Here in Mexico, cooks are famous for their salsas. On any dining table at home or in a restaurant, there is inevitably a bowl of homemade salsa. But when you look around the table, usually you'll see one, two, three, or more bottles of different types of manufactured salsa as well.
Mexicans and many people from North of the Border enjoy bottled salsa picante on a variety of foods that at first seem to be highly unusual combinations with the savory heat. Seafood cocktails would be bland to the point of boring without a serious jolt of bottled liquid fire. Potato chips, chicharrones (crisp fried pork skin), French fries, and popcorn all get a whopping dose of bottled salsa. You'll go crazy for cut fresh fruits--pineapple, mango, papaya, watermelon--and vegetables (particularly jícama and cucumber), spritzed with a few drops or a stream of salsa. Red-stained fingers are the norm as we eat our way down the street, dipping into a plastic bag filled with the goodie of the moment.
Jícama and Cucumber Appetizer
1 large jícama, peeled and cut into strips
--Shopping tip: Look for a jícama that's heavy for its size; they are the juiciest.
1 crisp cucumber, peeled and cut into strips
2 limes, cut in half and seeded
Coarse salt to taste
Salsa Cholula to taste
Arrange the jícama and the cucumber strips on a plate. Sprinkle with salt. Squeeze the lime over the strips. Add salsa, as much or as little as your palate will allow. Spear with the toothpicks and enjoy.
Mexican grocery stores stock endless well-known salsa varieties. Valentina, Herdez, Búfalo, Tamazula, Huichol, El Yucateco, Tapatío, and Cholula brands are common. Each manufacturer usually produces several types of salsa. The differences are in the kind of chile used, the heat level, and the combination of other ingredients in the recipe. Which one you buy depends on what flavor and combustion level you prefer.
"There are wide variations in hot sauce production," the editors of Wine & Food Companion wrote in their August 2004 hot pepper sauce study. "Some manufacturers salt down the chile peppers, then mash them; others just toss whole chiles in brine. Some age the mash in white oak barrels; others say you can't tell the difference between aging in oak and aging in plastic. Some brag about aging for three years; others say a month is enough."
The factory that manufactures one of Mexico's most popular salsas for export to the United States, to Canada, to Europe, and to Japan is located just 45 minutes from Guadalajara. Productos Sane, owned by the local Sánchez family, is over 50 years old and the Sánchez family patriarch, Sr. Edmundo Sánchez Núño, is still at the helm.
Sr. Sánchez is 77 years old and talks about his company with pride, with love, and with the solid recognition that what he has done with the last 50 years of his life has not been so much about money as about honor, family, and dignity.
After Sr. Sánchez's grandson Fidel (in charge of marketing and promotion for the company) introduced me to his grandfather and seated me in his well appointed office, Sr. Sánchez--whose desk is overshadowed by a life-size portrait of his mother--began by questioning me. "A qué vino usted?" ("What did you come for?")
I told him that I was fascinated with the origins and growth of his company, as well as with the manufacture of his salsa.
He peered at me and with a small smile asked, "Bueno, que quiere que le diga?" ("Well then, what do you want me to tell you?")
I thought for a minute. "Que me diga la historia de como su familia empezó con todo esto," I replied. (I want you to tell me the story of how your family started all this.)
He smiled again and launched into the story. It seemed as if I had passed his test.
"My dear mother was the start of it all. Her name was María Guadalupe Nuño de Sánchez, may she rest in peace. My father was José Sánchez. He and my mother owned a restaurant right here in town. After my father died, my mother was always known in the restaurant as la viuda de Sánchez (the widow of Sánchez). The customers would call her, "Viuda! Viudita Lupita!" when they wanted something. That's why our first product, sangrita, was known by that name, Sangrita de la Viuda de Sánchez. Now that product name belongs to the House of Cuervo Tequila. We sold it to them a few years ago."
Note: Sangrita is a spicy, savory chaser served with straight tequila. It's made of salsa, natural grapefruit and orange juices, and a couple of secret ingredients.
"The whole thing started as a little family business, just barely a business. I was making the sangrita from my mother and father's original recipe. The factory was in the back of the house in a lean-to, I was squeezing orange juice by hand." He made the motion of holding an orange half on a squeezer and pulling down the handle. "Everything was hand made, everything.
"It was very popular around here, and it was still a little home operation. Finally in 1956 I received a certificate of health for national distribution. That's when it really started. For a long time we only made the sangrita."
