Have you ever wondered where Tabasco pepper sauce was made? And did you know that it comes in several different flavours? I was about to visit Avery Island, in southern Louisiana, to discover everything Tabasco-related. It was a fascinating tour, taking in a bit of history, a drive through lush gardens, and classic Cajun cuisine.
Avery Island And Tabasco
Avery Island is a natural salt dome just over 2,000 acres in size, situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Lafayette. It was here that Edmund McIlhenny first created Tabasco sauce in the 1860s, and where the whole world’s Tabasco production still takes place.
But why Avery Island? It is easy to see that the island was a good source of the salt used in the manufacturing process, but the peppers had to be imported. To find out more I spoke to Shane, the island’s archivist who knows everything there is to be known about Avery Island and Tabasco.
He explained that, like many others, McIlhenny was displaced by the Civil War, and was looking to start a new business on Avery Island, which was owned by his father-in-law. However there are different theories as to where the idea for Tabasco originated, the most likely being that it came from a Mexican soldier he met during a military campaign.
Avery Island Today
Avery Island remains the sole location for Tabasco manufacture, exporting its products worldwide. The peppers continue to be sourced from elsewhere, although a few plants are grown here for the purpose of seed production. Around 200 people live on the island, working in the factory or the tourist side of the business: some families have been here for several generations.
Apart from the factory and the Visitor Centre, the island includes the Jungle Gardens, a large natural area teeming with native plants and wildlife. Interestingly, it is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places as being home to 52 archaeological sites. Many of these are prehistoric, some dating back to around 2500 BCE.
A Self Guided Tour
In most cases a visit to Avery Island takes the form of a self-guided tour. This includes the Visitor Centre and Museum, greenhouse and factory. You will learn about the growing, manufacturing and ageing processes and – if you visit between Monday and Thursday – you can see the bottling line at work. You finish at the shop where you can buy a variety of goods including Tabasco flavoured ice-cream (which is surprisingly good!).
Having only ever tried the traditional red Tabasco sauce before, I was surprised to discover that there were several different varieties, and that new flavours are being added all the time (depending on where you live, you will be able to find different types for sale online). And the museum had some had some interesting information about the history of Tabasco and the way it had become an American cultural icon.
Exploring The Jungle Gardens
The tour also includes the 170 acre Jungle Gardens. Originally this area was a nursery but it was reopened as a drive-through tourist attraction in 1935. The plantings focus upon camellias, bamboos and hollies, and there are several natural lagoons.
You can walk or drive the 3 mile path through the gardens. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you go: I spotted several large herons and egrets in the water, as well as one or two alligators. Apparently armadillos, bobcats and black bears also live here, although – perhaps fortunately for visitors – sightings of bears are rare.
Food And A Cooking Demo
Of course the purpose of Tabasco is to enhance your cooking, and food features prominently at Avery Island. You can taste different Tabasco flavours in the shop, and buy bottles to take away. Or you can enjoy local Cajun cuisine in the Restaurant 1868.
I had the chance of a Cooking Demo, which took the form of trying various foods with and without different types of Tabasco. We started with glasses of Bloody Mary, then followed up with all sorts of local dishes. The meat-eaters began with boudin (a sort of sausage), then red beans and rice. I had a shrimp salad and discovered that the green Tabasco went very well with it. The dishes kept coming, and we ended with a local dessert of bread pudding. A real feast!
How To Visit Avery Island, Louisiana
- Avery Island is around 16 km (10 miles) from New Iberia, and 50 km (30 miles) from Lafayette.
- Self guided tours are available every day but if you want to see the bottling line in operation you will have to visit between Monday and Thursday.
- The Cajun Culinary Course takes place on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the Tabasco Cooking Demo is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Both include food and must be booked separately.
- Most of the island is fully accessible, but wheelchair users will need to tour the Jungle Gardens by car.