Standing still on a random 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.