Trinidad Thyme


Certain smells, and I mean smells in a good way, take one racing back to a certain time and a certain place.

One thing which triggers my memory bank is a sudden whiff of the scent my mother wore which brings a smile of remembrance: the swish of a many-layered skirt, pearls around her neck and a kiss at bedtime before going out – “a kiss for you, and a kiss for Teddy, and a hug and a snuggle for you both”, all this enveloped in a haze of Chanel No. 5.

Another thing that sends me zipping back through the decades is the waft of thyme crushed between my fingers or walking across a thyme path. I feel the warmth of another place. Which might make me sound faintly deranged, in which case read no further. Or bear with me and then shake your head.

When my parents first moved to Trinidad in the early 1960’s, food shopping was an art. Well, it was an art for my mother. It was almost mystical in its mystery. In that first period of living in Trinidad we lived in a company house way, way out in the country. There was a village a short distance away with some vegetables stalls, a bread shop tucked beneath a house and a chap who sold questionable fish. A bit further away was a small town with a supermarket. A supermarket, in those days, was the height of sophistication. Thinking back, I can still feel the excitement of a trolley and aisles. Miles of aisles. Or so this little girl thought.

My mother had been warned against the vegetable stalls, the bread from under a house on stilts and the dodgy fish merchant. She dutifully embraced the ex-pat thing of going to the supermarket. She loathed it. She loathed buying English food, imported at vast cost. She wanted us to eat Trini food. She wanted to include Trinidadian food when entertaining, rather than the usual menu of prawn cocktail, roast lamb (liberated from the freezer section at the supermarket) and Baked Alaska for pudding.

Perhaps Mum had a subversive gene within her psyche. But she ignored the advice from other ex-pat wives about everything. And set about finding the best vegetable stall, the best place to buy bread, the best man from whom to buy fish. And somewhere to buy a chicken or some meat.

This led to a mission of discovery. She didn’t mind where she went locally because she didn’t reckon there was ever a threat: “if you are polite to people” she said, “no harm will ever come”. In today’s world, I suppose that borders on the insane.

Off I’d go with her, in some cranky car which had been bought for peanuts. With knowledge gained from Ram the gardener, who thought Mummy astonishingly eccentric, and Theresa, who was the backbone of the house when she wasn’t sulking about something, we would swoop along tiny streets well off the radar of the people who had advised my mama where to shop.

Lo, the best vegetable stall to which no other ex-pats went. Further on, the best bread being sold from a sort of cupboard. Then a fish man who fished all night and brought his catch back to his home village. And a rather alarming chap who sold chicken and pork. I think, but am not sure, that any beef we ever had came via the American Embassy.

This is where the smell-thing comes in. Because there is nothing, but nothing, like the aroma from the dry green seasoning, sold in bunches, which is so much a part of cooking throughout the West Indies and in which thyme pervades. I suppose it’s a bouquet garnet in some respects: a bunch of thyme, chive (which is not chive as we know it in the UK, and is pronounced sive: think spring onions), cilantro (coriander), a celery stalk and other bits and bobs only found in the West Indies. Either use it without bashing or it can be “mashed up” (technical Trinidadian term for using a pestle & mortar) with the addition of garlic, ginger and the judicious addition of peppers, the chilli pepper sort, not sweet pepper.

Green Seasoning, in its wet or dry form and with or without pepper, is the basis of so many dishes in the Caribbean. This same nosegay is still sold at vegetable stalls, little shops or supermarkets and it is the most evocative scent, one which I stand and inhale such is the memory it holds.

Using the local vegetable stall introduced my mother to an array of things which were complete strangers but became great friends: aubergine (known as eggplant or melangine in the West Indies), christophene, bread fruit, plantain, yam (sweet potato), calaloo…on the list went. Mummy genuinely wanted to know how to cook these things, and would spend ages talking to the shopkeeper and the myriad people gathered around. All the while, I poked around and would be given a piece of fruit by one of Mr. Vegetable Man’s family.

And then there was the heaven of walking into the little bakery. The smell-thing there were the brown paper bags into which the bread, still warm, was put. It gave off an irresistible aroma of “eat me now”.

In Tobago, we would go to the only proper bakery on the island at dawn to buy Mrs. Cowie’s bread rolls. Of which double the quantity was required, as half would be eaten on the way back to the house for breakfast. There was always a treat slipped into the bag for the two little girls, even when we were bigger girls. Slices of Sugar Cake. So terribly sweet. So bad for you. Never mind: a treat is a treat.

On our second sojourn in Trinidad, this time living in Port of Spain, my mama quickly discovered her favoured vegetable place, a butcher (times had moved on) and a fish man. And there were two big supermarkets, full of chilled vegetables and fruit from goodness knows where.

The final smell I recall is the memory of walking down a street with my mama somewhere near the port, in search of the perfect, freshly-landed shrimp. It was the weirdest scent, and not one which one could sell in a bottle: diesel from the harbour mixed with citrus from the street vendors, suffused with a hint of thyme in the green seasoning being sold by the bunch all around. I rather liked it.

But nothing beats Trinidad thyme.

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