People in France tend to have impeccable taste. Which is why des Américains tend to stick out.
An American IT manager I used to work with was a hot sauce collectionneur, to the point he had at least six bottles of Tabasco (and other variants) on his office desk at any given time.
It tastes great, the manager insisted, and one time proceeded to open a bottle and tap it into his mouth to demonstrate what a great afternoon office snack it made.
His passion was anathema to the French, who are famously averse to overt amounts of spice (bedroom notwithstanding), and eating at their desk.
And back then I wasn’t convinced either, filing the incident away in my overflowing mental drawer of weird shit Americans do in France, along with queuing for restaurants and seeking validation from the French.
That was before I went to New York and discovered a boutique hot sauce supplier in Williamsburg, which I warmed to immediately, if at first only for its pun name Heatonist.
I returned to Paris with a bottle of black sauce called Charcoal Ghost, which had notes of white vinegar, black plums, and ghost pepper.
Turns out, it was the perfect heart-starter for any homemade brunch. A drop or two on poached eggs in the morning would be enough to make your insides remember it for the rest of the day.
And I wasn’t alone: by chance my best friend in London had independently come across the exact same bottle and was just as much a fan.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and eventually the bottle was reduced to containing only the hardest-to-remove smears of black; and just like a soap dispenser, you can only dilute it with so much water before it ceases to have any cleansing properties at all.
Worse, it turned out the bottle was a one-off limited edition. Despite some desperate Internetting, the sauce was out of stock. The taste of my future brunch eggs would be dull indeed.
I returned to Williamsburg in November this year for no good reason than for a final 2019 bender weekend in a city twice as expensive as London.
I stayed in an AirBnb near the waterfront in Brooklyn, just down the road from where some arsehole developer has constructed a monstrous white tower block that lived up to its name by blocking the waterfront view for the hundred low-rise houses behind it.
But I was also not far from Heatonist on Whyte Ave, and I walked in to try my luck.
They must have about 60 varieties of hot sauce, from mild to hottest, some of which you can taste in-store.
Now, every restaurant in New York carries a sign in the bathrooms saying “Employees Must Wash Hands”, and I reckon some at Heatonist found out the hard way, which is why all the staff wear rubber gloves.
They did not have the Charcoal Ghost hot sauce for tasting, but the good news was that, exceptionally, they had re-stocked this rarity and it was only about 14 euros.
I immediately messaged Jasper, who responded within three seconds, Yes Please.
People who like efficiency and being careful with money should stop reading now, because the story is about to turn bad.
The sauce was uniquely available in 147ml bottles. Yet we’d bought air tickets with hand luggage only, which we all know has a limit of 100ml for carry-on liquids.
Rather than pay 50 dollars to upgrade my ticket, the staff suggested we buy it on the Internet and have it shipped to Europe. The cost of postage was the same whether you bought one bottle, or four, so soon I’d logged on to their site and ordered 4 bottles (56 euros). Plus shipping, 35 euros.
Having paid 81 euros now, I was still sort of up, even though I’d really only wanted one bottle that cost 14 euros.
I was planning for the bottles to arrive before a London trip so that I could triumphantly hand deliver it to Jasper, but alas it did not arrive in time.
Instead, the day I landed in Shoreditch I saw I’d missed a phone call. The postman had arrived at my door in Paris to deliver the package.
And that was the extent of his message. So, that was useful.
Returning to Paris there was no trace of the package or note of instruction where to find it. I logged on to US Postal Service tracking service, but the only information was that “A delivery attempt had been made”.
Two more days of silence and I decided to take action. With some sleuthing, I traced the package to a Chronopost warehouse on the outskirts of Paris.
We can deliver it on Monday, said the helpful customer service operator. Sounds great, I said, what time?
Between 8am and 6pm. Well, that was great, just a small window of 10 hours to be away from work then.
I’ll come collect it from your warehouse, I bravely proposed.
There’s a quote about the Marriage Story actor Adam Driver that I recently read to the effect that, “You have to be a bit ugly in order to be truly beautiful”.
Leaving the arrondissements of Paris is to be reminded that the same applies to cities. Haussmann might have copped some flak in the day for razing large swathes of the city for his beautification project, but to honest, his biggest crime was not thinking large enough.
At least, schlepping to the Chronopost warehouse near Aubervilliers is to instantly understand why the post in Paris never arrives on time. It’s probably stuck waiting for the mythical tram at Park Villette. Instead I took an Uber jump the final distance (9 euros).
Eventually I made it, found the entrance to the building which resembles a suburban Soviet gulag, and was let inside not by a staff but another hopeful customer.
The reception attendant was in no rush to attend or receive anyone, so I yelled BONJOUR BONSOIR (I’m never sure which) into the void for a good couple of minutes, before walking outside again and rage-pressing the interphone buzzer for a full 20 seconds.
When I re-entered there was someone at the desk. They had my package, but, the bad news, was I had to pay import duty (28 euros) on it. Well, it was a sunk cost now, so I sucked it up and paid.
For those keeping count, the total cost of 4 bottles of my hot sauce was now 118 euros.
With the package now safely in my hands, I was just happy the ordeal was over and that I would be having some delicious hot sauce on poached eggs for breakfast on Saturday.
What’s more, the tram was just arriving outside, so it would be quick to get home.
I clutched the rectangular package with both hands and sat down to relax.
It was about 10 minutes into the tram journey that I became aware there was something odd about my package.
It was bendy.
I examined the package more closely and discovered it had the properties of a stack of magazines. Something was not right here.
Yes, it’s my fault, I should have checked the addressee, but in all my excitement, I just wanted to get home to my hot sauce.
For indeed, the package in my hands was not addressed to me at all. And neither did it contain 4 bottles of hot sauce.
No, in a particularly French twist, I realised with a start that I had become the proud owner of several magazines worth of “Tintin-themed removeable tattoos”.
Dazed and enraged, I exited the tram at the next stop and waited for one in the opposite direction to take me back to the gulag.
Well, if I’d rage-pressed the buzzer earlier in the night, now was the time to go full Hulk. My 14 euro bottle of sauce had now cost 118 euros plus 2 tram tickets and 3 hours of my Friday.
And yet, how could I resist the hapless expression of the postal worker who was still there to receive me. I could get as angry as I wanted, but he would still hold the ultimate leverage over me: my sauce.
What’s more, he was probably paid far less per hour than the cost of a bottle of hipster hot sauce, so I smiled wanly and waited for him to look – a little bit harder this time perhaps – for my actual package.
On Saturday I awoke bright and early, the previous evenings escapades behind me. There’s not much a good sleep and a good meal can’t fix, and soon I was seated to a homemade brunch of deliciously fresh eggs, on thick slices of my favourite Parisian bread.
I opened my new hot sauce and tapped on two or three drops of the black sauce, which landed on the egg yolk like an edible beauty spot.
I took my first bite, possibly the most highly anticipated meal of the year.
The verdict? Well, to be honest, a bit vinegary, not very plummy, and not as spicy as I remembered.