Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Red Hot

John and I have been given a free trial membership to a retirees group sponsored by a local hospital. In addition to getting discounts from local merchants, we also have the opportunity to go on trips with the group. Yesterday we went to Avery Island and New Iberia, to tour the Tabasco factory and Shadows on the Teche.

Avery Island is not an island. It is one of a group of salt domes in southeast Louisiana which look like hills in the wetlands surrounding them. Jefferson Island is another such salt dome nearby, as is Weeks Island, once the plantation of the Weeks family that built Shadows on the Teche

Avery Island is home to the beautiful Jungle Gardens and Bird City, but we didn’t get to tour them yesterday. We only got to tour the Tabasco Sauce factory and country store before heading off for lunch and our tour of the antebellum home.

Since this was not our first trip to Avery Island, not seeing the gardens was only a minor disappointment. I have pictures from prior trips.

When you go to visit the factory, you get a history of the invention of Tabasco sauce, its early manufacture, and how its produced today, from both a tour guide and a video. Then you get to walk through the bottling plant and a one room museum, before walking over to the country store.

The so-called country store is really a gift shop, selling Tabasco brand products. You can taste a lot of the products, including their pepper jellies, chili made with Tabasco brand chili sauce, and their ice creams. Yesterday they were giving out samples of their new Raspberry Chipotle ice cream. 

When I first visited Avery Island, over thirty years ago, they didn’t have the video, and there was a real country store, further down the road that leads to the Jungle Gardens. I bought cold drinks for Neal and me out of one of those old time coolers. That road is now closed to visitors and presumably so is the old store. The first time I visited the Tabasco sauce factory, the tour guide pointed out in the display scrip that used to be paid to the workers to use in that country store. It hasn’t been mentioned on subsequent visits. I suspect they don’t want you associating the abuses of the old “company store” economy with their product, although considering how isolated Avery Island must have been from its surroundings in the early 1900’s, a store on the island was a necessity, and I have no reason to believe that their prices were exploitive. I wish they had kept the old store.

The McIlhenny family that makes Tabasco brand products apparently have been running a green business before anyone ever heard of the term. When the first Mr. McIlhenny made his pepper sauce, he bottled it in old perfume bottles to give his friends. Tabasco sauce is brewed in oak barrels that are obtained from distillers like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. By law, the distillers can only use the the barrels one time, but the Tabasco factory can use them until they fall apart. When they do, they are chipped up and the chips sold to use in smokers.

The barrels are used for fermenting a mix of crushed Tabasco peppers and salt for three years. The barrels are topped by another layer of salt and holes drilled through to let out gasses. The salt comes from the salt mine on the island. Our guide told us that the used salt is used as salt licks for the animals that live on the island.

Once the pepper mash is finished fermenting, it’s mixed with vinegar and salt for 30 days. Then the pulp and seeds are strained out and the sauce is bottled.

The remaining pulp and seeds still have work to do. That byproduct is sold to other companies and is used to give the heat to many cinnamon flavored products, including Red Hots, Trident and Dentine gum, cinnamon gummy bears, and Close-Up toothpaste. Waste not, want not.

I used to flavor my cinnamon apples with melted Red Hots, but now that I am using cinnamon extract instead, I think maybe I should add a drop or two of Tabasco sauce. John bought some of their newest flavor, Raspberry Chipotle. I bought some Kosher salt from the Avery Island salt mines. I’m sure I could have found Kosher salt cheaper in the local grocery, but I keep forgetting to buy it. I also bought myself a chocolate-Tabasco bite. It tasted like ordinary chocolate at first, but has quite a kick at the end.

If you are ever in Louisiana, think about visiting our salt dome islands. The gardens, both on Avery Island and on Jefferson Island, are gorgeous, and where else are you ever going to taste Raspberry Chipotle ice cream?

Tabasco pepper plant

Barrel used to ferment the sauce

Buddha statue in the Jungle Gardens

1 comment:

  1. I remember having watched a television feature on Tabasco and I was so amused on how they make and bottle their variety sauces. I would like to tour there sometime soon and have a taste of everything too.

    Rob Feckler