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Spice Train to Scoville

If you’ve ever visited the Abbotsford farmers’ market, you’ve probably stumbled across an unassuming booth called Big Mac’s Gourmet Specialties. Behind the table you’ll meet a hot pepper farmer named Mac MacDonald who creates some seriously special sauces: spicy jams, jellies, and hot sauces that pack a punch you won’t soon forget. It’s a brand local hot sauce aficionados know by name. We caught up with Mac to learn more about how he got into the spice game.

“My interest in spicy foods started while traveling the world in 1970,” Mac said. Though he traveled through Hawai’i, New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia, it wasn’t until he got to Singapore and Malaysia that fiery foods changed his palate forever.

“I tried many Asian-style dishes that were super spicy and liked them a lot.” Next was India, which brought the heat in a totally new way. He also recalled the spicy Indonesian food he ate in Amsterdam. “Over the years I progressed — or maybe regressed — to eating hot peppers while having a beer, an American bar fixture in the ’70s and ’80s.”

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that Mac went from connoisseur to creator. “My wife and I purchased her parents’ property about 15 years ago and it had a very large vegetable garden. We grew every kind of vegetable and eventually included about 20 kinds of peppers,” he said. Those peppers ranged from hot Portugal peppers, to red chillies, Anaheim peppers, jalapenos, scotch bonnets, habaneros, cayenne, and even the elusive Thai dragon pepper. Pretty soon he had more peppers than he knew what to do with. “I started with pickling the hot peppers and drying them for spice. Eventually I started researching recipes and making them into hot pepper jellies and jams.”

“My first hot sauce was Bad Karma, which I still produce today.” He started giving it away to friends and family members. People liked it. A lot. “I was encouraged to start marketing my products,” he said. So he contacted the health department and took food safety courses. His products were tested in the lab, ensuring he only grew and prepared his sauces with utmost cleanliness.

With such a successful and well-loved product, the next step might be to consider selling his hot sauces on local grocery store shelves. But that’s not an option, currently, and Mac doesn’t mind. “I am only able to sell at farmers’ and seasonal markets and am busy enough keeping it at that,” he said.

Of course, a highlight for Mac is getting to watch the stunned faces of people tasting his hot sauces for the first time. “I love talking to customers about peppers and am happy when I get a glossy-eyed, ‘holy smokes’ reaction,” he said.

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His most popular hot sauces at the markets are Pain and Terminator, but he added that his hottest sauce, Fear the Reaper, is gaining ground. Fear the Reaper is a hot sauce made with Carolina Reaper peppers, which holds the Guinness World Record for hottest pepper. Where an ordinary jalapeno has a heat rating of around 5,000 on the scoville scale, the Carolina Reaper sits alone at the top with an average of 1,569,300 scoville units. But Mac has tempered the heat, adding mangos, carrots, and some less spicy peppers to the mix to keep the focus on the flavour. Still, at home, he tends to stick with Terminator. “It just has the right combination of heat and flavour that goes well with most dishes.”

When Mac is hankering for a hot sauce he hasn’t made himself, three particular ones come to mind. “My personal tastes when buying hot sauces tend to be of the not over-the-top variety. I like Sophie’s hot sauce, from Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe in Vancouver; one from Mexico called Litibu, a red habanero sauce; and Yahualica salsa Encino, also from Mexico, which has stone-ground chilies.” Sophie’s, Mac explained, is a basic sauce made with scotch bonnets. “It’s very balanced and not overpowering,” he said. The Litibu is a habanero sauce that is very spicy. “It’s great with anything,” he added. The Encino is the most unique. “It’s got a very smoky, very fresh taste of the different stone-ground peppers.”

But while Mac has been feeling the burn for many years, he foresees a future where he passes on the torch to the next generation. “I’ve enjoyed this sideline very much and hope that in a year or two I may sell my business, with recipes and know-how to a young chili head to carry it on and bring it to the next level.”

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You can find Big Mac’s Gourmet Specialties at the weekly Abbotsford Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., located Downtown at Montrose Ave and George Ferguson.