By Gemma Handy
Peppers may be in short supply right now but one thing Rosie McMaster never runs low on is sauce.
This she imparts with a mischievous glint in her eye – a hint at a double entendre.
From the vast vats of vinegar stacked up in the garden to the habaneros drying in the afternoon sun, the fruits of her labour are evident before one even sets foot inside her Marble Hill home.
Once through the door, bottles of Susie’s Hot Sauce adorn every surface, vying for space among stuffed toys, family photos and national madras fabric, limited edition varieties paying tribute to everyone from Sir Vivian Richards to Barack Obama.
With its signature flame-coloured branding, the piquant product is an island institution and has been a staple of dining tables across the nation for decades.
This summer marks 60 years since McMaster’s mother – Susie herself – bottled the very first edition of her eponymous creation.
The exact date is a little hazy but the time-honoured techniques used to make it are largely unchanged, McMaster says.
With names like ‘Scorpion’ and ‘Teardrops’, Susie’s has built its brand on adding some fire to the belly.
These days, most of its infinite varieties have the same core ingredients – habanero peppers, mustard, salt, garlic powder – but McMaster prides herself on ever more inventive additions, like her watermelon sauce which she swears is an ideal complement to ice cream.
Her last hurrah might be a cherry sauce; she’s got her eye on a tree in the garden that’s blossoming for the first time since Hurricane Irma.
“I’ve added more seasoning than my mother did. But there are no secret ingredients really. The quality of the pepper is key and they must be boiled.
“And sterilising the bottles is very important. I thoroughly wash all the new bottles as they arrive. Cleanliness is next to godliness after all,” she winks.
McMaster has a small team of staff to help her but quality control is a role she guards fiercely; she personally tests every batch made.
“You must have a passion for what you do,” she says earnestly.
Passion is a word she uses a lot. And McMaster wears hers on her sleeve – literally. Her shirt emblazoned with images of cacti, sombreros and hot peppers is as buoyant and playful as she.
McMaster was 12 years old when Susie started cooking up sauce to sell to feed her and her two siblings.
“I can still see my mother doing her bread and buns and cookies. She was creative and soon started making sauce too. I can still remember its strong smell,” she recalls.
Back then, Susie wasn’t making the quantities the thriving enterprise does today.
“Yesterday I made 35 gallons myself – sometimes, when I use the big kettles, I make 200 gallons or more,” the 72-year-old says.
The biggest challenge to cooking in bulk is the tricky task of extracting the seeds, she grins. It can be easy to forget you have pepper on your hands too. “That pepper gets everywhere,” she continues, dabbing her streaming eyes.
McMaster never intended to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“My career started in the travel industry,” she explains, settling herself into an easy chair on the verandah.
“I began working for Bryson’s Travel, then I opened my own business in the 60s. My mother died on December 1 1990. I had my agency in North Street but I was making sauce in the evenings at her home.
“I had to decide what to do with Susie’s; I couldn’t let it die.”
McMaster attended a handful of trade shows in North America in the early 90s. It was when she received her first award that her fate appeared sealed.
“I got a first prize and was so excited that I went to my mother’s grave and took some sauce to her. I have won three more golds since then. Just this year on her birthday I went to her grave again, and brought her flowers and sauce,” she says.
What has galvanised her even more than laurels is helping inspire younger generations of native business owners.
Schoolchildren are regular visitors to ‘Aunty Rosie’s’ home to witness first-hand the tricks of her trade.
“They strengthen me and I will get up and cook sauce for hours,” McMaster says. “My mother was a hardworking person and she put that in my veins.
“My passion is letting these young people see someone that did something – and makes them think, I can do that. My mother used to say, give the world the best you have and the best will come back to you.
“In those days you had no other choice but to work hard for what you wanted.”
The mother-of-three and grandmother to two also shares her entrepreneurial journey via presentations to local schools.
“Too many people go into business without planning well; it’s not about money, you must love what you do, be devoted to your business and respect, appreciate and love your customers.
“No matter what you want to do in life, you can be successful if you put your heart, soul and mind to it,” she says.
Sixty years on from its birth, Susie’s is not just enjoyed by Antiguans and Barbudans but by foodies across the globe as international palates warm up to the quintessential Caribbean condiment.
“I ship to the UK, the US, Canada. I even got an order from Dubai. Can you imagine that,” she beams.
Still, not all tastebuds can cope with the tang. “I gave one guy a teaspoon of sauce and he almost hit the ground,” she laughs.
Before she hangs up her apron for good, McMaster has a clear vision for carrying on her mother’s zesty legacy.
“When my mother first started out we had peppers and pineapples being grown here in Antigua. For years I imported mine from St Vincent. We have one of the best soils in the region. Agriculture is a noble line of work – you can feed yourself and the world. I hope we start getting our agricultural products exported again. That’s what I want to see before I die,” she says.
But McMaster’s greatest ambition of all is for a manufacturing complex to showcase Susie’s Hot Sauce to the country’s tourists – and keep her mother’s name alive for posterity. “My mother wasn’t rich but her values were – and I walk in her footsteps,” she adds. “You can achieve anything with passion and love for what you do. To me, that’s the perfect recipe.”