wings, and hence is sold in large containers, and has a sweet pepper flavor with a bit of cayenne kick to it.  Onward to the Green Sauce, which has a jalapeño base, and has a sharp, bright heat to it.  The Green sauce is bottled in green tinted bottles to give the product more color, a much more honorable path than adding food coloring to the sauce itself!

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
Tabasco Red was next, with an overwhelming aroma of vinegar, sharp pepper, a fermented sour taste, and a sharp, bright finish.  Tabasco Red is made from It's a classic sauce - as Mr Simmons puts it "I can't eat an egg without Red on it". 

Charlie Cheng, the Man Behind the Pepper Sacue
Next we tasted the Habanero Sauce - the only sauce that has a fruit base including mango, banana, tomato, tamarind, papaya, garlic, and spices.  It's the hottest of all the sauces, and it really had my mouth on fire! Interestingly enough, Tabasco peppers are hotter than commercially grown Habanero peppers, and the company will use extra Tabasco peppers to bring up the heat level of the Habanero sauce!

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
Tabasco is made from the ripest, hottest peppers grown all over the world from Colombia to Peru to Zimbabwe.  The Tabasco plant seeds are distributed to local independent farmers, who grow and harvest the perfectly ripe peppers, add salt from the Avery Island salt mines, and ship the barrels filled with the salty spicy mash directly to the Tabasco barrel warehouse for aging.

Baby Tabasco Plants in the Greenhouse
Barrel Warehouse
Walking into the mash house there's an overwhelming smell of sour fermentation, and a sweet musty smell to the damp air.  Bacteria is doing it's work here, and each re-used bourbon barrel is covered in a "salt cap" which allows each barrel to let out gasses from the fermentation process, but wont let any oxygen into the barrel.  If any oxygen does get into the barrel, it will disrupt the process, and will ruin the mash.  All of the barrels are checked for color, smell, and taste before the next step, blending and racking.

Salt Caps!

Shots of Tabasco in the Warehouse - Obviously
11-12 approved barrels that contain pepper mash from a mix of different countries are then moved into a large vat, where the liquid from the mash is drained off and the seeds and skin are separated from the mixture.  1700 gallons of vinegar is added and it is them moved to the mixing tank, where the peppers are stirred with the vinegar.  After 28 days in the mixing tank, the sauce is moved to the finishing tank.  The final sauce is tested for viscosity, salt levels, and heat levels before moving to bottling.

Sauce for Testing before Bottling
Bottling plants are endlessly mesmerizing.  Bottles of green and clear dance along, flipping over to be cleaned and to receive their labels, are filled with sauce, and then crowned with the iconic red cap.  The scale of the production is impressive: every day Tabasco bottles 7,000-8,000 bottles of hot sauce, which are sent all over the world.

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

1/8 orange 
1/8 lime 
1/8 lemon 
1/8 grapefruit 
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..


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