Barbara Fuller-Provoteaux: “Christmas is the happiest day of the year”

So Barbara Fuller-Provoteaux takes it very seriously. She told James Fuller why her preparations start in August

Fuller-Provoteaux with the many ingredients needed for baking a traditional Christmas must-have delicacy – black cake. Photograph courtesy Ariann Thompson

Growing up as a little girl in Santa Flora, in south Trinidad, I couldn’t wait for Christmas each year. I always found it took so long to come around. We always had special Christmases, and I especially remember visiting my grandparents. I am from a very large family – there were 11 of us brothers and sisters, and with the rest of the family – uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins – there was always a huge crowd.

I recall how my grandfather John Fuller would tell us these wonderful Christmas stories. Back then we used to have Christmas concerts, the Nativity, carols, parang, the whole works. It has changed a little now but it’s still my favourite season.

I’m 82 now, but I still love getting ready for Christmas and I start early. I do a lot of cooking and I even have a little Christmas food business as well, so I have to be prepared. I sell chow chow, pepper sauce, ponche à crème, pastelles and black cake. They call me the pepper sauce lady. My grandparents used to make jellies from different fruits, like guava, at Christmas, but I don’t do that – it’s too much work. It’s not a very big business; I only really make things for friends, family, neighbours. I have no special recipes, it’s just “from Barbara’s kitchen”, but it seems to be popular, because whatever I make it sells.

I start getting ready in August, preparing the vegetables like christophene, turnip, pawpaw, caraille, cauliflower, sweet peppers, cutting them up and freezing them. It speeds up the process when I’m ready to start making my chow chow, from September time. They’re already chopped up ready to go, so I just add them to salted boiling water and cook them. I add vinegar, mustard and a little salt – I don’t use preservatives – and there you have your chow chow. It’s lovely with baked ham. I bottle the chow chow and sell them for TT$20 each. It’s very popular and I end up making around 18 dozen bottles. I also make up batches of pastelles and freeze them.

Then in October and November we start to clean the house from top to bottom. It’s a tradition in Trinidad to paint your house for Christmas, so we do a little touch-up painting wherever we need to. We wash all the curtains as well, do whatever we need to make the place look nice.

My daughter Jacquelene comes and puts up the Christmas tree on December 1, that’s her job. We put it up then so we have the whole of December through until January 6 to enjoy it before we have to take it down again until next year.

By December it’s time to start soaking the fruits for the black cake. I soak currants, raisins, sultanas and lemon peel in rum and wine for my black cake. Some people use nuts as well, but I don’t put nuts in mine. It’s really tasty and it doesn’t matter when it’s made because it doesn’t spoil. I sell the black cake as well, but not so many, because it’s so expensive to make. The fruits are expensive and, with the rum and wine as well, an eight-inch cake sells for TT$250.

While I’m making my food I love to hear carols and I have my radio or television on in the background all the time. I love listening to them because by month-end you won’t be hearing them again. My favourite is “Caribbean Christmas” but I also like Scrunter’s parang “Ah Want a Piece a Pork”.

I used to have some other family members cooking with me, but I like to be alone when I cook now, because they don’t do things the way I want them done. I do a little every day by myself and get it all finished without any problems.

By Christmas Eve everything’s ready. Long time we used to be rushing a little on Christmas Eve, leaving it to the last minute to get things finished, but not again. The only thing to be done now on Christmas Eve is to make fresh bread and to bake the meat. On Christmas Eve night we go to church, to the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Santa Rosa, where I live now, for midnight mass. Then when we get home we have a little toast for Christmas and that’s it until Christmas morning.

I still get excited every Christmas morning. Christmas is the happiest day of the year. We start with a breakfast of ham, pastelles and homemade bread and then after breakfast we distribute gifts for those already in the house. Christmas Day I have a family get-together at my home and people start arriving about 10 am. It’s for immediate family but with six children, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, “immediate” family is a big family.

Christmas lunch is a big meal, we have Christmas rice, pound plaintain, sweet potato, callaloo and ham bone, pastelles, all the meats – ham, turkey, pork, chicken – everything. I also make my own sorrel and ponche à crème and for the whole day then it’s drinks until people eventually leave six, seven, eight o’clock in the night. We have three main family days: Christmas Day, Boxing Day and then New Year’s Day. On Boxing Day I have always gone up to my mother, Nellie’s, but she died three years ago just before her 100th birthday. We still go up there, though, to see the rest of the brothers and sisters and so on. There’s over 40 of us up there.

I love Christmas but I’m not sad when it’s over, because right after Christmas you have Carnival, then Lent, then Easter, so it’s more fete again. It is a busy time, but I like working and being busy so it suits me.

Christmas has always been very special; it’s a wonderful time of the year when you have everyone around you having a good time. There is such a good spirit in the air, everybody is friendly and giving and that is lovely. If I had to sum up in one word why I find it so special, I would definitely say: family.

Glossary

Chow chow: pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables

Pepper sauce: hot sauce made from chili peppers (commonly habanero and scotch bonnet) with vinegar, fruits and vegetables

Ponche à crème: traditional Christmas drink made with eggs, condensed milk, nutmeg, Angostura Bitters and lots of rum

Pastelles: steamed cornmeal pie filled with stewed meat, olives and raisins and wrapped in banana leaves

Black cake: secret recipes abound, but made predominantly with alcohol-drenched prunes, currants and raisins supplemented with large amounts of rum and cherry brandy

Pound plaintain: plaintain mixed with butter and seasoning and “pounded” (also known as foo foo)

Callaloo: a soup or stew made from dasheen leaves or other greens, okra, crabmeat, and seasonings

Sorrel: Christmas drink made from the bright red sepals of the sorrel flower

Parang: Trinidadian folk music of Latin American origin, performed during the Christmas season