Some like it hot: Trinidad pepper sauce | Cookup

It may be the quintessential Trini condiment, and many can’t imagine a meal without pepper sauce. Franka Philip investigates how T&T’s hot peppers have become internationally famous for their delicious sear

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

Bertie Steuart was an affable Trinidadian salesman whose passion was sport. He played cricket, football, table tennis, and tennis. At the famous Queen’s Park Cricket Club, where he was a member, he was known as “Sporting Sam,” and in his youth he represented Trinidad and Tobago at hockey. But there was a side to Bertie Steuart that even his wife didn’t know until they’d been married for a long while — he was a very good cook.

“Bertie had a sweet hand,” says his wife Allana. “I didn’t even know he could cook until fifteen years into our marriage.” It was this sweet hand that led Bertie to experiment with making the product that would come to define his legacy: a tasty pepper sauce.

It was by accident that Bertie started selling his pepper sauce in the mid-2000s. When he hired Wayne, a man from his neighbourhood, as a gardener, he found out he did not have a refrigerator at home. This bothered Bertie, who decided his family should raise funds by selling his pepper sauce to buy a fridge for Wayne.

Many hot peppers and three blenders later, Bertie and Allana realised they were on to something, and decided to start a small business selling pepper sauce. At first, friends and family were the main customers, then one day a big restaurant came calling.

“We started by going to small specialty shops, people started calling us and saying, gosh, I really like the pepper sauce. It was only when a guy from the American restaurant chain Tony Roma’s came to us and said, ‘I like this pepper sauce and I’d like it in the restaurant,’ that we realised how good it really was.”

After Bertie died in 2016, Allana kept the business going. Nowadays, the Steuarts’ three products — Original Pepper Sauce, Scorpion Pepper Sauce, and Pimento Sauce — are found in supermarkets and gourmet food shops across T&T. Bertie’s is becoming a popular choice for Trinis who live abroad, too, as more of them take the products back home to colder climes.

 

Most pepper sauce makers in T&T use Scotch Bonnet, Scorpion, and Moruga Red peppers. This country’s hot peppers have a fantastic reputation, not just for their heat, but for their deep flavour.

One farmer who has won international plaudits for his peppers is Nawaz Karim. The thirty-four-year-old, who supplies pepper makers like Bertie’s, has won awards in North America for his produce. In a 2016 interview with the T&T Guardian, he explained the reach of his crop. “Hot peppers from our farm in Trinidad were voted by buyers as the best in New York and Miami. Buyers there had also been importing peppers from Mexico and Costa Rica. We ship out between two hundred and three hundred forty-pound bags of peppers twice a week. Our aim is to increase this to between eight hundred and 1,200 bags.”

The Moruga Red is a creation of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), which is dedicated to improving and diversifying strains of agricultural products in the Caribbean. Karim’s Moruga Reds have about one quarter the heat of the Scorpion, which is listed among the world’s hottest peppers. Karim says they are popular because of their “nice sting and strong flavour.”

Some of the world’s hottest peppers originate in Trinidad. Websites for hot pepper specialists like Pepperhead.com and Pepperscale.com have listed the Moruga Scorpion, Seven-Pot Barrackpore, Seven-Pot Jonah, Seven-Pot Brain Strain, and Seven-Pot Douglah (a.k.a. Chocolate Seven-Pot) varieties as among the world’s fiercest. Many of these peppers are not sold to the public, as they’re used as components of products like pepper spray and barnacle-resistant paints for the marine industry.

But Trinidad’s peppers are also a huge draw for pepper sauce makers in other countries, like the UK.

Hot and spicy peppers have been a longtime obsession for Mark Gevaux, the East Londoner known as “The Ribman.” I first met Gevaux in London around 2010, on a trip to Brick Lane in search of the legendary Jewish-style bagel filled with hot salt beef. I got my bagel, but I also discovered Gevaux’s stall, where he sells pulled pork sandwiches and tasty ribs every Sunday. What I wasn’t prepared for was his exceptional pepper sauce, with the cheeky name Holy F*ck. It was one of the best I’d ever tasted.

“Most of the time I felt like I was born in the wrong country,” says Gevaux of his hot pepper obsession. “I’ve always liked hot stuff, but when I was growing up thirty-five years ago, there wasn’t that much around. You had to go to an Indian restaurant to get your spice kick.”

Gevaux started his business after being let go from his butchery job. He started selling his slow-cooked ribs at farmers’ markets, and began making hot sauces when he couldn’t find a good store-bought option. He disliked what he describes as the overuse of vinegar in most of the sauces on the shelf, and the taste he was after was simple: pepper and spices.

By trial and error, he eventually found the right formula, and the perfect combination of peppers. That was the product he called Holy F*ck, named because Gevaux noticed it was “one of the first things customers would say after tasting it for the first time.”

As his popularity grew, Gevaux needed to quickly find an alternative venue for making his sauce. “I used to make it at home, about twenty or thirty bottles at a time. I had to stop, because my neighbours would complain — they’d be coughing up their lungs in the lift, the pepper was so strong,” he says with a laugh.

Over the years, The Ribman has produced three more pepper sauces, Christ on a Bike, Holy Mother of God, and Judas Is Scary Hot — the latter two eliciting raised eyebrows from his Roman Catholic wife. And, of course, Gevaux uses Caribbean peppers as the base for his sauces.

“The best peppers for many sauces are Scotch Bonnets, because of the fruity heat. It’s just amazing, I love it,” he says. “I think most people can tolerate it if cooked right. Scotch Bonnets are a fantastic and beautiful pepper.” He also uses Trinidad’s Moruga Scorpions, Dorset Nagas, and Carolina Reapers.

Gevaux says a lot of his customers are from pepper-loving cultures — Indians, Africans, and West Indians. He hopes to reach a wider audience, as his sauces will soon be distributed to butchers’ shops all across the UK.

 

Servicing the diaspora is a tempting prospect for the folks at Bertie’s also, but at the moment they have enough of a challenge to keep the domestic market satisfied.

In 2017, the supply of fresh peppers in Trinidad was compromised by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Bret in June and other freak flooding incidents later in the year. There is also a shortage of foreign exchange that has affected glass bottle manufacturers.

“If we were lucky enough to get into another market, and they said they liked the product and wanted a container a month, it’s not only the peppers — where are we getting the bottles, the caps? We would now have to buy years’ supplies of that,” Allana Steuart says. “We have to organise ourselves within this small territory to make sure we have it covered, and start working more closely with farmers when we see the opportunity.”

So for now, foreign-based pepper sauce connoisseurs will just have to ask for someone to throw a couple of bottles in their suitcase if they want their Bertie’s fix.

 

How hot is hot?

The Scoville Scale is a measure, named after Wilbur L. Scoville, of the chilli pepper’s heat. Put simply, it measures the concentration of the chemical compound capsaicin. Capsaicin is the beautiful natural chemical that brings the heat and makes your forehead sweat, your tongue burn, and your stomach ache. To measure the concentration of capsaicin, a solution of a chilli pepper’s extract is diluted in sugar water until the “heat” is no longer detectable to a panel of tasters. A rating of zero Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) means there is no heat detectable.

To illustrate how hot some peppers are, pure capsaicin is 16,000,000 SHU. Relative to that, the Moruga Scorpion measures 2,009,231 SHU and the Scotch Bonnet comes in with a rating of 325,000 SHU.