Writing about food as a freelancer was a tough way to make a living and I was about ready to give up after several years of poverty. My fortunes changed when this article about bumming around the Caribbean looking for new hot sauces was published in American Way magazine and won the 1996 James Beard Journalism Award in the Magazine Feature Writing with Recipes category.
The little house looks like it’s about to slip off the cliffside into the thicket of banana plants and herb gardens below. Knocking on the door, I am greeted by reggae on the radio and several loud, simultaneous conversations. “Come in, it’s open!” somebody finally hollers over the din.
Inside, seven women are sitting around a kitchen table cleaning herbs and laughing. Out the window behind them, I can see the green squares of hundreds of garden plots covering the steep slopes of Trinidad’s Paramin Hills. Stacked along the wall is the treasure I’ve travelled thousands of miles to find, cases upon cases of “Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce.”
Hillary Boisson is the Parmin Women’s Group’s unofficial leader. She is scrutinizing my T-shirt trying to find some clue as to what this large sunburnt American wants in her clubhouse kitchen. The T-shirt reads: “Austin Hot Sauce Contest, Fourth Annual.”
I am on a hot sauce safari, I explain. I have been island-hopping in the Caribbean for three weeks now, stalking elusive pepper sauces. To find their little salsa factory, I had to brave the treacherous switchbacks of the nearly vertical one-lane road in an overheating truck. The Paramin Women’s Group is suitably impressed.
The Austin Hot Sauce Contest, which I started while working as a food writer at the Austin Chronicle, is where I had my first encounter with Caribbean-style pepper sauces. Over the years the contest has turned into the world’s largest (as far as we can tell, anyway) with over three hundred hot sauces entered every year.
For the past few years, Caribbean-style hot sauces made with habaneros and scotch bonnet peppers have been running away with the show. Instead of the jalapeño, tomatoes, onions and garlic used to make Mexican-style hot sauces, these vibrant Caribbean salsas are made with various combinations of Scotch bonnets, papaya, mango, or pineapple and seasoned with fresh herbs, ginger, allspice or mustard; they taste sensational.
After I got hooked, I started looking for Caribbean pepper sauces in the supermarket, but I found that there weren’t many to choose from. The most exotic sauces, like Dragon’s Breath, Apocalyptic Hot Sauce, and Voodoo Jerk Slather are made in small batches and sold by mail order through pepper-cult publications like Chile Pepper Magazine and the Mo Hotta Mo Betta catalog.
“The Paramin Women’s Group has been meeting for 26 years,” Veronica Romany tells me. “We used to make handicrafts, baskets, crocheting, that kind of thing. But you know we grow the best herbs and peppers here in Paramin, so for the last year, we’ve been bottling pepper sauce.”
Sensing that I’ve made a momentous discovery, I buy a bottle of Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce and open it on the spot. I dip my little finger into the bottle and taste it, much to the amusement of the Paramin Women’s Group. Their pepper sauce is one of the most unique bottled sauces I’ve ever tried. But I can’t indentify the source of its strong herbal taste and aroma.
“That’s shadow benny,” Veronica giggles.
“Shadow benny?” I ask dumbfounded.
“Here, this stuff,” she says leading me to a full tub of the dark green herb. I put my nose into it and sniff; the aroma is a pungent slap in the face.
Shadow benny proves to be a variety of the herb called culantro in Latin America. Seldom seen in the U.S., it is a distant cousin to cilantro. The thick-leafed herb has an even stronger flavor than cilantro. In Trinidadian cooking, shadow benny is used in intensely-flavored dishes because it tends to overpower almost any other taste. But it is just the herb to stand up to the full fury of Trinidad’s congo peppers.
Congo peppers and their Caribbean cousins, the Scotch Bonnet and the habanero are members of the pepper species called Capsicum chinense ; they are the hottest peppers in the world. But while they may be the most incendiary peppers under the sun, they are also one of the tastiest. Their distinctive fruitiness, with hints of apricot, peach and citrus is the main flavor of this new breed of hot sauce that has set the world on fire.
I ask the Paramin Women’s Group if they can ship their hot sauce to the United States. They have never done it before and they are a little unclear on the technicalities, someday they may figure it out. Nevertheless, I doubt we’ll be seeing Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce on our local grocery store shelves anytime soon. Looking around the kitchen, I realize that one order from a supermarket would wipe out the world’s entire supply of Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce.