"See, first to make the sangrita I used to buy salsa in a garafón (20-liter bottle) from a salsa maker my mother knew. Then the guy died and I had to come up with something else. I couldn't find the right taste in the salsas I tried." He gestured pouring salsa from a bottle into his empty palm and licking his palm. "All of them had the wrong taste."
"I hunted all over for a formula for the kind of salsa I wanted, to give the sangrita the flavor and spice that it had when my mother made it. How difficult that was! I tried everything, a little of this, a little of that—oregano and garlic, chiles from here and from there. It had to be the right combination: not too sweet, not too spicy, not too much vinegar. Oh, I tried and tried, so many combinations. Finally I hit it!" He grinned broadly and threw both hands into the air in triumph.
"And then there I was, grinding chiles in a little stone mill about this big," he gestured with his hands to show me the size, about a foot square. "Chiles and more chiles, spices, everything all together. Oh, the work was so much. But the product turned out just the way my mother would have wanted it. The taste of the salsa was right, and that made the sangrita come out right.
"Later I was thinking about the salsa that we used to flavor the sangrita. After the sangrita was made, there was always this delicious home-made salsa left over. And I thought, 'Maybe I can sell this, too.'
"So there was my next big idea. I was making hundreds of liters of salsa, still grinding chiles with the little stone mill.
"I had, thank God, two old school chums who owned big grocery stores. I mean big, the ones that are the superstores today. I went to them with my salsa in its little bottles and asked them to sell it for me. They weren't convinced that it would sell. They both already had shelves of many different kinds of salsas in their stores.
"But because we were old schoolmates, both of them finally said yes. 'You give us a few cases. If it sells, we'll pay you. If not—' Sr. Sánchez shrugged, wiggled his eyebrows, and his eyes twinkled. He paused and glanced at my notebook to see if I was keeping up with him. I was, but barely—it's a challenge to take notes in two languages.
"Oh it sold. In fact, it started selling really big. It's because the flavor is so pure and different from the rest of them. To keep that flavor, you have to have everything exactly right and always exactly the same. It's not like that stuff they sell in the United States, that famous one—Tabasco. That's just vinegar and chile. It has no flavor." Sr. Sánchez made a vinegar-y face.
"And you can't just go down to the Abastos (the regional wholesale produce market in Guadalajara) and buy some chiles of whatever kind when you need them." Sr. Sánchez gazed past me toward the production area of his plant, thinking. He continued seriously, "No, you have to take everything into account. Everything.
"We only use chiles from one guy. We only use chiles del árbol, you know the ones I mean. The hot red ones, the ones some people call uñas de bruja (witch fingernails). He grows them in Los Altos de Jalisco, in Teocaltiche and I buy his whole harvest. We start working with him before the seeds are sown every year. We analyze the soil, add whatever nutrients are needed. Then we spray special fumigants on the seedlings. Everything we do, all the chemicals we use are approved by the FDA of the United States, because our product is for export as well as for sale in Mexico. You know how strict the FDA is, right?"
"Now from that little beginning, with my mother's recipe, do you know how much salsa we make? I had to go very far north, all the way to Chicago, to buy special stainless steel mills for my factory. No more little stone mill! And the factory works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine!" Sr. Sánchez's eyebrows registered his amazement and pleasure. "Nearly 60% of our salsa is sold in the state of Nuevo Leon, in the city of Monterrey. They love it.
"Last year we sold 700,000 cases all together. Next year we will make 30% more than that. Can you imagine? From that little beginning in a lean-to behind my house? Who would have thought of this?" The gentleman folded his hands on his desk and beamed.
"Today I have my children, my grandchildren—I have 26 grandchildren now, and eight great-grandchildren already, what a huge family!"
He smiled delightedly, hugging the adolescent boy who had just slipped into the office and was bending down to kiss him. "This grandson is studying in Guadalajara. One of the granddaughters has just become a doctor. We never know when we start out where we'll go—sometimes we marry young and are sorry later—but look. I can look back and see the past, and I can look forward and see the future. And it all started with my mother, my father, and a little salsa to give flavor to the sangrita."
Sr. Sánchez sat back in his chair and gave a satisfied sigh. His face
showed the pride of a job well done—founding and managing a highly
successful family business.
Salsa Cholula in any North of the Border supermarket or specialty store. You'll know it first by its round wooden bottle top and then by its distinctive just-right spicyness.
If you crave more than just a small bottle of this salsa, come visit me and bring an empty bottle or jug of any size. You can buy Salsa Cholula a granel (in bulk) right at the factory. Just tell the man on duty to fill'er up.