Posted by: acooksca | 06/02/2015

Inside Tabasco

Visiting Tabasco

Visiting Tabasco

Avery Island, Louisiana is the home of one of my husband Bruce’s favorite things in the world, Tabasco Sauce. He is not the only one. Tabasco Sauce is the most asked-for-by-name hot sauce in the world and is shipped to 110 countries. It is made from a recipe that hasn’t changed since the 1880’s and has only three ingredients: peppers, salt and vinegar. There must be more to it than that, I thought. So we fly to Lafayette and drive a rural highway 34 miles south to the Tabasco Factory and Country Store. We discover that the ingredients are few but special, the process is simple but takes 3 years and each step is still watched over by the descendants of the original maker.

In 1862, Edmund McIlhenny discovered solid salt 16 feet below the surface of Avery Island in Southern Louisiana. McIlhenny established the first rock salt mine in the U.S. and sold his salt to the Confederates during the Civil War for preserving everything from vegetables and meats to cadavers. That same salt is now mined at 2,200 feet and is suspected to go down for miles.

Tabasco rock salt deposit

Tabasco rock salt deposit

After the war McIlhenny developed the original sauce recipe using small, red capsicum peppers imported from Central America. The peppers were officially named Tabasco Peppers in 1888. A 5th or 6th generation McIlhenny still oversees the selection of Tabasco peppers grown on Avery Island to be used as seed stock. These seeds are shipped to various farms in Central America and Mexico, distributing the risk of crop loss from plant disease, insects or environmental events. The ripe peppers are then returned to the McIlhenny production plant on Avery Island where all the products are made.

The peppers are packed with the estate’s salt into cleansed bourbon barrels (such as from the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam distilleries). A thick coating of salt is applied to the sealed barrelhead preventing contamination. After fermenting in barrel for 3 years the pepper mash is blended with beach wood vinegar and allowed to rest several more weeks. Screens are used to sift the pepper seeds and skins out of the finished sauce. The pepper particles that are left give Tabasco Sauce its distinctive flavor and viscosity. The strained mash is sold to manufacturers to make Red Hots candy, Dentine chewing gum and in pharmaceuticals such as Ben Gay.

Tabasco bottling plant

Tabasco bottling plant

After learning the history, process and touring the bottling plant we head for the country store. The shelves hold bottles of different Tabasco Sauces, pepper-infused mustards and pepper jelly. We taste Tabasco cola, Tabasco flavored ice cream, Tabasco popcorn. We buy strings of pepper-shaped beads, Christmas ornaments in the shape of Tabasco bottles and Bar-B-Q chips made from retired fermenting barrels. We also leave with a handful of purse-sized mini 1/8 oz. single portion bottles in assorted flavors, just in case there is anywhere in the world that Tabasco Sauce can’t be found.

Tabasco country store on-line: http://countrystore.tabasco.com

Recipes on-line: http://www.tabasco.com/tabasco-recipes/

If you are going:

Near Lafayette, LA, look for Vermilionville and Acadian Village. These folk parks showcase historic Cajun/Creole life with authentic buildings along a winding bayou. When we visited Vermilionville a hundred locals were jammed into a rustic barn dancing to a live band and enjoying bowls of gumbo. In the heart of Lafayette is the Alexandre Mouton House/Lafayette Museum, a grand home built in the early 1800’s.

Next to the pepper sauce factory take a stroll through Jungle Gardens and its Bird City, founded by a third generation McIlhenny in the late 19th century to protect the snowy egret in a time when white feathers brought a premium price for use on women’s hats.

New Iberia, the closest town to Avery Island and makes a pleasant overnight stop. West Main Street is worth a stroll along its historic district of stores, churches, antebellum mansions. A few blocks away is America’s first rice mill.

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