The Chilli Alchemist
There’s an Aerosmith song I’ve always enjoyed called ‘Full Circle’. It’s a great (yet ironic) drinking song written at the height of their sobriety & cleanliness. Whilst listening to this song, I couldn’t help but think about the way hot sauces have evolved & changed over the years, especially here in the UK.
As mentioned in my previous article, around 10 years ago many of the hot sauces available in the UK were imported from the USA & Belize. Many had either amusing names related to the heat, pain or after-effects of chilli consumption. Colon Cleaner, Satan’s Blood, Hell’s Liquid, Ass Blaster, Nagasorass etc. Let’s face it, many people’s first association of chilli is heat & pain. Us chilliheads know better but I feel it’s fair to say that your average Joe relates chilli to heat first. With this in mind, creating fun names for chilli products is likely to appeal to those looking to test their mettle or maybe prank a friend.
In my novice years, I used to be amused by a name & would buy a sauce based on it. The problem was that some of the products were very hit or miss. A great name & label didn’t necessarily mean a great product. However, over the years I learned a lot about chillies. I learned about their heat scale and tasting notes. A cayenne is not the same flavour as a naga and a fatallii is not the same as a birds eye. Of course, the heat levels also varied. As my education improved, my attention was turned from the name of a product to the ingredients list on the side. I have a relatively good culinary background and, as soon as I understood the flavour profiles of each chilli, I knew what I wanted to see listed within the ingredients. It didn’t take long to start filtering through the products on offer in the UK and discovering the better sauces. I also found that I didn’t like a high sugar content in my sauces but that’s a slight tangent from this current topic.
A few years on and I would purchase sauces that contained my favourite chillies blended with simple, complimentary ingredients (irrespective of the name of the product). No longer was I drawn in by an amusing name or funny label, I knew what I wanted & I knew what to look for. However, there was a minor problem (if you consider this a problem): I couldn’t find a producer that was consistent with the type of sauces I wanted. I was picking one sauce from one producer & one from another. Ok, so variety is the spice of life but, whenever I found a great sauce by a company, I wanted more from them. Over time, I found that CaJohn and Marie Sharp were the best ranges for me. Low/zero sugar, great tasting and a real celebration of the pepper. These became my go-to producers for some time…years in fact.
The chilli scene has grown massively in the UK over the past few years and with it has come new producers. Personally, I find that the predominant British pallet is more tuned to sweeter sauces. It may be a sweeping generalization & a slight injustice, but I am writing from personal experience rather than substantiated research. You can buy a generic sweet chilli sauce in almost any supermarket or local store these days & they remain popular. As the UK scene grew, a large number of sauce producers were providing a range of products but, to me, many were too sweet, very ‘Farmers Market’ in their branding, named simply (although this isn’t an issue) and they didn’t really show off the flavours of the peppers used. I liked that the chilli scene was growing but my tastes & desires were still for the US products with the amusing names.
My revelation was in New York a couple of years ago…
I attended the New York Hot Sauce Expo due to my passion & curiosity. I looked forward to meeting some of my hot sauce heroes & discovering new, exciting products. I wasn’t disappointed. However, what amazed me was the lack of comically named products & ornate artwork on labels. Not only that, the simply branded & named products were just phenomenal! I got to discover the likes of Lucky Dog, Scotty O’Hotty, Silverleaf, Sinclair’s and more. All of these producers prided themselves on their simple brand & artisan product. Hot sauce was a craft & I got to meet the artists. My adventures in New York are somewhat worthy of a separate article so I’ll leave the finer details for now however, after an amazing experience, I couldn’t help but think that the UK might just head the same way: drop the amusing names, the promises of pain & focus on the brand & product inside the bottle.
I’m encouraged to say that the ethos of some of the US artisan producers is now finding its way into the UK. More and more are focusing on simple packaging, clear names that offer an insight to the flavour and a quality product that has been thought about. Consumers & hot sauce hunters in the UK are starting to be treated to better products that have been crafted through passion, research, dedication and understanding. Us Brits are starting to truly understand the flavours & qualities of the almighty chilli pepper and this is being showcased in some of the sauces now on offer. Sugar levels are lowering, vinegar is used for complimentary flavouring (not just a preservative) and the ingredients used to support the pepper are often perfectly matched. I can’t name them all but if you get time, check out the likes of Grim Reaper Foods, Mr. Vikki’s, The Chilli Jam Man and, of course, The Chilli Alchemist!
Whilst some may still be drawn in & amused by a funny name or ornate label artwork, as time moves on, I believe our desire for a quality product that truly showcases the chilli will be moving with it.