CENES de la Vega is an unremarkable town between Granada and the Sierra Nevada that you wouldn’t give a second glance. It’s hardly a tourist hotspot … unless you are a spice fiend.
It’s the birthplace of Spain’s first artisan brand of hot sauce: Salsas Sierra Nevada. Forget about the supermarket brands which are bland in comparison. This is the real deal.
Salsas Sierra Nevada are so hot they should be labelled ‘handle with care’. We are not joking. “On some of our bottles we have attached a certificate of you are consuming it without being drunk or crazy”, said Carlos Carvajal, entrepreneur and brand founder.
When we enter the house where this cottage industry is carried out, we’re hit by the aroma of chilies which impregnate everything. There are huge bags filled with them and they all have killer names – Fatalii peppers, Carolina Reapers, Moruga Scorpions, all ready to be turned to a pulp that makes the base of the sauce. An enormous tank brims with orange fluid – the finished product ready to be bottled and consumed. This version is called Al sur del infierno (south of hell). One single drop and I know why. My tongue feels scorched.
Carlos Carvajal, founder of Salsas Sierra Nevada, was born in Granada but lived in California almost all of his life. A few years ago, he returned to Spain to ‘commercialise his passion’ for spicy sauces. He set up his first shop in 1994, growing Habaneros with seeds brought from California to assure the highest quality possible.
But it has been a long way to the top: “My family told me that I was crazy, that the Spanish don’t like hot spices,” he said.
As with most other entrepreneurs in Spain, bureaucracy was his biggest obstacle. “It’s very hard to start a business here; they make you objections in every step,” says Carlos. “I’ve worked in the USA and Mexico, and never had such problems. Plus, there was never a spicy culture here,” he adds, which may explain why everyone thought he was mad with his strange fruit.
But the company’s efforts in the Granada town of Cenes de la Vega are finally being rewarded, and sales have doubled in the last two years. Carlos confesses that they will be moving on to a bigger factory to meet the rush of bigger daily orders. Although they are doing great, at the end of the day they are a small enterprise and feel overwhelmed by the immense demand.
Currently Salsas y Especias Sierra Nevada, makes 16 sauces ranging from milder chipotle and sweet chili sauces to insanely hot sauces that are insanely hot, such as Infierno, made from the hottest chilies in the world, and Reaper, made exclusively from Carolina Reapers, the top dog of spicy peppers.
The company has also branched out into chocolate, peanuts, jam, cheese and even beer – all with a touch of chili heat, made in collaboration with another Spanish enterprises.
Another product which caught my attention: capsaicin extracts. They have no flavour, no added ingredients, just a crazy degree of pure heat. Their Lagrimas del Demonio (Devil’s Tears) measure nine million Scoville units, the Richter scale of chili heat.
But why trade in such an insane product? “Medicine,” answers Carlos. “The capsaicin is used in some medicines for its anesthetic effect. This is one of the reasons growers are creating strains that are increasingly spicier.”
Spanish tastes for spice are also increasing. “Not so long ago Carrefour stocked only one or two spicy products, now it’s more like 40,” says Carlos, who is happily reaping the benefits. “We’re not rich, but we’re doing well”.
In fact Andalucia and Madrid are the regions where they sell most of their sauce. They distribute all over Spain and even export chili pulp to factories in the UK.
The conditions for growing are perfect, surrounded by the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains with a river running beside the house which provides free water for cultivating the peppers. There are no weeds so they don’t need to use pesticides. Their chilis are as natural as they come.
As a real spice fanatic, Carlos knows how to grow the best peppers. Although different peppers are cultivated together they are not crossbred to avoid strains that could be lower in heat. Carolina Reaper seeds crossed with chipotles would produce a less ferocious pepper. Every seed is kept as pure as possible.
As for the future, Carlos is planning to extend his saucy range to salad dressings, BBQ sauce and whatever else he might suddenly come up with. He never knows. But of one thing Carlos is sure of: “They’re going to be spicy. It’s our brand identity.”