This kind of small scale production is the reason that the Caribbean’s most fascinating hot sauces remain closely guarded secrets. The only shelves you’ll find these bottles on are inside the refrigerator doors of the pepper sauce cognescenti.
Bob Kennedy is the maker of the underground classics called Virgin Fire hot sauces. His line includes the tangy, sweet sauce called Pineapple Sizzle and the ferocious liquid lava known as Dragon’s Breath. Kennedy lives on the eccentric island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Bumping around the island’s dirt roads in his Jeep, Kennedy gives me a tour on the way to his pepper farm. Two-thirds of St. John is national parkland and the rest is inhabitated by a gang of self-professed oddballs, he explains. Stopping at a beach along the way, Kennedy points to the bumper sticker on back of a parked Jeep. It reads: “St. John U.S.V.I. We’re all here because we’re not all there.”
Kennedy cooks Virgin Fire sauces up thirty gallons at a time in his kitchen. His house sits on top of a hill looking out over much of St. John and the island of Tortola across the water. In the kitchen of his ramshackle hilltop duplex, Kennedy reluctantly agreed to part with one of the increasingly hard-to-find bottles of his legendary Pineapple Sizzle.
“The drought this year has ruined us,” complains Kennedy. “Water was so scarce, that at one point they were bringing water trucks over on the ferry from St. Thomas.” The water-poor Virgin Islands are a tough place to try and make pepper sauces. The tour of Kennedy’s garden was a requiem. Inadequate rainfall had killed the peppers and the fruit trees that once supplied his raw ingredients. The cost of trucked-in water makes irrigation financially impossible.
“We had to pull out of the Mo Hotta Mo Betta catalog because we just couldn’t keep up with the orders anymore,” Kennedy admits ruefully. He hates the idea of leaving St John, but Kennedy is determined to pack up his operation and relocate to Puerto Rico where he will have a constant supply of peppers and access to a bottling plant. He predicts that he will soon be able to supply all the Pineapple Sizzle and Dragon’s Breath anybody could want.
Across the bay on the more populous island of St. Thomas, Richard Reimer is having the same problems with the pepper supply at his Virgin Island Herb and Pepper Company. But somehow Reimer has managed to scrounge up enough peppers to keep up with the demand.
I meet Reimer over a cold beer at the Normandie Bar, the oldest watering hole on St. Thomas in picturesque Frenchtown. Reimer hands me a bottle of his most popular sauce, but he stops me before I can taste it. Apocalyptic Hot Sauce is an insanely hot mixture of pure peppers and vinegar and it’s recommended for cooking, not eating out of the bottle, he tells me. But Reimer makes two other sauces that taste great straight out of the bottle. His Peppered Ginger Hot Sauce has a wonderful gingery burn and his Curry Garlic Hot Sauce tastes like an fiery Indian curry. These two aren’t sold in the catalog and I happily stuff them into my pcokets.
Reimer and two other cottage hot sauce companies on St. Thomas, Heat Wave and Uncle Willie’s, do a steady business selling hot sauces to the endless stream of tourists who disembark from cruise ships in Charlotte Amalie’s harbor every day.
I tell Reimer about my pepper sauce safari and ask him which islands he thinks I should visit. “The islands with the most water have the best produce,” Reimer replies. “Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica and Dominica.”
It’s been said that if Columbus ever returned to the West Indies, Dominica is the only place he’d still recognize. The nature island, as it’s often called because of its unspoiled landscape, is tucked away in the Lesser Antilles between the French-speaking islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; it is often confused with Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic.
Tourists are invisible in Dominica. Only a tiny trickle of visitors come here to begin with. And nearly all the backpacking nature-lovers disappear into Dominica’s vast unexplored rain forest as soon as they arrive. The island’s 360 rivers feature spectacular waterfalls, some of which were only recently discovered when a hurricane blew away the dense vegetation that surrounded them.
But as Richard Reimer suggested, the bounty of fresh water makes Dominica a great place to grow things. And peppers are one of the island’s main crops. They call the pepper variety here piment bonda man jack. (The name is an off-color creole joke about Mrs. Jacque’s behind). The pepper with the racy name looks and tastes a lot like the congo pepper of Trinidad.
Since 1944, the Bello Pepper Sauce Company in the tiny village of Castle Comfort has purchased the lion’s share of the island’s pepper crop and turned it into one of the Caribbean’s most popular hot sauces. The bullet-shaped shaker bottle containing Bello’s Special Pepper Sauce can be found on almost any island in the Caribbean. It is a vinegary orange sauce that tastes a little like a fruity version of Tabasco sauce.
