Beach Feasts

BY AMANDA CUMMINS

Living on an island in the tropics, leisurely days on the beach were not the norm. Living in a place is quite different to being on a perpetual holiday. In any event, going to the beach in Trinidad was not a quick trip there and back: it was an excursion.

Sunday outings began as my parents settled into Trini life and got to know people. When we lived out in the countryside, we would go to the East Coast –to Manzanilla or Mayaro – which took hours to get to: “are we nearly there yet?” was repeated on a loop. Eventually, after what seemed like a very long time, we would arrive and meet up with friends.

Realistically, while lovely, the beaches on the East Coast are not the most beautiful in the world. There certainly isn’t the angry beauty of the East Coast in Barbados. Just miles of shoreline with a backdrop of coconut trees. There were a few rather dilapidated guest houses – one with delusions of grandeur, in that it pretended to be a hotel “with facilities” (outside loos and a shower), and the odd questionable rum shop along the road running parallel to the coast. Nothing special. The swimming wasn’t awfully safe because of rip tides and undercurrents: a quick and cooling dip was fine and there was plenty of sand on which the younger members of the party could scamper.

A spot would be found, deck chairs deployed, the legs of a folding table unfurled. Such was the constant sea breeze (“sea blast” is more accurate: sometimes it whipped up the sand so much that it was like being bitten) that umbrellas were a pointless exercise. Ergo no shade. No matter: we were at the seaside.

Food played a big role on these treks. Not the classic beach English picnic of cold sausages, cheese and pickle sandwiches into which sand inevitably found its way and cold hard-boiled eggs (one of life’s mysteries: how is it there is always one tiny piece of shell attached to a peeled egg?). This was a picnic Trini-style.

Old-fashioned polystyrene cold boxes, packed with ice and which made a pleasing (or irritating, depending upon your tolerance of squeaks) noise when the contents rubbed against the interior, would appear from which a feast would unfold. Chicken pieces which had been in cooked in the “old time” way of brining overnight in seasoned buttermilk and then dried off, before dredging in spiced and herby flour and deep fried until golden – the most succulent chicken ever (sometimes the dredging was of the egg-and-breadcrumb variety, perhaps using crunched cornflakes in lieu of breadcrumbs to create a really crispy outside).

Then there was a type of bread roll which is particular to Trinidad. Hops bread. Its origins are shrouded in the mists of time but hops rolls – apparently, it’s something to do with using the male hops in the breadmaking process: who knew there was such a thing as yeast genetics? – are as much a part of Trinidad as the scarlet ibis. These crusty rolls, bought from a village bakery on the way to the beach, were crunchy on the outside and soft as a cloud within. Into these one put slices of ham carved off the bone. No anaemic, wafer thin, watery apology for ham removed from a packet: thick slices of home-cooked pink ham which were lusciously juicy, encased beneath a glaze of guava jam and rum.

It was food to eat in your fingers. The finale would be watermelon and pineapple bought from a roadside stall on the way.

When we returned to Trinidad and lived in Port-of-Spain going to the east coast seldom happened. However, taking the beach feast up a notch or two, my parents and I would sometimes go to Sunday lunch and spend the day with friends at their holiday homes on the north coast or, occasionally, “down the islands” to holiday retreats on the small islands off the north west coast of Trinidad, almost touching Venezuela.

Going “down the islands” was great fun, travelling by pirogue – a local fishing boat – to the jetty of whichever house you would be spending the day. Getting to the north coast was still a lengthy trek involving an early departure, but the villages of Las Cuevas, Toco and Blanchisseuse had been popular holiday retreats for years. In those days, the beach houses were not smart or glitzy. Fairly undistinguished, really. The owners would go for long weekends and hold beach lunch parties for whoever might appear. These places are a little different now, by all accounts. Palaces have been created “down the islands”, with the sleepy, undeveloped fishing villages on the north coast similarly overtaken.

As for Sunday lunch, just to whet your appetite…

Chicken Pelau: Trinidad’s near signature dish and one of great deliciousness. It’s a stove-top-one-pot wonder. What sets Pelau apart from any old pilaff is that chicken thighs and drumsticks are marinated beforehand and then – the tricky, fraught-with-danger (smoke alarms) bit: you almost, but really just- nearly- almost, caramelise brown sugar in a hot pan before adding the chicken to brown and taken on the melted sugar. Then proceed with adding vegetables, pigeon peas, herbs, spices and a whole Scotch Bonnet pepper before adding rice, followed by unsweetened coconut milk (fresh or out of a tin*), with additional chicken stock or water to cover. This alchemy of flavours sits on the stove, lid on and with the occasional stir, while the liquid is absorbed and the chicken et al cooks through. The Scotch Bonnet is fished out, leaving behind a whoosh of heat created in the cooking process. The finished dish is good enough to make one weep with pleasure.

* Using sweetened coconut cream out of a tin is a grave mistake: a rookie error made by a friend who was trying to replicate Chicken Pelau she remembered from her Trini childhood. The result was a most unpleasant, super-sweet gloop.

Another staple of those Trini Sunday feasts was Macaroni Pie. Macaroni Cheese, in a luscious, gooey cheese sauce, is something we all know but this is quite different. Macaroni Pie is a dish one encounters all over the West Indies, particularly on a Sunday, every cook giving their own tweak to the basic recipe. The cheese sauce is seasoned with thyme, nutmeg and hot pepper, with whisked eggs added to the mixture. It is almost a macaroni cake, as it’s baked in the oven and served in slices. Using a Trini friend’s description, it’s “quite solid”.

There would be a ham or a vast piece of roast pork. Salad would appear on great platters. Sliced avocado – known as zaboca in Trinidad – over which lime was squeezed. Tomatoes and cucumbers. Tangy coleslaw. Fried plantain slices. Perhaps some breadfruit chips, or chunks of baked breadfruit. All manner of what the Americans call “sides”. Bizarrely, I don’t remember lettuce ever being part of these feasts. This is probably because lettuce was viewed with some suspicion by Trinidadians, who insisted on washing it in Milton.

The common thread, whether one was picnicking on the beach or enjoying the bountiful spoils from the kitchen of a holiday house which had a pervading smell of mildew and mosquito spray, was something which was a Sunday staple. It comes under the heading of An Acquired Taste.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you BULJOL.

The name derives from the French brulé guelle – burnt jaw. In the Trinidadian Creole patois of the 19th Century this became bu’n jaw which, in time, settled into buljol. Salt fish is something you meet in every supermarket or small shop in the West Indies. It looks rather unprepossessing – a solid lump of white fish, dried and salted, which is cooked by boiling in water and the salt removed by rinsing several times in cold water. To make buljol, the rehydrated fish is flaked into a bowl to which finely diced and deseeded tomatoes are added, along with a finely diced Scotch Bonnet pepper (hence the burning to the mouth). Some people add finely chopped spring onions and sweet peppers. Others include chopped up hard boiled eggs. A hefty squeeze of lime, a smidgeon of vegetable or olive oil and then gently mixed together. Served on top of salt crackers with pre-lunch drinks. A culinary curiosity to be approached with caution.

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