Before I took my flight back to San Pedro, I caught a taxi from downtown Dangriga to the Marie Sharp factory. The taxi driver first tried to charge me $60bzd (he waits while you tour), I got him down to $50bzd. But I still think it should probably be a bit cheaper. Anyway...some quick pictures of Dangriga. It's a town that has seen much better days but I think it's secretly kinda beautiful.
It turns out Belize had a couple railways. This one ran about 26 miles from the Middlesex Estate (a huge fruit farm owned by US company United Fruit in Stann Creek Valley) to the old deep water port of Dangriga from 1907 to 1937. It seems like it was mostly used for hauling bananas, logs and freight but also passengers. In 1937, it was scraped and replaced eventually by the Hummingbird Highway. Cool. You learn something new everyday.
I digress..back to the subject of this post: If you have been to Belize, you know Marie Sharp's hot sauce. It's on practically every table in the country. Kids and adults alike pour it on just about everything. It's also the only Belizean product that I know of that is widely distributed in the US.
Touring Marie Sharp's Factory in Belize
A Lesson in Heat
When I left for Belize in early December, I didn't anticipate bringing home anything with me other than a suntan. Instead, by the end of the week, I found myself with a huge crush on the habanero, particularly in the form of hot sauce made by Marie Sharp. Good thing a visit to the factory was on my itinerary.
As our van bumped steadily through the fields, we saw small habanero plants as far as the eye could see. I peered out the window to see if I could spot an orange or purple pepper on the vine, just like the ones I had seen in piles the day before at the farmer's market. But, we passed by too quickly and before I knew it we had pulled up to the front of the Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce factory. I soon learned, that my eyes had not deceived me and that Hurricane Richard has taken care of the harvesting the month before. Not to fear, I was assured, there was still plenty of hot sauce to be had and the warm Belizean climate would soon remedy the pepper shortage. I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked through the door's of the factory and an unassuming woman greeted us with a handshake and said "Hi, welcome, I'm Marie Sharp, it's so nice to meet you!"
"Marie Sharp?" I wondered to myself. "There's really a Marie Sharp? It's not some fictional character made up by a corporation to sell hot sauce?" Marie Sharp's hot sauce had been on every table I'd encountered since arriving in Belize four days prior. I'd sprinkled it over my eggs, into a hot bowl of shrimp soup and timidly to the side of our chicken when I first encountered the "fiery hot" variety. With a presence like that, I expected big business. I never expected to meet the woman responsible for concocting the hot sauce recipes that have become Belize's national condiment.
As we wandered past the bottling line Marie Sharp explained to us her company and it's modest beginnings. Twenty years ago, she had a full time career and an overbundant crop of habaneros on her family farm. She began experimenting with hot sauce recipes in her spare time, just to not let the peppers go to waste. (Anyone who can't pass up a flat of ripe berries in July understands this dilemma.) Once she perfected her carrot-based hot sauce recipe, friends clamored, why don't you do something with this? So, she recruited some help and a few more burners for her kitchen and struck out to turn her sauce into a business. And she's grown that business from her humble kitchen beginnings to an admirable family-run enterprise that sells hot sauce all over the world.
After our tour, we were led back to the office that also serves as a tasting room and store for all things hot and sweet. I'm not exaggerating when I say I didn't try a single thing that I didn't like (and I tried a lot.) The hot sauce comes in six levels of heat: mild, hot, fiery hot, No Wimps Allowed, Belizean Heat and Beware. On most tables in Belize you'd find fiery hot and despite their fear-inducing names the hotter varieties are tolerable. (Beware may even be my favorite, even if I'm sweating long after the meal.) Additionally, she has a tangy green habanero sauce with prickly pear, a grapefruit habanero sauce, an addicting sweet and sour sauce perfect for chicken, and a exotic sauce featuring mangos and tamarind. And then there's the fruit jams, the red pepper jelly, and fruit juices.
My arms soon filled with guava jam, coconut jam, sweet and sour habanero sauce and a compendium of heat. Shopping for hot sauce soon proved to be a difficult task, as there's only so many bottles one can hold. My group quickly started piles around her office, mine being on the top of a file cabinet. At a certain point, I gave in, worried I might not have enough cash to cover my expenses. It turns out I had nothing to worry about; I walked out out of the factory with two bags full of jars ringing in at just under $15 US dollars.
My trip to Marie Sharp's cemented my budding addiction to hot sauce. No longer was it just a tasty condiment; it is now forever tied to my memories of Belize and it's native Pepper Queen. You, too, can drive down through the fields, hop in the store, ask for a tour of the facilities (maybe even by Marie, herself) and buy as much hot sauce as you can fit in your suitcase. And if you're like me and can't wait until your next trip to Belize, there are plenty of stores online, like Amazon or Dr. Chili Pepper that can feed your addiction.
What: Marie Sharp's Factory Tour
Where: #1 Melinda Rd., Stann Creek Valley
Belize, Central America Tel. (501) 520-2087
Cost: Free. Bring cash for your purchases.
Marie Sharp's Nopal Green Habanero Pepper Sauce
In 2013 Marie Sharp's Nopal Green Habanero Pepper Sauce was the fastest growing pepper sauce in both local and international sales.
This cactus based pepper sauce is made from our own Scagineal cactus aka prickly pear, Nopal. Nopal cactus is a native of the Highlands of Mexico where the ancient Aztecs and Mayas consumed on a daily basis and even before going to battle .
Scagineal is also very healthy and treats diabetes, lowers blood sugar & cholesterol and is rich with fiber and vital vitamins. You can get all these benefits by eating our Marie sharp's Nopal Green Habanero on your favorite dishes! Sauce goes well with seafood, meats, burgers and even with chips as a dip.
