Idyllic Avery Island is home to the iconic Tabasco Pepper Sauce brand and recently, I had the privilege of visiting the inner sanctum of Tabasco production, where I learned that a bottle is five years in the making, from the growing of the heirloom pepper plant known as Tabasco, to the bottling of the sauce.
Tabasco is a product that is truly hand-crafted, very similar to the production of a fine wine or aged spirit. When I entered the barrel warehouse, the neatly aligned rows of barrels, brought back memories of my visits to Scotch whisky and bourbon aging cellars. The noticeable difference was the incredibly intense pungency released from the American White Oak ex- Bourbon barrels: earthy, vinegar, concentrated pepper, brought about by the maceration of pepper mash, vinegar and salt wafting through the air in unison. The salt crust covering the top of each barrel encourages evaporation and at the same time, seals the barrel. Salt is an important element in the aging process and fortuitously, there is a large salt mine on the island that produces an extremely pure quality known as Avery Island Kosher Salt. This virtually inexhaustible supply of solid rock salt was first discovered by the Avery family in 1862.
After seeing the production and aging facilities, I enjoyed lunch at the Tabasco Deli that included an array of food products that did at one time or currently incorporates Tabasco into its recipes, including Cheez-It’s, Heinz Ketchup, A-1 Steak Sauce, Spicy Creole Potato Chips, and a chocolate sold under the name “Tabasco Spicy Chocolate”. All were enhanced by the addition of Tabasco, but the chocolate was particularly enlightening and relevant, as we will see later. While browsing the Tabasco Country Store, I experienced a true out of body taste sensation that was being serve there – Chipotle Raspberry Ice Cream made with Tabasco Chipotle Raspberry Sauce, which can be used as a topping for desserts or blended into both sweet and savory dishes. Recently, I sprinkled some on one of my favorite Moroccan dishes, a savory bean, meat and potato dish called Tafina. Chipotle Raspberry Sauce added great flavor and the perfect amount of spice to this Morrocan delicacy and will enhance all types of dishes like tacos or foods that include curry, cumin and other spices.
One of my favorite items within the Tabasco portfolio is the very limited edition bottling known as ‘Tabasco Family Reserve Collector’s Edition’ ($25) available only by visiting Avery Island and buying it at the store, or through on-line purchasing. It is made from specially selected Tabasco peppers grown exclusively on Avery Island and yields a richly intense and complex pepper sauce in part because of the extended aging it receives, up to eight years. It is traditional Tabasco ‘Red’ taken to the next level and should be experienced by anyone considering themselves a pepper sauce aficionado. The handsome packaging alone, with its gold medallion and bronze chain draped around the neck of the bottle, foretells a special flavor profile that is well beyond what the taster would expect.
The afternoon tasting of foods that contain Tabasco was merely a prelude to something that was truly out of the ordinary. Little did we know that while we were touring Avery Island and its waterways, one of New Orleans finest and most talented chefs, Alon Shaya, was preparing a spectacular five course dinner that incorporated a different Tabasco Pepper Sauce into each dish.
Chefs have been using Tabasco for well over a hundred years, most often as a condiment, something to be sprinkled over a previously cooked dish. But perusing older cookbooks, like Lowney’s Cookbook Illustrated, published in 1908, reveals recipes, like ‘Split Pea Puree’ that calls for “2 drops of Tabasco Sauce”, proof that cooking with Tabasco is nothing new. This means that Chef Alon Shaya (Domenica, New Orleans) is carrying on a tradition and taking it to new heights by integrating Tabasco into his dishes. Perhaps we can state that chefs have rediscovered Tabasco’s culinary possibilities, thereby gaining an even greater appreciation for the pepper sauce that made Louisiana famous.
Marsh House was the magical setting for this feast. Built in 1818 and renovated around 1926, it serves as the guest house for special visitors and continues to be used by McIlhenny and Avery family members. It came into the Avery family’s possession when John Craig Marsh’s daughter married Mr. Avery and in 1859, when Edmund McIlhenny married 21-year-old Mary Eliza Avery. Mr. Avery completed acquisition of the island in 1869 and eventually, the area once known as ‘Petite Anse’ (Little Cove) was renamed ‘Avery Island’.
Chef Shaya pushed the boundaries of culinary creativity that evening, starting off with ‘Crispy Eggplant and Beet Salad with Whipped Feta, Tabasco Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce and Basil’. The integration of the Jalapeno pepper sauce was seamless, perfectly present, but not overpowering. The eggplant, beets Feta and basil worked together well to create a fresh and beautifully balanced dish. It was an auspicious beginning.
‘Chicken Liver Pate with Grilled Bread and Tabasco Chipotle Onion Jam’ delivered so much more than I expected. It was subtle and brilliant, a true taste sensation, due to the precise and concentrated roasted pepper character of the pepper sauce that adds a perfect touch to the onion jam and the pate.
The logical progression of dishes meant that the flavor profiles gained in complexity. A dish that truly won me over was ‘ Handmade Fusilli Pasta with Shrimp, Celery and Tabasco Pepper Sauce’. Classic Tabasco “Red”was the ideal choice for this dish, complementing its seductive textures and flavors. The same was true of the ‘Slow-Roasted Porchetta with Spring Onions and Artichokes was succulent and made even more flavorful through the incorporation of Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce.
As a life-long chocolate lover, all I can say about the dessert is OMG! This was one of the very best chocolate desserts I have ever tasted, ‘ Dark Chocolate Torta with Tabasco SWEET and Spicy Ganache and Brandied Cherry Gelato’. Incredibly rich, mildly spicy and full of flavor, Tabasco SWEET and Spicy is one of new favorites, as it is a very versatile and flavorful sauce.
Chef Shaya proved that the judicious incorporation of Tabasco sauces can add great flavor, not just spice, to fine cuisine. His dishes were not just flavorful, but truly ‘uplifting”, taking gastronomy to new levels.