Tobago Fortnight

BY AMANDA CUMMINS

Horse-racing in Trinidad & Tobago was, and remains, as much a part of life as watching cricket.

In the days that we lived in Trinidad, there were three racecourses with another one in Tobago. Saturdays and bank holidays were all about racing.

My mother owned half-a-leg and a tail in a few racehorses with varying degrees of success. Going to the gallops to watch them work was part of our weekly routine.

The history of horse-racing in Trinidad & Tobago goes back to the late 1700’s when ad hoc races were staged on suitable flat ground. Initially arranged by members of the French “plantocracy”, the races were matches between horses the planters had brought to the two islands. Quite often these races would be held on a beach. Point-to-pointing by the sea – with no jumps and no need for a Barbour if a spectator.

Horse-racing became formalised with the creation of the Trinidad & Tobago Turf Club which was recognised by the Jockey Club in the UK.

Once a year, racing would decamp to Tobago. Horses, trainers, jockeys, owners, punters, – not to mention the tipsters, complete with crumpled copies of the local papers skulking around in the car park. The whole shebang.

The racecourse in Tobago came complete with an Edwardian grandstand. A building of great charm but of somewhat perilous construction. Wooden from top to bottom, one wondered at the safety aspect of scrunched up paper betting slips fluttering to the floor amongst the cigarette stubs.

Unlike the racecourses in Trinidad, there was little difference between the Members’ section, Owners & Trainers area and the “silver ring”. It was pretty much a free for all.

Villas and apartments were rented, hotels booked or arrangements made to stay with friends who lived on the island. Tobago was taken over by the racing fraternity for a fortnight.

Apart from the racing, it was also an excuse for partying. When not racing, there were lunches on the beach, cocktail parties, dinner parties, more informal get-togethers for supper.

One friend of my parents held an annual lunch at Pigeon Point, a beach famed for its beauty and the Nylon Pool close to the Buccoo Reef. The Nylon Pool, so the story goes, was named by Princess Margaret, who said the water was as clear as her stockings (“nylons”).

The main ingredient for the host’s piece de resistance at this annual lunch was hard to come by in Tobago. It fell upon someone who was flying over from Trinidad for the weekend to collect the order from a butcher in Port-of-Spain.

Picture the scene: the Friday afternoon flight from Trinidad to Tobago. A man in a suit disembarks, holding a large carrier bag. The man sporting a face of barely disguised distaste.

The man was my father. The carrier bag contained pigs’ trotters and pigs’ tails.

The basis for lunch on Sunday.

The dish around which these key ingredients was created was nicknamed Bus’ Guts – “ya eat so much, ya bus’ [bust] ya guts”.

The piggy bits were slowly stewed in coconut milk, with chunks of breadfruit, onion and herbs. Scotch bonnet peppers were cooked whole and removed prior to serving – just a hint of heat, without the eye-watering experience of biting into a whole Scotch bonnet.

Overnight chilling made it all the more gelatinous before reheating the next day for lunch at the beach.

While there are some who might baulk at the idea of this culinary oddity, it was delicious. Great bowls of it, while sitting on the shore (instant hand-washing in the sea, as the trotters and tails had to be eaten in one’s fingers). And the breadfruit, infused with coconut and herbs, was sweet and soft. The coconut milk, suffused with flavour, begged to be slurped straight out of the bowl.

It would be impossible to replicate this. One needs sun, sea and sand to appreciate its glory.

P.S. The grandstand at the Tobago racecourse burnt down in 1983 and was never rebuilt. The annual racing fortnight had turned, as I suspected it might, to ashes.

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