Bello’s hot sauce has more of a mass-produced commercial flavor than most of my favorites, so I wasn’t expecting much when I stopped by their factory. Michael Fagan, son of the owners of the company, gave me a tour of the enormous pepper-crushing operation and Juslin Adonis, the head pepper buyer, showed me some of the latest crop of peppers. Michael, whose dark skin and distinctively sharp nose make him look part Amerindian, was born and raised in New York and recently returned to Dominica to handle the company’s marketing efforts.
My impressions of Bello hot sauce took a drastic change for the better when I sat down with Fagan and tasted another hot sauce Bello makes. Working with a British food marketing company called Encona, Bello has developed a delicious, thick, chunky and extremely hot sauce made with peppers, papaya, onions, vinegar and other spices called West Indian Pepper Sauce. It’s currently Great Britain’s top-selling hot sauce, the Brits are consuming 6-8 container loads of the stuff every month.
Luckily for us, Bello has decided to sell the same product under its own label in the United States. The chunky British formula is simply called Bello Hot Pepper Sauce. This thick, fruity, naturally-aged, tonsil-torcher has already been discovered by the chile cult through the Mo Hotta Mo Betta catalog.
In Bello’s research labs, New Mexico-educated quality control director Allan Phillip shows me a bottle of a new dark yellow, mustard-tumeric-based formula that Bello is working on. Michael Fagan hopes to sell all three of his hot sauces someday in the United States. Unlike the little hot sauce companies which are struggling to ship mail order customers a couple of bottles at a time, Bello could easily ship a container load of hot sauce to your front door tomorrow.
However, they’ve already got a little competition in the U.S. market – from a fried chicken chain, of all things. Trinidad Habanero Pepper Sauce is made by Trinidad’s Royal Castle chicken chain, famous for its fried chicken, but even better known for the sensational hot sauce they use as a marinade and serve alongside it. Trinidad Habanero Pepper Sauce is currently sold in thirty-five states, and is featured on the tables of the Planet Hollywood chain. (Like many other pepper sauce producers, this company has adopted “habanero” as a generic name for Scotch bonnets, congo peppers and all the other cultivars of the capsicum chinense family because the name is so well-known in the U.S., even though the Spanish word is not used in Trinidad.)
Royal Castle’s owner, American-born Marie Permenter, was well aware of the pent-up demand for exotic hot sauces in the United States. With plenty of sauce in inventory, she decided to try her hand at the export business.
With her Southern accent and planter’s manner, Mrs. Permenter seems like an unlikely hot sauce magnate. But every month the orders increase and more barrels of Royal Castle’s hot sauce are sent to its bottling operation in Florida.
The sauce made famous by the Trinidadian chicken chain is a hot green condiment made with a domesticated wild herb called Spanish thyme, along with congo peppers, garlic, onions, mustard and fresh ginger. Unlike many sauces that are simply hot, the heat of the peppers is beautifully balanced with fresh herbs and spices. Though shipped in relatively large quantities, Trinidad Habanero Pepper Sauce still manages to taste homemade.
Like her neighbors, the Paramin Women’s Group, Marie Permenter of Royal Castle gets all her herbs from the farmers who work the tiny mountain plots in the Paramin Hills, where the slopes are so steep that tractors are useless and irrigation is impossible. It’s an impractical place for farming, but during the wet season, rain falls on the Paramin Hills every day. And according to Marie Permenter, the quality of the herbs and peppers grown on these steep slopes with pure jungle rainwater under the hot Trinidadian sun is the secret of a truly great hot sauce.
As I leave the Paramin Women and drive back down the hill at sunset, I stop to watch a couple of farmers returning from work in their herb plots a few hundred feet below. They look like ants crawling up a green patchwork curtain. People sure are willing to go to a lot of trouble to make a better hot sauce, I muse to myself.
On my three week Caribbean hot sauce safari, I’ve met some people who already run vast multi-national hot sauce empires, some whose sauces may soon catch fire, and some talented home chefs and women’s clubs who are happy to make hot sauces for a tiny audience of friends and fanatics. There’s a place under the sun for all of them, I think, smiling as I caress what will soon become the only bottle of Genuine Paramin Pepper Sauce in the United States.