At Christmas your heart goes home

Franka Philip warms her cockles by adding a Caribbean touch to her table

A Christmas staple, pastelles are made with cornmeal and are filled with minced beef, chicken, soya or lentils. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

This time last year, I was making plans for a huge Boxing Day dinner, the first big lime at my new home. The ambitious menu included a three-bird roast, leg of lamb, mushroom lasagne, black cake and all the trappings of a sumptuous Christmas meal.

From what my guests said that night and in the weeks that followed, to say the dinner was good would be an understatement. It was totally out of this world. People couldn’t get enough of the bird roast, the posh mushroom lasagne was a triumph, and everything else was positively five-star. The biggest thrill was seeing the joy on their faces and watching the food disappear before my eyes. It was almost enough to make me forget the stressful military-style operation needed to make it happen! But will I be doing it again?

Yes, but definitely not in a hurry. This year, I’m not quite decided on what to do for Christmas, but whatever it is, it’s going to be extremely easy. Though I say this now, I’m sure by the time Christmas actually comes, I’ll be dragging my pals Heather and Bonnie around the Caribbean markets in a last-minute rush for ingredients.
Even though I’m not going big (she says now), I want to keep the meal as Caribbean as possible, because having the right food is one of the few ways to get the Christmas spirit in England. After ten years here, I still miss sunny Christmases. And it never snows in London, so there’s not even the prospect of the much-heralded white Christmas to look forward to. Also, on Christmas Day the place is like a ghost town, because there’s no public transport and everyone stays indoors.

What I miss is turning on the TV and seeing the parang singers in their matching outfits and hearing my mother sing carols as she gets the freshly baked bread out of the oven.

Many friends who have lived away from the region much longer than I have also feel the same. They believe it’s compulsory to have some traditional Caribbean dishes in the Christmas lunch, because food keeps us close to our culture.

“It’s not Christmas unless I have sorrel and Christmas rum cake,” said Jamaican-born writer Joan. “I can’t make either, I never tried, but I do purchase them – never from the store, but there’s always an enterprising Jamaican who makes them from her home and sells them.”

An old school pal, Michelle, who has been living in Toronto for the last 16 years, echoes that sentiment.

“I lived within walking distance of Kensington Market when I lived downtown. There was one special shop, run by a Trinidadian whom we called Miss Patsy, and her husband, Mr Wilson Aqui, and everything I could need could be found in her shop,” she told me. “For fruit cake, I could order it right there from Miss Patsy, who made them for sale. I have yet to attempt baking one.

“Now that Miss Patsy and Mr Wilson have retired and closed up shop, it’s not the end of the world, as there are a number of stores around the city that supply those goods from the Caribbean. I just have to go further to get them.”

In London, as in Toronto, and certainly New York, there are many shops catering to West Indians, but some of the older generation still don’t want Christmas from anywhere but home.

How many times have I heard of people going to extraordinary lengths to pack whole Christmas cakes that Auntie made so they won’t break en route, smuggling those frozen pastelles (meat-filled cornmeal pies, similar to empanadas) that Mom made, or even sending cured hams all the way from Trinidad for relatives in colder climes?

There’s a story about the time a few years ago when a huge blizzard hit New York, stranding hundreds of people en route to the Caribbean. I’ve been told that people were in a panic about all the frozen stuff, with one woman crying, “Oh lord, mih ham going to spoil!”
Although some of this seems ludicrous, many people really want pastelles from home in particular, because they claim the cornmeal we use in the Caribbean is better than what is used here. I don’t agree, but this year I’ll order pastelles, because making them simply takes too much time and effort.  I’ll probably order a dozen (six meat and six veggie) from Trinidadian chef Hasan de Four, who somehow finds the time to make them in between preparing for the many Christmas functions he’ll be catering for.

He pointed out that it wasn’t only the London Trinis who order pastelles, but people from other islands as well. “When I do functions for people from other islands, they tend to want a true Caribbean Christmas and for them that means sorrel, ginger beer, rum cream, black cake or rum cake, ham and pastelles.

“People want that because it’s what brings them sunshine and warmth in the winter. Without the traditional food to remind them of home, they don’t really enjoy Christmas.”
I’ve already stocked up on fruits for a very boozy black cake, some of which I’ll be giving to my non-Caribbean friends, who are quite fascinated by our cuisine.

Of course, I can’t let the whole Christmas pass and not try something new, so I want to try my hand at sorrel chutney. If the chutney succeeds, some lucky people will get it in cute little bottles as gifts, but that’s a very big “if”! I’m taking it easy, remember?

Recipe: Sorrel chutney

Ingredients

450g/1lb sorrel leaves
450g/1lb apples, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic
Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp salt
700g/1½ lb brown sugar
750ml/1½ pints malt vinegar
knob of ginger
star anise
1 cinnamon stick
450g/1lb onions
dash of Angostura Bitters

Method

1.    Roughly chop the sorrel leaves and apples. Put into a large heavy-based pan with sugar, spices and vinegar
2.    Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 30 – 40 minutes
3.    Add grated rind and juice of the lemons and simmer for a further ten minutes
4.    Add the Angostura Bitters. The chutney should be thick and pulp-like at this stage
5.    Bottle in jars that have been heated to sterilise them
6.    Leave for one – two months for flavour to develop