Benoit St. Jacques, who recently retired as the longtime chef at Rosewood Market, points to bushes of peppers. “The hotter the pepper, the longer it takes to develop,” he explains.
The peppers in question happen to be Carolina Reapers, one of the hottest varieties on the planet.
Diane Gilbert and St. Jacques’ small pepper farm near Winnsboro is a journey through spice from around the world. Rows and rows of different varieties are being grown — from Thai chilis to ghost chilis and other blazingly hot, yet beautiful, species of pepper.
Gilbert, also an artist and sculptor, says the South Carolina climate is “ideal for almost any variety of peppers,” as the plants do best in long, hot summer seasons.
Since 2014, the husband-and-wife duo have spent a lot of time around peppers, working on their hot sauce company, Meet Your Cremator.
The venture started out of converging passions. Gilbert had always had a green thumb and became interested in the beauty of peppers. She began growing at community gardens and friends’ homes, trying different varieties and making different “mashes” with them. One day after seeing Gilbert create a pepper mash, St. Jacques decided to attempt his own creative spin.
“The basic mash is basically the fermentation process,” St. Jacques explains. “Very often in commercial hot sauce they make a mash with the sugar, salt and peppers — or peppers with vinegar — and strain it. That’s what you call tabasco or most basic hot sauces. For us, it became the starting point to construct our recipes.”
Just How Hot Are We Talking?
Sweet bell pepper — 0 Scoville Heat Units
Jalapeño pepper — 2,500-8,000 SHUs
Thai chili pepper — 50,000-100,000 SHUs
Habanero pepper — 100,000-350,000 SHUs
Ghost pepper — 855,000-1.04 million SHUs
Trinidad scorpion chocolate — 1.2 million-2 million SHUs
Carolina Reaper — 1.4 million-2.2 million SHUs
Pepper X — 3.18 million SHUs
Heat measurements according to PepperScale
It wasn’t long before a few tests in the kitchen gave birth to their their signature line of sauces. Established in 2015, two of the company’s four core offerings have won awards in the industry, including the Original, a ghost and scorpion pepper sauce with carrot and cantaloupe, and the Think Green, a jalapeño sauce with kiwi, lime and cilantro.
But while Meet Your Cremator does make some intense sauces for heat lovers, flavor often prevails over fire.
“Something like the habanero has a lot more flavor as a pepper,” St. Jacques explains. “It’s very fruity and naturally sweet. They taste better and have plenty of heat. I usually don’t go past that myself. To me, ghost peppers and others are cooking peppers, they require very little to heat up a large amount of something. To me they are not the best tasting pepper.”
That doesn’t stop them from pursuing some truly intense sauces. The Fire & Fury sounds approachable at first, with fresh watermelon and raspberry, but it’s packed with Carolina Reaper — which PepperScale clocks at over 1.4 million Scoville Heat Units, which measure heat based on the amount of capsaicinoids in peppers. For comparison, jalapeños only hit between 2,500 and 8,000 on the scale. For good measure, the sauce also includes the ridiculously hot scorpion and infamous ghost peppers for good measure.
While we feel the intensity of peppers, spice isn’t one of the flavors we taste. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoriness), these are the things our tongues actually process. The capsaicin in peppers attaches itself to receptors that normally indicate pain from heat, which triggers a burning feeling in our mind.
“It’s all subjective,” St. Jacques says about the heat. “People will come say, ‘It’s not that hot,’ and the next person goes and asks for the mild one and goes like, ‘That’s your mild one!?’ For some people, it’s such an intense feeling, even when it may be just something like jalapeños, which has heat but nothing to really create an intense effect of pain.”
In many ways, Meet Your Cremator came about right at the time when hot sauce was starting to have its moment. The spice industry has had a major boom in recent years, with things like Nashville hot chicken, Sriracha sauces, and internet shows like the popular Youtube interview series Hot Ones helping raise the popularity of intense heat.
“We didn’t know how far we’d go at the time,” Gilbert says. “We started doing market [research] and saw how the people responded and that excited us even more. Half of the customers are returning customers that bring even more people.”
One of the biggest factors to which Gilbert and St. Jacques attribute their success is the time they dedicate to their products. Unlike most makers, who start at the mash, Meet Your Cremator starts its sauces at the seed. The couple has grown dozens of pepper varieties over the years, their freshness making the company’s sauces more vibrant.
This does mean a higher price point, but Make Your Cremotor believes its customers appreciate the quality.
“Hot sauce is a big market,” Gilbert says. “There’s so many out there, it’s why we don’t go in stores. We do well at markets because people can taste them. In stores, when you are beside 10 other hot sauces that sometimes cost a third of the price. The customer has no idea what’s involved in it. We grow our peppers organically and use organic ingredients.
“It’s more fussy, but it’s our choice to make to use the freshest ingredients possible.”