No one can say I wasn’t warned. “This is the hottest we’ve got,” is about as clear as it gets. But a challenge is a challenge. I take the spoon handed to me by the woman behind Tabasco’s taste counter, deep in the heart of Cajun Country in southern Louisiana.
Their new muddy red reaper sauce measures 2.2 million on the Scoville scale, they say. The liquor gets its kick from Carolina Reaper peppers, which, for the uninitiated, are hot. So hot, in fact, that until earlier this month they held the Guinness world record for being the hottest in the world – but more on that and its surrounding controversy later.
I decide there’s no point pussyfooting around it and take the whole spoon in one. The distinctive Tabasco tang hits my tastebuds first, but the heat quickly follows. In seconds, my eyes are streaming, much to the amusement of my partner.
This isn’t the first time in the last few days my tolerance has been tested. I’m nearing the end of a week-long road trip on Louisiana’s new hot sauce trail, travelling across the Mississippi Delta’s rich swampland to try as much of the good stuff as I can get my hands on, and to meet a few sauce-makers along the away. It’s mid-October, but here in the Deep South the summer heat lingers.
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It’s a trip that’s taken me in a short space of time from being eye-to-eye with alligators, to the door of a rock ’n’ roll star of the chilli world, to dancing until the early hours in New Orleans jazz bars and to meeting a pair of hot-sauce sellers who share their home with more than 100 venomous snakes – only in America, folks.
In Louisiana, spice is big and hot sauce is king. Home to punchy dishes like spicy pork boudin sausage (spread thickly on crackers) or the one-pot, Cajun-spiked classic, jambalaya, you can sit down at any restaurant and be guaranteed to find a good selection of hot sauces to flavour your food with. Big brands such as Tabasco, Crystal and Louisiana Hot Sauce were all created in the state, while a number of independents and burgeoning start-ups also call Louisiana home.
My first stop is on the edge of town in New Orleans, a few minutes away from the city’s busy port, to visit the Louisiana Pepper Exchange and learn all about pepper “mash”. This is a fermented paste made from whole chillies and salt, which forms the base to most Louisiana-style hot sauces such as Tabasco and gives them their distinctive, tangy taste.
The Louisiana Pepper Exchange is the largest importer of pepper mash globally and in 2019 hit the 1 billion mark for pounds of mash shipped. Using chillies mainly from South America and the US, they mash around 30 varieties, ranging from the popular cayenne pepper and milder green jalapeno, to fiercer peppers like ghost and scorpion. Once the mash has fermented for a minimum of 90 days, it gets sent to businesses who add their unique blends of spice and vinegar (many brands also make their own mash, too).
After my chilli mash lesson, I jump on Doctor Gumbo’s boozy food tour, starting on New Orleans’ world-famous strip, Bourbon Street. I knock back a Hurricane cocktail (the city’s favourite drink made with not one, but two rums) and get my head in the game for our next stop at the Pepper Palace, with “unlimited” samples of hot sauce.
I skip a few steps and ramp up to “X-Hot”, a move that kills the sensation in my tongue for about five minutes
Here, even the bottles marked “Medium” come with a warning: “MUST BE OVER 18 TO SAMPLE”. Though tasty, they’re a little tame. I skip a few steps and ramp up to “X-Hot”, a move that kills the sensation in my tongue for about five minutes.
I recover enough for a night out in New Orleans’s French Quarter, dipping between dive bars and live jazz, before hitting the road the next day towards Louisiana’s capital Baton Rouge for a hot sauce double bill. The long stretch of the I-10 highway has been built across vast swamplands, where the bayous are full of cypress trees heavy with Spanish moss.
In Baton Rouge, I meet Slap Ya Mama maker, Jack Walker, who runs the family spice business with his brother Joe. He says what started in 1996 as a deli in their small hometown, Ville Platte, quickly grew into a popular Cajun seasoning business and progressed into hot sauce. “In South Louisiana, ‘slap ya mama’ is a term of endearment,” he tells me. “It means something’s so good you wanna slap ya mama.”
From there I race over to meet Matt Beeson, the creator of hot sauce start-up Swamp Dragon. Matt makes his hot sauce with a twist – booze – and is waiting for me armed with a few bottles of his bourbon- and tequila-based batches to sample with a plate of tacos. “I hate vinegar, it just kills the chilli taste,” he says, explaining how he landed on the alcohol substitute. I opt for the tequila, which really comes through along with a delayed, spicy kick. This time I manage to hold myself together. It makes a good spicy margarita, he tells me. Yes, in Louisiana, they even put hot sauce in drinks.
Hitting the road again, I head for the historic city of Lafayette to meet chilli rock star Primo Pepper, who made his name breeding the 7 Pot Primo pepper in 2005 – a seriously hot pepper, which he says is uncannily similar in appearance and heat to the Carolina Reaper, created by Ed Currie in 2012 (causing quite the stir between the two over the years). This October, Currie made the aforementioned headlines with new Pepper X, which is said to be three times hotter than the Carolina Reaper.
Primo’s sauce may be super-hot, but like many of the other makers I meet, he’s crazy about flavour. Alongside his “mind-bending” Swampadelic Sauce (not for the faint hearted), he also sells strawberry-and-cayenne jam and a fig-and-habanero flavour, apparently perfect with cream cheese.
Primo’s sauce may be super-hot, but like many of the other makers I meet, he’s crazy about flavour
I take a detour over to Shreveport, close to the Texan border, to meet the guys behind Steve’s Snaketuary, who rescue and house snakes in their home when they’re not bottling up hot sauce. Over tastings, I try to concentrate on the sauce rather than the thought of all those snakes – but the stories don’t help. Like the time their python wrapped itself round Steve’s leg and the whole family had to pull it off before it crushed the bone.
Appropriately, I finish my trip at Avery Island, home to one of the oldest hot sauce brands still in existence: Tabasco. It was here, on a plot of land sitting on a huge salt dome and surrounded by forest, that in 1868 Tabasco sauce was first bottled. Today you can tour the factory and visit one of the nation’s earliest nature reserves where, if you’re lucky, you can get up close and personal with an alligator – just another day in Cajun Country.
British Airways has return flights from London Heathrow to New Orleans from £580.
Seven-day car hire for one driver with National starts from £308 (excluding insurance).
Try the Westin New Orleans, located by the Mississippi River and near the French Quarter and the central business district.
Courtyard by Marriott is a three-star hotel set 400 metres from The Old Governor’s Mansion.
SpringHill Suites at River Ranch has an outdoor pool and a hot daily breakfast buffet.
Hilton Garden Inn Shreveport Bossier City in the Financial Plaza district has an outdoor pool, fitness centre and onsite restaurant.
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