If you can't stand the heat . . .

...stay away from the latest American chilli-pepper sauces. Michael Bateman holds a tasting, and finds some like it hot
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The Independent Culture
It's going to get hotter - but not because of the greenhouse effect. Chilli wars are heating up. Already this year the famous McIlhenny's from New Orleans has launched a green Jalapeno hot sauce here to sell alongside their famous little scorcher, Tabasco. And now from Jamaica comes the Busha Browne hot pepper sauces and planters' jerks, a sophisticated range which takes pride of place in top in New York stores.

With a goodly number of other hot sauces already in place, everything seemed set up for a championship taste-in of the red-hot burners, especially as it was rumoured that world sizzle-weight Tabasco's Paul McIlhenny would be in town at the same time as his hot-shot contender, Busha Browne's Winston Stona.

What sport, the two of them slugging it out head to head at a blind tasting. A venue was chosen, Patrick Gwynn-Jones' Pomegranates in Pimlico, which has had the chilliest menu in London longer than any other (pint bottles of red hot sauce stand on every table); the Mauritian chilli prawns and West Indian curried goat bring tears to your eyes. Mr Gwynn-Jones developed his devilish tastes as a navigation officer in the China Seas in the 1950s (Peter Sellers was one of his tearful regulars).

The most sophisticated and demanding judges were invited to see fair play; Canadian Leslie Forbes, author of Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail (BBC pounds l6.99) and American Marlene Spieler, author of several books on cooking with fiery chillis. However, both made it clear that they have no truck with heat for heat's sake, what might be called American ethos of Ouchywawa.

A word about Ouchywawa. It is a mail order operation in California dedicated to gastronomic masochists who've discovered endorphins, chemical substances triggered by pain which bestow a sensation of well-being. We're talking of sauces with names like Ultimate Burn, Jamaica Hellfire, Dave's Insanity Sauce, Mad Dog Inferno Sauce, Vampfire, Global Warming Chipotle Sauce, Doe's Blazing Saddle Habanero Pepper Extra Hot, Ring of Fire X-tra Hot Reserve.

The Ouchywawa vocabulary to describe the 50-odd hot sauces in its catalogue might have come from the diary notes of Torquemada and his inquisitioners: "If it don't hurt it ain't hot. This hurts", "100 per cent fire", "Hot enough to make you cry", "Hell in a bottle". "Hot as the devil himself", "hot as salty sea in an open wound", "curl your hair hot", "makes a dragon sweat", "instant fire", "hot as the desert sun", "kick yo' ass-hot," and "talk about a butt burner".

We had no wish to suffer this sheer physical torture, so we were relieved to find among our list of competitors no butt-burners but familiar names like Dunn's River, Encona, Yeo's, Blue Dragon, Maggi's, Linghams, Amoy, Lea & Perrins, Thai Kitchen, and a newcomer from South Africa, Nando's hot'n'sour piri-piri sauces, of Portuguese origin.

The punch-up we'd been hoping for never happened. We never got to a weigh- in even, as Mr Tabasco had already gone, and Mr Busha Browne had to postpone his arrival. The tasting, however, went ahead. In fact BB's Winston Stona sent his daughter Caroline (although it was a blind tasting she instantly spotted her father's products and loyally gave them full marks, which of course we had to discount).

Tasting chilli sauces is really difficult (unless your father happens to manufacture them). You taste in random order, and the worst burns your tongue so that the taste of the best barely registers. On the other hand, tolerance builds up, so teeny-weeny tastes at the beginning give way to gulping by the spoonful at the end.

It was a puzzling tasting. You'd think it easy to establish criteria, mainly heat and purity of flavour. But these sauces are all made different ways. The hottest and purest are made with an infusion of Scotch Bonnet Peppers, the hottest of the hot. They are processed with vinegar, flavoured with salt, and matured for up to three years. Others are thickened with cornflour and flavoured with tomato and sugar. They are acceptable but pas serieux.

One or two, like the sour Nando's, didn't compare well with the others at the tasting, but at home, doused onto bland staple foods, the effect was mightily improving. With the right food, it's fantastic stuff.

How do you define these sauces? Hot isn't one of the four basic flavours (sweet, sour, salt, bitter). Heat is a sensation, so it places a depth charge in your food. You light the fuse and wait for the explosion. Ouchywawa.

Here is the recipe for Patrick Gwynn-Jones' special, as served at Pomegranates, 94 Grosvenor Road, Pimlico London SW1 (0171 828 6560). Thick, very hot, very salty and flavoured with lime, it could hardly be simpler to make.

HOT SUDANESE SAUCE

100g (3 1/2ozs) chilli powder

50g (scant 2ozs) Maldon sea salt

Juice of about 4 limes

Squeeze the lime juice, and add to the mixed chilli powder and sea salt till you have a loose-textured sauce. You may need more or less juice according to the size of the limes. Store in a bottle in the fridge, and shake before using.

HOT NEWS: THE RESULTS OF OUR COMPARATIVE TASTING

In our tasting, four sauces got more or less equal highest marks, and were awarded a score of four stars.

The next four had unique characteristics which were much enjoyed. These were awarded a score of three stars.

The other sauces in the test were all awarded two stars or fewer.

****

BUSHA BROWNE HOT PEPPER

pounds 1.49 for 150g

Good powerful taste, clean, individual

****

DUNN'S RIVER JAMAICAN HOT

59p for 85ml

Straight, pure, hot, clean

****

ENCONA ORIGINAL HOT PEPPER

62p for 142ml

Clean, hot, sour, tropical

****

MCILHENNY TABASCO PEPPER

pounds 1.35p for 57ml

Fiery taste which creeps up on you. Clean, salty, sour

***

BUSHA BROWNE JAMAICAN JERK

pounds 1.49 for 150g

Spiced with tamarind, allspice, cloves, not too hot

***

NANDO'S TRADITIONAL HOT PERI-PERI

pounds 2.75 for 250ml

Spicy, salty, fruity, sour, medium hot

(available from Nando'srestaurants)

***

MCILHENNY TABASCO JALEPEO

pounds 1.35 for 57ml

Fresh, salty, slightly sour

***

PATRICK GWYNN-JONES'S

HOT SUDANESE

Thick, hot, salty. See recipe above

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