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Sunday, November 27, 2016

A factory worth visiting

a.k.a. What does whisky and Tabasco have in common?

Musicians in Royal street, New Orleans

Due to family demand, here are some pictures (and stories) of my recent trip to New Orleans. It was a work-related trip, but as usual because it doesn’t hurt to combine the best of both worlds, I also combined it with seeing my old friend Kristine who moved with her family to the U.S. when we were 16. She had been to New Orleans once before, on Mardi Gras the year after Hurricane Katrina. She talked about the good food, mood and music down in the Big Easy, as well as stories of resilience after the disaster. The choice for her to fly down from New York to meet me was not so hard for her either. Besides meeting me, I bet she just wanted to have a taste of those deep-fried, sugar-covered French donuts (“beignets”) from Café du Monde again ;-)

I want to be Bayou*

(*motto seen on a kitchen towel)
What struck me while on the plane to New Orleans is that it a city surrounded by wetland – if it isn’t standing right on it. Wetland is also what you immediately see once leaving the city limits by car. Highways are elevated several meters from the swamp below, to protect it from the occasional flooding of the delta. Flanking each side of the highway are thin cypress growing in the swamp. Their roots build up shoots reminiscent of mangrove roots, and their canopy is overgrown by lichen rather than leaves. In my imagination, I could easily picture alligators somewhere down there. It made me wonder why people settled there in New Orleans swamps in the first place. Bayou – a word I have only heard in Southern songs – turns out to be a slow-moving stream, sometimes a stream of slow-moving mud. Not at all the romantic stream I thought it was in Blue Bayou! It also made me wonder at humans’ capacity to build cities in the seemingly strangest environments. At least, I thought, the first settlers must have liked the weather. At the end of November, the temperature was humid and 22 degrees C, and the sun was hot by nine o’clock. On further reflection though, the settlers’ choice made perfect sense: before the age of the concrete highway, there was the mighty Mississippi River, and that made the city more accessible than what I imagined it to be “from land”.

View from the plane. The blue band is the Mississipi and if you squint, you see New Orleans as the group of buildings near the center of the picture.

Elevated highways

Swamp cypress, almost eerie with their long thin shapes and branches overgrown with lichen

The bridge to my mom's namesake

The Mississippi River, as seen from the banks of New Orleans. My colleagues and I went on a dinner jazz cruise on the river one evening. Food and music are two things hard to miss here!

One hot day at the Tabasco plant

A few days is not enough to explore New Orleans’ and Louisiana's history – not least its rich music history of the Blues. A few days just scratches the surface, by way of anecdotes, of for example the South’s history of slavery in cane plantations, or how New Orleans changed hands from French to Spanish rule and later got sold to American settlers. Kristine and I decided at least that this time we would explore Cajun food. And in Louisiana on this theme, a visit to the Tabasco plant on Avery Island is inevitable. It was a two and a half drive from New Orleans, through swamps (of course) and cane plantations. We crossed a few bridges too, probably the winding Mississippi, or its estuaries.

At the Avery Island moat bridge, a man hands out tickets from a guard house with a long stick (so you don’t have to get out of the car)! American convenience!

I first read about the history of Tabasco in Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, but going there myself is really something else than reading it. Geologically, Avery Island is interesting because it is not actually an island but a dome of rock salt (a salt dome), rising 50 meters above the plantations around it. With access to a salt mine below and to seeds of the pepper capsicum frutescens (the tabasco pepper) that could be grown around the island, Edmund McIlhenny already had two of the tree ingredients (besides vinegar) to make his now world-renowned hot sauce.

Kristine with a huge block of salt from the Avery Island salt mine. Today, the factory only uses a portion of their own salt for hot sauce production.

Help, I'm surrounded by giant condiment bottles!

Several years ago, when Kristine and I decided to meet abroad, we chose Scotland to visit whisky distilleries. In some sense, the Tabasco plant is not very different from those single malt distilleries we visited. For one, both whisky and Tabasco is made from few ingredients. For whisky, these ingredients are grain, yeast and distilled water. For Tabasco, they are chilies, salt and distilled vinegar. Second, like single malt whiskies, all Tabasco sauces can trace their origin from one single factory. Thirdly, both whiskies and Tabasco sauce involve an ageing process in oak casks, so their staff both include coopers, or caskmakers. The difference is that while whisky grains undergo fermentation first and then aged in the barrel after distillation, Tabasco chilies are fermented in the barrel and then sieved and mixed with vinegar before bottling. Fourthly, the production of whisky and Tabasco both involve fermentation of plant material (grain/fruit). Finally – perhaps a coincidence – there is also a common number: For an alcohol to be called a whisky, it must be aged for at least three years, while in the Tabasco factory, chilies are fermented in their barrels for up to three years.

If only you could smell this picture!

The smell in the barrel warehouse, with its stacks of chili-and-salt filled casks, was strong, pungent, with a distinct yeast smell with a spike of chili hitting you at the back of the throat.  
 In the part of the Tabasco factory where they mix the chili mash with vinegar continuously for three weeks, the smell was beginning to be reminiscent of Tabasco. If you could imagine making a vapor of Tabasco, that’s how it smelled. It’s a good thing that tourists only get to smell this from a controlled vent inside a glass-walled viewing deck. The smell was good, but probably should be inhaled in moderation!

 The mixing vats seen from a viewing platform (The Tabasco tour is self-guided).
At 11 AM, so many bottles have already been produced!

This picture of Kristine and me c/o a friendly truck driver, Gerry, who was making deliveries to the Tabasco plant and stopped on the road to take a picture of us.

The Tabasco plant is a happy place that spiced up our day! I went home with a suitcase stuffed with Tabasco products, tucked between shirts and socks. I imagine the airport staff must have spotted the characteristic bottle silhouette on their X-ray machines,smiled and said to themselves, "Hey, look! Another one of those hot sauce lovers!"


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