Thursday, 13 December 2012

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago: The Food

Food in Trinidad at Christmas time is out of this world, a bellyache waiting to happen cause you just can't seem to help yourself from trying just one more thing about a million times. Songs have been sung about it. The crazy obsessive serious cooks start somewhere about June soaking their fruits for the black cake. You make it your business to know who have the "sweet hand" for everything so you could make a pass during the season and take a taste, don't forget to take some home for later. Most of these food are only available or seen at Christmas time - black cake, sorrel, ginger beer, pastelle, they may hang around until carnival but these food signal that Christmas is near or here.

Black cake the star of any Trini Christmas. A good black cake is good for ten years, I am very serious, the fruits in the black cake soak in alcohol no less than two weeks and as I said before some soak it since June and even much longer. Christmas is not Christmas without black cake and everybody's grandmother makes the best one. My grandmother doesn't measure she makes it by know and no one else in the family knows how. Our family makes our black cake on Christmas Eve night or the night before but you can also buy it but what self-respecting Trini don't know how to make black cake, well me but I don't have to yet.

Pastelles. This is a cornmeal Pattie filled with minced beef seasoned with capers, olives and raisins (or craisins if you are being modern). This is very yum, I didn't like much as a child but my tastes have since refined. The minced beef can be replaced with chicken, pork, fish, veges, soya, or any protein you can think of I suppose. No one in my family actually makes this we buy or are gifted (I have a friend whose sister makes it incredibly well). Traditionally these were made and pressed and wrapped in banana leaves for boiling, many people just wrap in foil now and the trees are super thankful.

Ham. I prefer turkey myself but in Trinidad, Christmas is ham and back in the old, old days like before my grandmother was born (and during her childhood too) this was made by boiling a salt ham in a pitch oil pan. This was done by setting up firestones in the backyard, I have never seen it done but I hear there are places in the country and deep south that still do it that way. Now it's a picnic ham done in the oven decorated with cloves and pineapple rings for baking. Served with chow chow on some home made bread, yum even if I do prefer turkey.

Sorrel. My favourite Christmas drink, those little red berries I guess you can call them are boiled, cooled and sweetened to make the best drink ever. You have to remove the top and the green pod in the center. I remember having to do that a thousand times give or take a couple thousand every year. This year I discovered black sorrel, I have no idea how long that has been around but I am anxious to try it on Christmas.

Gingerbeer. The other drink, the one I don't like. It's a spicy drink made from the ginger root, it is also boiled and then left to ferment, cure or whatever else you can call the process in a glass container for a while before it is sweetened.

Ponche de Creme or as it is fondly referred to puncha crema. This is similar to eggnog I guess but it is so it's own creation. Eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk, nutmeg, bitters, and rum, lots and lots of rum. I have been helping to make this since before I was allowed to drink it, one rule you use good Angostura rum and only Angostura bitters, you have to keep it local after all.

Homemade Bread. Garlic pork. Pear Drax, a pear-flavoured pop but it is so much better than that. Trinidad is the only place in the world where it’s brewed and it is only available in stores in the month maybe two leading up to Christmas. Last year I was stalking the drink it sells out that fast.

And for New Year's because here in Trinidad we celebrate Christmas going straight to January 6th even though Carnival creeps in on December 26th, black eye peas or pigeon peas. Whether it's cooked in a pelau or stewed to the side, Trinis have to have peas at the Old Year's night lime or sometime on New Year's Day to start the year right.