Fired Up on Local
Written onFebruary 21 , 2014
Local hot sauces are popping up around Vermont faster than it takes a 300,000 Scoville-unit pepper to sear your tongue. (Those are the units by which the heat of spicy food is measured.)
We’re seeing hot sauces in restaurants, such as The Mad Taco in Montpelier, where a blackboard enlightens (and warns) you about the latest homemade concoctions. And we’re seeing them at farmers’ markets, such as the Capital City Farmers’ Market, where you can pay in advance for a “hot sauce CSA” run by Claire Fitts Georges of Butterfly Bakery of Vermont and pick up a new flavor of hot sauce at every market.
Given that chile peppers—the main ingredient in hot sauce—are relatively easy to grow in Vermont, it’s possible to make hot sauce a highly localvore product. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Ben Maniscalco, who launched Benito’s Hot Sauce in 2009, goes out of his way to source ingredients from local farms.
His hot sauces that include habanero, jalapeño, fatali, rocotillo, Chinese paper lantern and chipotle peppers incorporate 50 to 75 percent local organic ingredients (lime, ginger, and mangoes being hard to find around here), while his certified organic chipotle-infused and habanero-infused maple syrups are 100 percent local (made with organic maple syrup from the Davis family in Underhill). All his hot sauces make use of local peppers, except for his seasonal Carolina Reaper sauce, as the Carolina Reaper has a 150-day growing season. He also runs into shortages when attempting to locally source the infamous Indian bhut jolokia “ghost pepper,” another longer season variety.
For local peppers, Ben turns to a handful of Vermont organic farms, including Deep Meadow Farm in Ascutney (200 lbs. of jalapeños a year) and Foote Brook Farm in Johnson (200 lbs. of habaneros a year). He obtains cayenne peppers from Maple Wind Farm in Huntington, Chinese paper lantern chiles from Littlewood Farm in Plainfield, and rocotillo and fatali peppers from Half Pint Farm in Burlington. His dedication to buying local currently makes Ben the largest value-added purchaser of Vermont-grown chile peppers.
Some of his sauces are quite novel, reflecting the creativity of many small-scale hot sauce bottlers in Vermont. He incorporates butternut squash and onions from Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro, Honest to Goodness apple cider vinegar from South Washington, pure maple sugar from Palmer Lane Maple in Jeffersonville, and organic cilantro from Cate Farm in Plainfield. He says the fact that the sauce is made with fresh vegetables and local (often organic) ingredients sets him apart in the marketplace.
“If you walk into a co-op and you look at most hot sauce on the shelf, the ingredients are not locally sourced ,” he says. “And they use ambiguous terms like xanthan gum, sodium benzoate, or pepper mash. I need to offer the highest level of quality and transparency, otherwise I could not be the face of this product.” He adds with a laugh, “Maybe it’s a Sicilian guilt thing.”
Ben lives in Montpelier but “sauces” out of a tiny commercial kitchen in Winooski. You can find Benito’s year-round at the Burlington farmers’ market and other select events throughout the state. In 2013, Ben handcrafted more than 20,000 bottles of hot sauce, and the Benito’s brand is found in more than 100 stores in Vermont and 40 stores in 12 other states and Canada. Safe to say, he’s on fire.