It all starts with seeds...
Last week, I visited Avery Island, Louisiana, the home of the McIlhenny Company and Tabasco. Lucky me! I and nine other food writers (Amy Sherman, Camper English, Hank Shaw, Sarah Spigelman, Jeffrey Pogash, Gaby Dulkin, Jenna Weber, Lori Lange, and Jessica of Modern Day Moms) toured the fields, barrel warehouse, processing factory, and the island itself, and had some amazing food along the way. I'm still reeling over a particular dark chocolate torta made with Tabasco Sweet & Spicy Sauce....swoon! Plus, we stayed at the beautiful Marsh House, the homestead of the Avery McIlhenny families, which was nice and cozy, especially during Monday night's thunderstorm.
Senior Vice President Took Osborn explaining their planting strategies and "bagasse," or fibrous material used to improve soil structure. They pronounce it exactly like you hope they do. All the plants are picked by hand, though they're working on a mechanical harvester.
Tabasco pepper "mash" (ground peppers and salt from the Avery Island salt mine) is aged in bourbon barrels. These barrels are waiting patiently to be filled.
President & COO Tony Simmons teaching us about the pepper mash and explaining how to taste it. It's not really something you can swallow, if you know what I mean.
Coy holding two different mashes: the one on the right was aged 8 months, the one on the left was aged 3 years--the normal amount of time Tabasco mash is aged. Have you ever heard of the Scoville scale? Scoville units are the measurements for heat levels in peppers. For instance, a jalapeno pepper has about 5,000 Scoville units, and a serrano pepper has about 10,000. Well, this Tabasco pepper mash has about 35,000 Scovilles. It's hotter than a rug burn in hell! For this reason, you're advised to taste and spit, not swallow.
And if you're brave enough to taste it, you get 1. A shot of bourbon sweated out of the barrels; and 2. one of these spoons, and an induction into the "Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon." These initials are engraved on the spoon. I'm serious.
Mash-filled barrels crusted with salt to seal in the spicy goodness.
99 bottles of Tabasco on the wall...they produce around 750,000 bottles of red a day. A DAY!
We also got to visit the McIlhenny Company archives, housed on the island in the former school. Shane K. Bernard is the curator there and knows everything about everything McIlhenny. It's possible he knows everything about everything period. One of my favorite specimens was this bass that Michael Anthony of Van Halen had made for himself. There's a great story behind it. Shane Bernard asked Anthony for the guitar because they wanted the original one in the archives, offering to have another one made for Anthony to take its place. Anthony agreed and signed the original bass. The McIlhenny family loaned the original bass to the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans for a while, where it was stolen by a guy who "just walked out of the restaurant with it." Years later, Bernard spotted it on eBay for sale for $10,000. He notified the police, who contacted the seller, who gave it back to the McIlhenny family. And here it is, safe and sound.
And my favorite slot machine of all time.
Now, for some food.
Our welcome dinner was at The French Press in Lafayette, Louisiana (ahem...GO THERE!). Chef/owner Justin Girouard, who trained in southern France and at Stella! in the French Quarter, wowed us with a seven-course tasting menu featuring traditional Louisiana seafood and game in imaginative renderings. One of the favorite plates of the night was the fish course, pictured above: Pan-seared sea bass with curried roasted cauliflower, grilled endive, and chili-garlic beurre blanc. Good Lord! The cauliflower was something really special. Chef Girouard said he pan-roasted it in a LOT of butter...it had shrunk down to small morsels of currified goodness. I'm gonna try it at home.
The lighting in the French Press was very low, which creates a beautiful ambience, but is hellish for taking photos, so I have nothing else to show you, but let me just convince you with a few of his menu descriptions that you really, really need to visit this place if the opportunity arises: Spinach and artichoke bisque with fried Louisiana oysters and Tarragon-Tabasco Creme Fraiche. Smoked duck breast with root vegetable puree, broccoli rabe, baby carrots, foie gras, and berry meurette ( a dense, buttery berry sauce). Szechuan shortbread with berry compote and lemon ice cream. I'm very sad to not be sitting in that restaurant right now!
Our second meal was a HUGE treat: a special five-course tasting menu featuring Tabasco products at every turn, prepared for us at the Marsh House by none other than Alon Shaya of Domenica, James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the South. Not only did we get this amazing meal, but we also got a cooking demo from Alon that afternoon, where he showed us how he makes his shrimp stock for the pasta he served us later:
Olive oil, onions, carrots, fennel, tomato paste that he toasts for a while, shrimp heads and shells that he bashes around, Tabasco sauce, chili flakes, an orange (halved & squeezed, then thrown in the pot), a lemon (same as orange), white wine, and enough water to just cover the ingredients. Lid on, simmer an hour and a half, and strain.
You know what else he did? He made fusilli. Made fusilli. I've never considered it possible to make something like fusilli by hand, but he sure did do it and do it well. He made pasta dough, rolled it out, cut it into fettucine-ish widths, then anchored one end of a pasta strand under a heavy bowl while twisting the other end of the strand. After twisting about 10 strands, he lopped off the ragged ends and cut them into 2" lengths of perfect, handmade fusilli. Who does that? That guy.
He sauced the fusilli with shrimp, sauteed celery, the shrimp stock, and celery leaves for a bright, fresh note. I loved it. It was spicy and rich, and the pasta was so perfectly chewy.
And did I mention that Alon brought snacks? His own cured bresaola, speck, and another pork item I forgot the name of but that has this fat that completely melts in your mouth. The goodies are, from the top, charoset, mostarda, caponata, giardiniera, and pickled apples.
And some warm, marinated olives. Who doesn't love that?
Beautifully set for dinner at the Marsh House.
The first course was a favorite of many folks that night: crispy eggplant with beet salad and whipped feta, with a basil pesto that was completely invaded by a bottle of Tabasco Green Jalapeno Pepper Sauce. He used a whole bottle in the pesto! Granted, there were about 20 at dinner that night, but man, was it dee-lish. Not overpowering, just completely fortifying to the pesto. I'm such a sucker for fried eggplant, I can't even tell you how much I enjoyed this.
The meat course was a slow-roasted porchetta, with spring onions, artichokes, and Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce. I loved sampling the creative ways that both chefs used Tabasco in their dishes, and this sauce was a good use of a lesser known flavor of Tabasco. It's garlicky, but still subtle.
This, my friends, was Alon's dessert: Dark chocolate torta with Tabasco Sweet & Spicy Ganache and brandied cherry gelato. OH. MY. Some folks felt that the torta was just too rich for them, but I absolutely positively couldn't get enough. I took about 10 photos of my dessert through various stages of demolishing it, and I contemplated asking others for their pieces they couldn't eat. Look, I'm not even a chocolate freak. But this chocolate spoke to me from beyond. I think it was the sweet & spicy. Plus it looked like a Ding Dong from the outside but was anything but a Ding Dong. Ha!
Like I said at the top of the post, I'm still dreaming about this chocolate torta, and about much of what I ate at Avery Island and in Lafayette. I'll be creating some recipes for Tabasco, and these chefs really taught me a lot about incorporating different flavors of Tabasco into my cooking. You know, if you read this blog at all, that I use Tabasco red in just about everything, but I've never really experimented with the Chipotle, or Green, or Habanero. So watch out! It's gonna get spicy!
Tomorrow Wednesday: more Avery Island, a spicy little cocktail, and a mid-morning meat snack!