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…