Thursday, March 5, 2009

Avery Island & New Iberia

Thursday, March 5, 2009
Abbeville, LA

Dar had me running hard today. The first exploration on the agenda was the McIlhenny Company on Avery Island, about 25 miles from Betty’s RV Park in Abbeville. They’re the makers of world famous Tabasco Sauce… that famous hot pepper sauce. “Holy McIlhenny”! (Some comedian years ago used to say that and it wasn’t until I was much older that I made the connection.

Avery Island is an interesting place. I always pictured it as a piece of land surrounded by water, oh, maybe out in the Gulf of Mexico a ways. Wouldn’t you?? But, as I found out today, it’s possible to drive to Avery Island… without a ferry. There is a small bridge involved along the way, but the island is actually the top of a salt dome out in the middle of a swamp. From a distance it looks like a hill amidst the flat bayou countryside. The salt dome is about three miles by three miles and 15 miles deep. That’s a lot of salt!. Salt is still being mined here at the rate of over 2 million tons per year.

Atop the salt dome is a layer of well drained soil with large trees and plants that are a refuge for wildlife of all kinds. Along the edges, near the swamp, are fields used to grow the famous Tabasco Peppers. McIlhenny also grows peppers in other locations to guard against crop disasters.

The process for making Tabasco Sauce is amazingly simple. Peppers are picked at the height of ripeness, ground up into a mash which is mixed with salt and stored in hogshead barrels, 50 gallons each, for three years. During that time a natural fermenting/aging process takes place. After the three years the barrels are opened and mixed in large tanks with a strong vinegar. This almost-pepper sauce is blended and stirred for an additional few weeks. After that its bottled and shipped to over 100 different countries around the world. We did the tour which includes a very good video about the area, the company, and the products.

Next to the factory is the Country Store where you can sample such unusual delights as Tabasco Ice Cream, Tabasco Cola, Tabasco Jelly, and on and on. The McIlhenny Company are smart marketers too, cross marketing their Tabasco brand by mixing it with other products like Spam, Heinz Ketchup, A1 Steak Sauce, and various brands of mustard. Of course, you could also just buy a bottle of Tabasco and do the mixing yourself too. At the sampling counter in the store I made the mistake of sampling the hotest product first — Tabasco Habanero Sauce. That one sample ended my tasting-ability for the next hour or two.

It was almost noon when we headed into New Iberia where Dar had a couple other explorations lined out for us. On advice of locals we had a quick lunch of Creole Gumbo at the Bon Creole Lunch Counter. If someone hadn’t sent us here I don’t think we would have stopped — there was nothing in it’s appearance that would draw you in. But the Gumbo turned out to be excellent, although it had a slight overpowering hint of Tabasco Habanero sauce.

At 1pm we toured the Conrad Rice Company which bills itself as America’s oldest working rice mill. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, this mill has been functioning continuously for almost a hundred years. Rice is a huge part of the area’s agriculture. They, too, have an extensive store which showcases all their products as well as other locally produced stuff. Dar found it necessary to buy some of almost everything and I was set to work hauling it out to the car.

From there, just a few miles away, is a restored antebellum mansion called Shadows on the Teche. Constructed in the 1830’s along Bayou Teche, the river that runs through New Iberia. (Bayou is a native word that means “small river” and Teche is a word that means “snake”) If you follow the link above you can learn more about the history of the area and this place. The setting amidst huge live oak trees hundreds of years old is awesome. The tour took us into the house which has been restored to early 19th century glory. More than 90% of the furnishings are original to the family that built it.

There are a lot more pictures from our day in our online photo gallery. I hope you enjoy them.