"This is a three-hankie experience," croaked a participant, blowing his nose.
It must be a sign of the times. A distinct percentage of the people were using paper napkins for their running noses and watering eyes at this event. They had come here voluntarily, knowing what they were in for, at the first public hot sauce tasting in the Los Angeles area, held in Pasadena May 15.
There were sympathetic smiles for those who headed to the bar for something cold and wet to throw on the fire in their mouths. And conspiratorial grins for those who ordered Ed's Original Cave Creek Chili Beer. Your true chile-head likes the idea of a beer with a green chile floating in the bottle.
The organizers provided evaluation sheets, but unlike those at a wine tasting, they didn't call for elaborate point totals, just subjective notes and one nomination each for hottest sauce and personal favorite. And nobody rolled sauce around in their mouths, sucked air over it, stared ruminatively and then spat it into a discreet cuspidor. They just swallowed and gasped.
Essentially this event was an easy, if not exactly painless, way of sampling 22 unfamiliar hot sauces. They were arranged on three tables designated Medium, Hotter and Hottest. The Hottest table consisted exclusively of sauces based on the habanero pepper, currently the hottest chile available in this country. Some tasting notes from that table:
West Indies Creole Sauce: A traditional product from Dominica. Elegant and versatile, a habanero-based equivalent of Tabasco.
Spitfire Pepper Sauce: From Barbados. quite hot, enriched with mustard, cumin and garlic.
Inner Beauty Real Hot Sauce: Made in Costa Rica. Also containing mustard and cumin, but with a touch of honey.
Melinda's XXXXtra Reserve '94: From Costa Rica. A dark red-orange vintage-dated habanero sauce containing onion, lime and carrots.
Vic's Fire: From Florida. Just vinegar and habaneros, so hot the medicinal-sized bottle comes with an eyedropper for dosing.
Pure Hell: From Colorado. Habanero with a touch of pineapple.
The last had a milder cousin on the Hotter table, named Half Way to Pure Hell. Surprisingly, there was actually a habanero sauce on the Medium-Hot table: Trinidad Mild, which emphasized something hotness-freaks don't often talk about, the really delicious aroma of the habanero chile, which is a bit like all fresh vegetables rolled into one.
Free of the Hottest table's single-minded concentration on the habanero, the Medium-Hot table had the greatest variety of styles. Salsa Nova Cilantro and Walnut was like a fresh chutney or some condiment from the Republic of Georgia. Coyote Cocina Fire-Roasted Salsa carried the smokiness of chipotle peppers to new levels. Pili Sauce, from Virginia, had an unexotic ingredient list (tomatoes, jalapenos, ginger), but the combination was very pleasing. Rothschild's Fiery Raspberry Salsa (Ohio) was sweet and delicious, a subtle hint of celery giving freshness to the combination of tomatoes, jalapenos, raspberry vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.
Monica Bosserman-Lopez, of the Pasadena hot sauce boutique Hot Hot Hot, explained that she'd chosen the most unusual sauces for the Medium-Hot table "because they're the ones people are least likely to sample in the shop."
Well, it's just another sign of the times, like the fact that the Tabasco company, after 126 years in the hot sauce business, is thinking about bringing out its own habanero sauce.
One of the sauce makers in attendance, Mike Greening (who manufactures the tart and hot Ring of Fire sauce in San Diego), was talking about how he's questing for even more fire by importing red habaneros from Barbados.
"They're more expensive," he said, "and they're a lot of trouble to import, but they come in at 325,000 on the Scoville scale. California orange habaneros are only 240,000 Scoville."
There was a wild light in his eye. And to think that once upon a time, the jalapeno, which has been ranked as high as 50,000 on the Scoville pungency scale, was considered pretty hot.