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Try some real Bahamian heat

WELCOME BAHAMAS - NASSAU, CABLE BEACH & PARADISE ISLAND - 2006

Try some real Bahamian heat

Hot sauces to cry for

Tabasco, move over; you've got some competition. Bahamian hot sauces are here with an attitude, designed to ignite a hot sauce aficianado's food, clear the sinuses and bring tears to the eyes.

There's a great selection in Nassau. Nearly two dozen sauces and tonics offer different flavours with heat levels ranging from mild to extreme.

"Chileheads," as hot sauce connoisseurs like to be called, find The Bahamas to be a cornucopia of their favourite condiment.

Cruise passengers disembarking at Prince George Dock discover hot sauces by Plantation Hill and D'Vanya's awaiting them at kiosks in Festival Place. Both companies' products are also available at outlets throughout The Bahamas.

D'Vanya's four-bottle gift pack is especially popular. Their four sauces range from throat-tingling to grab-the-water-and-gulp. (Actually, water doesn't help. Knowledgeable sources recommend ice cream or sugar, even ketchup, to ease the burning sensation brought on by a hot sauce).

Making hot sauces was almost pre-ordained for Plantation Hill's Julie Hoffer, who's "been dabbling with peppers since I was eight or nine years old."

Peppers grew in profusion at her home in Long Island. One day the mailboat captain told her she should sell them. So she did, and deposited every Produce Exchange cheque into her own bank account. Her savings grew over the years to $900-plus, which was used to help pay for a food training course in Germany.

That paid off. Today, using only locally grown produce, Hoffer makes five distinct hot pepper concoctions: Rokhoff's Hot Pepper Tonic, Bahamian Hot Pepper Tonic, Julie Mango Hot Pepper Tonic, Big J's Papaya Hot Pepper Tonic and Tamarind Tree Hot Pepper Tonic. Her original Rokhoff's and Bahamian tonics are still the most popular. The three new additions are "attracting a lot of attention," Hoffer says. She ranks these three in the seven to eight range on a scale from one to ten, with the two original tonics being a bit more powerful.

Not for the faint-hearted
Conchy Joe's Inferno Pepper Sauce hit the market in the spring of 2005. Its label warns, "No Wimps Allowed." The sauce is a traditional Bahamian family recipe, packing a strong punch.

As a warning, the label challenges users with this line: "A special blend for those who claim to like it hot."

Conchy Joe's manager, Suzannah Eneas, says Inferno Pepper Sauce is a major hit with tourists. With the success of their original sauce, the company developed three new ones, which are now in production. However, the original recipe still accounts for about half of all sales.

"My personal favourite is Conchy Joe's Pepper Sauce," Eneas says. The original Inferno is a solid 10 in heat, but her favourite is about a two, with the Hot Pepper Sauce coming in at a four and the company's Fiery Hot Pepper Sauce a seven.

The majority of sales have been to the tourist market. Although the company has been producing sauces for less than a year, Conchy Joe's sells several hundred cases a month, and the company recently ordered additional equipment to double production.

Increased production means more sales for farmers in Andros, Eleuthera, Abaco and Grand Bahama. Like its competitors, who manufacture their products locally, Conchy Joe's buys all its peppers, papayas and mangoes from Bahamian suppliers.

For a seriously fiery experience, pepper aficionados should sample a bottle of the Bahamian Hot Hot Sauce from Winfield Fine Foods. Owner Winfield Rolle started making hot sauces two decades ago when he worked in Canada. His Bahamian Hot blends five different peppers with vinegar, salt, spices and garlic. It comes in two styles - with or without seeds.

"I want people to taste the flavour first and then get the heat." And heat they'll get. "It's about a nine-point-five on a scale of 10," he advises. The effect is "almost Asian," according to Rolle, who likes to fuse different tastes into his sauces. According to his label, each five-ounce bottle represents 20 to 22 one-teaspoon servings. First time users should start with half a teaspoon.

But the heat doesn't scare users away. Winfield Fine Foods buys their peppers from Andros and Long Island farmers and Rolle makes his sauce in 110-gallon batches, several times a month. Each batch results in about 2,750 bottles.

Not all quality Bahamian pepper makers are bottling thousands of bottles per month. At the other end of the production spectrum is Ida Rose with her simply named Ida?s Product Bahamian Pepper Sauce. She's been making and selling out of her home for four years. Her sauce is less fiery than most and includes three hot peppers tempered by "sweet pepper, onions, cider vinegar and sea salts."

At first she grew most of her peppers personally. When she first started making sauces, "I went house-to-house selling it," Rose says. "Nowadays I don?t feel so much like walking."

Three local restaurants use her sauce on their tables and sell some retail. It is "a neighbourhood favourite," she says.

Today, Rose sells her product at craft shows and fairs. "My daughter suggested I put the (telephone) number on the label," she says, and it worked. Rose now gets unsolicited calls that result in sales.

Great pepper country
The Bahamas is great chilli pepper growing country. In fact, the goat pepper is native to Andros, and Eleuthera was the first home for finger peppers.

"We have some of the best pepper country in the world," says Basil Miller of the Gladstone Road Agricultural Research Centre. "The only real impediment on certain islands is water" (otherwise) we can grow them year round."

Worldwide, more than 6,000 species of peppers have been identified and every year more are discovered by researchers at New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.

While Miller concentrates his work on finger peppers and goat peppers, he also tests other varieties every year to see which ones work in local conditions. So far, every one he?s tried thrives on the Bahamian climate and soils. Miller gathers seeds from each crop to supply local producers, and the research centre maintains a seed germ bank to guarantee future supplies.

With irrigation and proper crop management, hot peppers are a high-value crop. Miller estimates that an average-sized family can earn a living growing peppers on as little as one acre.

It's more than the sauce
Many chileheads collect bottles of different sauces as a hobby. Thousand-plus bottle collections are not uncommon. Bahamian hot sauces with their distinctive names and ingredients - local peppers, fresh tropical fruits and sea salt - appeal to serious collectors. In fact, "they constitute a significant percentage of sales," says Eneas. "Right now, we're selling mostly to tourists? we've shipped several cases to the States."

No one knows for sure how many different sauces are in worldwide production. Estimates go as high as 10,000, and their names are as distinctive as their ingredients: Bat's Brew, Burnin' Love Hot Sauce, Total Insanity Hot Sauce (with a companion Insanity salsa), Religious Experience Salsa and Texas Tongue Torch, to name only a few.

Label design can make or break a brand. Colourful labels are the single most important element in selling hot pepper and chilli sauces, say producers.

"Presentation is key - particularly if you want to make it stand out on the shelf," says Eneas. "You've got to entice them if you want them to make that first purchase."

Chileheads are divided into two groups - heat vs flavour. Hoffer thinks everything is about the heat; the hotter, the better. Eneas stands firmly in the other camp; "I enjoy flavour first followed by heat."

Capsaicin is the difference
All chillies get their heat from capsaicin, a chemical ingredient naturally produced in the plant itself. Different peppers have different capsaicin levels, resulting in varying heat intensities. The common green, or bell, pepper is the least potent, while the searing hot goat pepper tops the fire and brimstone charts.

Between the two are thousands of varieties. Great hot sauces incorporate ingredients to complement the heat and to accent its burn. Acidic juices, such as lime, lemon and vinegar intensify the heat. Ingredients such as mango, papaya, honey and sugar mellow the fire, say producers.

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