Passion for peppers

Carol Hay does not have pepper jelly fans. She has pepper jelly addicts. It is a fitting description for the legion of followers who can’t get enough of Carol’s Cayman Gourmet Pepper Jelly. And these addicts will not rest until they get their fix.

“I’ve had requests for pepper jelly from Australia, New Zealand, and England,” says Carol, with a hint of disbelief. “I hear of people on island who have taken pepper jelly home for a gift, and now have to take jars every time they go home.”

In recent years, Carol has become synonymous with her signature product. She is known affectionately as “the Pepper Jelly Lady”, and can often be found seducing potential customers with plates of cheese, crackers and, of course, a dollop of her homemade condiment.

But, as with many small business owners, Carol did not launch Cayman Gourmet Pepper Jelly with the aim of pepper jelly domination. She simply saw a gap in the market.

“I love pepper jelly but I could never find one that I liked,” says Jamaican-born Carol, who has lived in Cayman since 1973.

“Most have more sugar than pepper, with just a hint of chillies and jalapeños. I started experimenting with recipes. It was a lot of trial and error.”

Carol’s dedication to her fledgling hobby intensified in March 2007, following the death of her beloved mother. In a bid to keep busy, Carol plunged – quite literally – into the depths of the pepper jelly-making process.

“I was waking up at 2am to make pepper jelly,” Carol says. “It was a way to deal with the grief. I had big tubs of pepper jelly all over the house.”

Carol’s family and friends were instrumental in helping her to perfect her recipe, a process that took approximately four years. Carol experimented with different types of pectin, the agent that sets the pepper jelly, as well as varying quantities of sugar, spice and peppers until she finally found a formula that made the taste buds sing. Throughout the process, Carol refused to skimp on ingredients, preferring quality over cost. As a result, Carol’s gourmet product has a gourmet price tag – but it is worth every mouthful.

“It’s a cottage industry so it is really a labour of love,” Carol says as she relaxes in her business headquarters – her home. “People love the fact that it is 100 per cent locally made, because there are not too many products that are completely local. But it is whether [customers] are willing to pay the price.

“There are a lot of copycats, who are trying to make their own pepper jelly. I say good luck to them. They do not even come close to the original, which is mine. I use nothing but the best and the freshest ingredients. That’s why I market with taste testing. I take big platters of cheese, crackers and pepper jelly into offices and then people can taste it for themselves.”

It is clear that Carol is passionate about her product. Whether she is growing peppers, picking peppers, or making batches of pepper jelly, Carol devotes every spare minute to her “hobby”. Yet, it hasn’t always been easy. Cayman Gourmet Pepper Jelly is truly a “cottage industry”. Carol runs the business from her kitchen, where she can be found every weekend presiding over pots of bubbling pepper jelly, equipped with a mask and snorkel to combat the potent fumes.

When she is not cooking, Carol is in her backyard, known as the “Pepper Patch”, tending to her crop of pepper plants. The avid gardener, who inherited her green thumb from her horticulturalist father, Colin Duncan, cultivates a variety of pepper species, including Scotch bonnet, season and mutton. When the peppers are in bloom, during the warmer months of the year, the plants can yield up to six pounds a week. During this period, Carol usually harvests enough produce to sustain her pepper jelly production for the entire year.

“When peppers went to $10 a pound [at the supermarket], I couldn’t afford to buy them so I started to grow them in my backyard,” Carol says. “I love to grow peppers, but they are very hard to grow. They require a lot of fertiliser and watering twice a day and they attract so many viruses and bugs. One virus wiped out my whole crop in a week.”

Carol admits there are times when she wants to give up the business. But it seems her passion for peppers will always prevail.

“It’s moments like these when I’ve lost a crop of peppers that I just feel like giving up,” says Carol, who juggles her pepper jelly commitments with her full-time job as office manager at BrittHay Electric. “But then I get an email from one of my addicts and it makes this all worth it.”

So, does Carol plan to expand her cottage industry into a pepper jelly empire? The answer is a resounding no.

“I’m not the next empire. Any time a product expands it becomes mass produced and then you lose control over the product. Now, I can control the taste of every jar that leaves my kitchen. The real secret to the pepper jelly is long hours and hard work.”

Carol hopes to devote more time to her hobby when she retires. In the meantime, she will continue to placate her pepper jelly addicts, one delicious mouthful at a time.

“Even people who don’t like peppers love my pepper jelly,” Carol says. “I’ve never met a person who didn’t like it.” 

Whether she is growing peppers, picking peppers, or making batches of pepper jelly, Carol devotes every spare minute to her “hobby”
 

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Photo: Stephen Clarke