If you haven't tried it yet look for it and see why this is a favourite in Japan, Mexico, and USA markets. Available in stores countrywide! All natural straight from the farm to your family table!
International Hot Sauce Taste Test
Check out Belize's very own Marie Sharp's "Belizean Heat" Pepper Sauce being compared to other international hot sauces in this fun video by BuzzFeed - Would you attempt this taste test?
Spicy Spotlight: Marie Sharp's
I had the opportunity to interview the iconic Marie Sharp, the person whose name I see and speak every single day. Marie Sharp’s was our top-selling brand of 2014, and even people who DON’T eat hot sauce have heard of her sauces. For nerdy little me, this was a brush with a celebrity, even if only through a series of emails. However, I quickly got over being a little star-struck once I saw how humble she was.
“We have hundreds of visitors to my factory,” she told me. “If I am recognized, they all want to take pictures with me or for me sign bottles of hot sauce or sign their Marie Sharp's T-shirt, but I prefer to remain incognito. I am not a big fan of publicity, however I am happy to meet with my fans. I am a normal, hard-working person that continue to partake in the daily running of the factory.”
Perhaps this attitude is the reason why her business remains so successful to this day. All 12 sauces are her own recipes crafted with the goal of producing sauces with heat and flavor—not trying to make the hottest sauce in the world—and she’s good at it. Despite her achievements, she hasn’t let her success go to her head. In fact, the three words I would use to describe Marie Sharp are hard-working, humble, and classy. You can see why when you hear her tell the history of her business:
The History of Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce As Told By Marie Sharp
“We own our own farm named Melinda Estate,” Marie explained. “This is where in 1978, I started cultivating the red habanero. The red habanero is a yellow or light orange; by cross pollination with the Jamaican red, I changed the color eventually to habanero red. On this farm, we grow everything I turn into a product. Today because of worldwide acceptance, we now contract out to other small farmers for production of peppers and carrots.”
“I starting creating my sauces, with being different in mind, by using fresh vegetables and tropical fruits. Hence I didn't need to use thickeners or food colors. By creating my own red pepper, I didn't have to use coloring, and by using our own homegrown limes, I cut back on the vinegar content. It was one of my customers who asked me to make him a green pepper sauce with a natural green and not coloring.”
“I started selling my hot sauces in 1981. I bought myself three stoves—the counter-top models—four burners each and three pots one per stove. I would cook three pots of sauce every night, the carrot base formula, which was the one everyone who had tasted preferred. I would have a helper fill bottles in the morning, which allowed me to go to work in the morning. On weekends, I would make refried beans and fried tortillas, pack my car with everything I needed, and went to all the little and large stores [allowing them to taste the product] and asking them to put some on their shelves.”
“I worked as an Executive Secretary from 8 am to 5 pm. I covered the entire Country of Belize in this manner. I got into the U.S. by meeting a Belizean American who came to Belize to visit. He tasted the sauces and fell in love with them. He started to import my sauces at the time under the brand name ‘Melinda's’ into the U.S. in 1989. Presently, Marie Sharp's exports to USA, Japan, India, South Korea, Germany, UK, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica…”
A Strong Woman in a Male-Dominated Industry
I always feel a certain privilege when I get the chance to interview someone who has really made a name for themselves and built their brand from the ground up, such as Joe Turner of Tahiti Joe’s or Steve Seabury of High River Sauces. Marie Sharp stands out not only because she makes a delicious and well-known hot sauce but also because she is a woman in an industry that is primarily led by men. Of the 10 nominees for this year’s Hot Sauce Hall of Fame, Marie is the only woman, so I wondered about her thoughts on that. She was quite proud to be included in the list of nominees.
“I have come from a male-dominated era, and this only goes to prove that women can also reach recognition for their efforts and achievement,” Marie told me. “If I am [inducted] into the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame, I would be very happy! I would feel honored—I am now 75 years old and I would be happy to have accomplished such an achievement while I am still here.”
Since I had the chance, I had to ask her if she had any new sauces coming down the pipeline.
“We are now smoking the habanero peppers,” she responded. “We now have a Smokin Marie and a smoked Habanero pepper sauce, both very nice. I am working on a ginger pepper sauce also.”
“I want to thank Marie for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully. Because she generally likes to remain incognito to go about her business, I feel very privileged to have had the chance to talk with her. I know we’re not exactly the New York Times over here, but I love to write, and this blog was truly a special one for me to do, and I appreciate that she was willing to help me out.
I will leave y’all with the following recipe that Marie Sharp gave me herself: It’s called Conch Ceviche. Now can someone please tell me where I can buy some fresh conch in Fort Worth, Texas? :)
Marie Sharp’s Conch Ceviche
- 3 large conch, well-cleaned and washed with limes
- Marie Sharp's Orange Pulp Habanero Pepper hot sauce
- 1 large onion
- 3oz cilantro leaves and stems
- 2 large tomatoes
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup water
- 6 limes
1. Beat the conch into small portions with a meat tenderizer, cut up into small portions, and then chop into very small pieces.
2. Mix all of the above ingredients (including conch) in a container and sprinkle with garlic powder and salt.
3. Squeeze six limes in a container (caye limes). Add water to the lime juice and add to conch mixture.
4. Add 2-1/2 ozs Marie Sharp's Orange Pulp Habanero Pepper sauce and let marinate in the refrigerator 2-3 hours. You will end up with an unforgettable Ceviche. Add more lime if needed.