The Pep­per Sauce Ladies of Ne­vis

On this is­land, fruity, fiery sauce is a cot­tage en­ter­prise



road­side on the tiny Caribbean is­land of Ne­vis, lit­tle sis­ter to the bet­ter-known St. Kitts, you’re less likely to hear cars driv­ing by than the sleepy sounds of wind blow­ing through mango trees, or goats bleat­ing from a backyard. The cap­i­tal city, Charlestow­n, is es­sen­tially just one crowded street. But if you stop for some salt­fish frit­ters and shake on a dash of the lo­cal pep­per sauce, sud­denly you’re wide awake, heart pound­ing and mouth blaz­ing.

Ne­visians are so fa­nat­i­cal about their pep­per sauce (it’s very hot, but lo­cals don’t call it hot sauce) that you’ll find bot­tles of it ev­ery­where—on roti lunch coun­ters, road­side bar­be­cue stands, and kitchen ta­bles, but odds are, you’ll never see the same bot­tle twice. Llewe­lyn’s Pep­per Sauce, pro­duced by a chef at the is­land’s Four Sea­sons re­sort, is the big kid in town, with a pol­ished la­bel and a known name. But it’s the chintzy plas­tic bot­tles, filled in home kitchens, with ladies’ first names em­bla­zoned on them, that have the most chile heat and tropical fruit fla­vor packed inside.

For Jen­nifer Weekes, mak­ing Jen­nifer’s Pep­per Sauce is a side gig, along­side work as a bou­tique owner, batik weaver, seam­stress, and preacher—all while she’s (at least nom­i­nally) re­tired. “We ladies are look­ing for a lit­tle bit of fi­nance at home,” she ex­plains. Weekes purées the ba­sic el­e­ments of Ne­visian pep­per sauce—west In­dian hot pep­pers, onion, gar­lic, white vine­gar, salt, and a bit of turbinado sugar—with in­gre­di­ents that make it her own. These in­clude chunks of ripe pineap­ple, a dash of mus­tard pow­der, and whole cloves. She then sim­mers the or­ange sauce to mel­low the chiles’ fury and deepen the pineap­ple’s sweet­ness. One taste and I’m in love—and in pain—with the stuff. “Pep­per sauce is just like batik,” Weekes says. “It turns out dif­fer­ent ev­ery time you make it.”

A short drive across the is­land lives Valary Er­mine Hen­drick­son, founder of Val’s De­lights. She’s bot­tled her own pep­per sauce since 2004, along with a slew of other lo­cal spe­cial­ties. Hers com­bines mild red “sea­son” pep­pers, fiery ha­baneros, and green pa­paya, and she now sells thou­sands of bot­tles of it ev­ery year. “Give a bot­tle to some­one,” she says, “and one tells the next.”

On her farm, Emon­tine Thomp­son grows the kind of fright­en­ingly hot ghost pep­pers that chile­heads talk about in rev­er­ent tones—and blends them with just a bit of mer­ci­fully mild bell pep­per. “Peo­ple have a way of say­ing pep­per sauce is not that hot, so you have to find a way to make it hot,” she ex­plains. She ac­com­plished that goal while mak­ing a range of other prod­ucts, from mango chut­ney to sor­rel wine—be­sides rais­ing live­stock, run­ning a farm, and dot­ing on her grand­chil­dren. “When do you think you’ll take a rest?” I ask as we sit down to talk. “I’m rest­ing right now,” she replies.

Suzette Samp­son’s ex­tra-smooth sauce fea­tures fresh pa­paya and sautéed pep­pers and aro­mat­ics.

Pa­tri­cia Blake’s fruit-for­ward sauce is served at Ne­vis’ Golden Rock Inn, where din­ers splash it on conch frit­ters and chow­der.

Emon­tine “Teen” Thomp­son’s fiery red-pep­per sauce is beloved atop the lo­cal clovespice­d goat stew. Valary Er­mine Hen­drick­son’s mango-pep­per sauce is sweet­ened with some of Ne­vis’ 44 dif­fer­ent types of lush man­goes.

Jen­nifer Weekes (left) bot­tles her epony­mous pep­per sauce in her kitchen.

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