When I left for Belize in early December, I didn't anticipate bringing home anything with me other than a suntan. Instead, by the end of the week, I found myself with a huge crush on the habanero, particularly in the form of hot sauce made by Marie Sharp. Good thing a visit to the factory was on my itinerary.
As our van bumped steadily through the fields, we saw small habanero plants as far as the eye could see. I peered out the window to see if I could spot an orange or purple pepper on the vine, just like the ones I had seen in piles the day before at the farmer's market. But, we passed by too quickly and before I knew it we had pulled up to the front of the Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce factory. I soon learned, that my eyes had not deceived me and that Hurricane Richard has taken care of the harvesting the month before. Not to fear, I was assured, there was still plenty of hot sauce to be had and the warm Belizean climate would soon remedy the pepper shortage. I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked through the door's of the factory and an unassuming woman greeted us with a handshake and said "Hi, welcome, I'm Marie Sharp, it's so nice to meet you!"
"Marie Sharp?" I wondered to myself. "There's really a Marie Sharp? It's not some fictional character made up by a corporation to sell hot sauce?" Marie Sharp's hot sauce had been on every table I'd encountered since arriving in Belize four days prior. I'd sprinkled it over my eggs, into a hot bowl of shrimp soup and timidly to the side of our chicken when I first encountered the "fiery hot" variety. With a presence like that, I expected big business. I never expected to meet the woman responsible for concocting the hot sauce recipes that have become Belize's national condiment.
As we wandered past the bottling line Marie Sharp explained to us her company and its modest beginnings. Twenty years ago, she had a full time career and an overbundant crop of habaneros on her family farm. She began experimenting with hot sauce recipes in her spare time, just to not let the peppers go to waste. (Anyone who can't pass up a flat of ripe berries in July understands this dilemma.) Once she perfected her carrot-based hot sauce recipe, friends clamored, why don't you do something with this? So, she recruited some help and a few more burners for her kitchen and struck out to turn her sauce into a business. And she's grown that business from her humble kitchen beginnings to an admirable family-run enterprise that sells hot sauce all over the world.
After our tour, we were led back to the office that also serves as a tasting room and store for all things hot and sweet. I'm not exaggerating when I say I didn't try a single thing that I didn't like (and I tried a lot.) The hot sauce comes in six levels of heat: mild, hot, fiery hot, No Wimps Allowed, Belizean Heat and Beware. On most tables in Belize you'd find fiery hot and despite their fear-inducing names the hotter varieties are tolerable. (Beware may even be my favorite, even if I'm sweating long after the meal.) Additionally, she has a tangy green habanero sauce with prickly pear, a grapefruit habanero sauce, an addicting sweet and sour sauce perfect for chicken, and a exotic sauce featuring mangos and tamarind. And then there's the fruit jams, the red pepper jelly, and fruit juices.
My arms soon filled with guava jam, coconut jam, sweet and sour habanero sauce and a compendium of heat. Shopping for hot sauce soon proved to be a difficult task, as there's only so many bottles one can hold. My group quickly started piles around her office, mine being on the top of a file cabinet. At a certain point, I gave in, worried I might not have enough cash to cover my expenses. It turns out I had nothing to worry about; I walked out out of the factory with two bags full of jars ringing in at just under $15 US dollars.
My trip to Marie Sharp's cemented my budding addiction to hot sauce. No longer was it just a tasty condiment; it is now forever tied to my memories of Belize and its native Pepper Queen. You, too, can drive down through the fields, hop in the store, ask for a tour of the facilities (maybe even by Marie, herself) and buy as much hot sauce as you can fit in your suitcase. And if you're like me and can't wait until your next trip to Belize, there are plenty of stores online, like Amazon or Dr. Chili Pepper that can feed your addiction.
What: Marie Sharp's Factory Tour
Where: #1 Melinda Rd., Stann Creek Valley
Belize, Central America Tel. (501) 520-2087
Cost: Free. Bring cash for your purchases.