It’s not just the sun heating up the Valley this summer. Chiliheads have been flocking to the Huntingdon County Farmers’ Market for a weekly hot-sauce fix, care of Kary-Ann Deer and Nico Hoogendijk of the Hemmingford-based Capsaicin Cartel. The duo recently trounced their competition during the YOW awards at the Heating up the Capital hot sauce expo near Ottawa, bringing home prizes in the Mild, Hot, and Extreme categories. “We wanted the Extreme so badly,” says Deer. In that category, their Sangat Pedas peanut sauce was so popular, a raffle was necessary to determine which of the judges would leave with the sample bottle. Their Serum22 sauce also placed first in the Hot category before being crowned King of Sauces. The attention, they say, comes as a bit of a shock, considering they started growing their business during the first pandemic lockdown. Hoogendijk had been working as a chef when COVID-19 hit and the restaurant where he was working closed. The couple saw a segment on the news about struggling maple syrup producers, and they bought some syrup to help them out. They added some dried super-hot peppers to the elixir and their spicy syrup was born. As growers of super-hot peppers, they were already making their own spice blends and selling pepper seeds. People started to ask why they didn’t have a hot sauce. Hoogendijk took some convincing. “There are so many hot sauces out there, how was I going to make a difference?” he says. But he made one; he took a favourite rib sauce recipe that he had perfected over 30 years and added some heat. The sauce was christened Anti-Virus 19, and people began buying it as a novelty. “Then they tasted it,” he smiles. Kary-Ann Deer and Nico Hoogendijk of the Capsaicin Cartel spend their Wednesday afternoons at the Huntingdon County Farmers’ Market converting “normies,” or people who say they don’t like heat, into full-fledged chiliheads with a scorching line of hot sauces. PHOTO Sarah Rennie Anti-Virus 19 would go on to win first place at the 2021 edition of Heating up the Capital. “We were not prepared,” laughs Deer. “We had been bootstrapping this from the beginning,” she explains, before noting they quickly stepped-up production and expanded their line of small batch sauces and condiments to meet a growing demand. Then, Chatelaine Magazine approached the couple about entering Anti-Virus 19 in its search for the best hot sauces in Canada. The July/August issue of the magazine features the homegrown sauce as one of the top 15 available in the country. Reapers, scorpions, and more “I have been a professional chef my whole life. Quality is very important,” says Hoogendijk, who emphasizes the importance of building flavour as well as consistency and texture. Deer also has a background in cooking and as a pastry chef. “I understand the importance of accuracy and writing down recipes,” she adds with a wry smile. For the first two years they grew all their own peppers, but now they have also started to source some from a grower in Saint-Remi. “We start with jalapeños and cayenne peppers,” says Deer; then, the star ingredients quickly climb to the top of the Scoville scale and include Carolina reapers, Trinidad scorpions, and chocolate bhutlah peppers in their more intense sauces. When asked how they came to be known as the Capsaicin Cartel, Deer explains that when they were looking for a name, they wanted something that would resonate with the chilihead community while standing out. “It has a bit of an outlaw vibe to it,” she says. Capsaicin is the active component in hot peppers that produces that sought-after burn. “You have a full body reaction when you eat something hot,” Deer explains. “You are testing your mind over matter,” she continues, suggesting the extreme heat is like an illusion in the sense that it only feels like your mouth is on fire. For some, the sensation is like a high. “I like a little tickle on my lips and in my mouth,” says Deer, who admits she doesn’t go for the extreme sauces. “But I try everything he makes,” she smiles, noting that while the pair shares a passion for creating new sauces, there have been a few mishaps. Deer laughs as she recalls being in a Zoom meeting when a pot of extreme hot peppers boiled over and hit the stove element. Hoogendijk has also spent plenty of time “walking around like Popeye” as his eyes start to itch while cutting extreme peppers. The two love telling their stories while encouraging people at markets to sample their sauces. They keep a box of tissues on hand, and often joke that that they can provide milk, for a price. “It is a challenge to get people to understand that hot sauce is not only peppers and vinegar,” says Deer. “It is not only a condiment, its also an ingredient,” she continues, suggesting there is a certain educational component to selling people on hot sauces. “You really need to get it into people’s mouths,” she laughs, suggesting that’s often all it takes to recruit new members into the cartel.