Ice cream dreams

A special section on some favourite Caribbean temptations


I may not have crossed endless burning deserts for it, but that’s only because I live in a place that is small and tropical. I suspect if I’d been stranded on the wrong side of the Mojave Desert from the nearest chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream, I’d have done what was necessary.

I have braved some unspeakably cold New York winters, rolling out five layers deep in sweaters, from a car heated like the Congo, for good fresh-cream ice cream. In Trinidad, finding ice cream is less onerous, but I regret, also less satisfying. Why we have by and large failed to get right something that seems so crucial to survival in a hot country escapes me. Sweet we got. Variety, sure. But that smooth, creamy velvet like you’re slipping into a cloud — no.

Worse still, we seem to have fixed upon a great many varieties that scandalise me. Perfectly respectable flavours when consumed as nature or common sense might suggest, that simply have no business being turned into a frozen sweet. Soursop. Fig! Guinness . . . my indignation defies punctuation. Coconut ice cream, arguably Trinidad’s favourite dessert, is a concoction I find, frankly, disrespectful to both the coconut and to ice cream. The coconut seems to have two reasons for being: to be sweet, and to refresh, and therefore has the distinction of being one of the few cold, sweet things that won’t leave you dying of thirst. To turn it into ice cream is to turn it against its very essence.

The best ice cream goes straight to your head. The sweetness and the cold hit you at once, so it’s a few seconds before you begin to discern individual sensations. After your benumbed mind begins to adjust, you start to slip into it. It’s hard to slip obliviously into an ice cream that is icy and granular. That said, let it be noted that there are some exquisite exceptions: the sumptuous Devon House chocolate in Jamaica and Munch King’s rocky road in Trinidad come to mind. Other recommendations are welcome.

The day dawns bright and clear, and with the search for an elusive appliance, as all momentous days begin.

Nothing has prepared me for the possibility that one day a recipe would ask me to produce — out of thin air and history, as it were — an ice cream maker. I haven’t seen one in about 20 years, and even then it had seemed more like a prop for Little House on the Prairie than something that would feel at home among my family’s other notoriously absurd appliances (the electric kebab maker, for instance). From the relics she unearths, it seems my mother’s ice cream maker succumbed to rust and small creatures some time before Trinidad gained independence. Similar fates have befallen all the other ice cream makers I try to track down from various relatives. But eventually one turns up, with what seem like straightforward instructions, assurances of functionality, and good wishes. I take it home, slightly dizzy with my sense of good fortune.

I decide I will make this ice cream in the safety of my own home, where I can be spared the potential derision of my family. When I told my mother I intend to try to make the kind of ice cream I long for, her response was filled with maternal concern and sorrow. It was the voice of someone who sees a beloved heading blindly and merrily to certain failure and abject disappointment.

The recipe I have settled on seems simple but rich: it has eggs and cream and powdered sugar — what ill can befall me? It is a recipe for vanilla ice cream that I feel may be improved with pumpkin and rosemary. Pumpkin because it is one of those things that never fails to surprise you by how well it responds to sweetening, and rosemary because I’ve been given a gorgeous, fresh bunch that deserves to have something dramatic done to it.

Now, make no mistake, there is no practical reason for making your own ice cream. People make ice cream for the same reason that corporations build 100-storey buildings: to be impressive. Bear that in mind if you find yourself wondering if pumpkin-rosemary wasn’t a bit ambitious for a novice.

Creating the ice cream mixture is a surprisingly calming exercise, filled with gentle fragrances and words that make me feel soothed and thoughtful. The milk is infused with vanilla. As though the vanilla, through warmth and delicate stirring, becomes part of the milk’s soul. The stirring is slow and comforting. The mixture is pale yellow, flecked with blades of rosemary.

The kitchen smells like cream, vanilla, and rosemary, and I am half asleep standing at the stove, before the reality of assembling the ice cream churner startles me. Fortunately, the mixture and I must both cool before we can be subjected to this process. About an hour, many phone calls, and half a bottle of wine later, we’re up and running. Now it’s up to the maker (Proctor-Silex) and the Maker.

It seems hardly necessary, after all the good the effort has done for my sense of mechanical genius and spiritual equilibrium, to mention that the longed-for thickening process did not happen. That two days in the freezer only allowed me to serve popsicles.

A philosophical (and doubtless deceitful) friend told me it was a good indication that I had not slipped unawares into matronhood; that only grannies are meant to make things such as ice cream, and all I lacked in the kitchen that day was another 30 years.

No matter. Ice cream, they say, is a fair anti-depressant. How can I let it get me down?

PUMPKIN-ROSEMARY ICE CREAM RECIPE

You will need an ice cream maker. Many of the recipes I considered started with this warning, making it clear that if you were not resourceful enough to get your hands on one of these machines, you were not worthy of the recipe. If this is you, turn back now.

1 quart milk, full cream
4 eggs, separated
1 pound castor sugar
salt
1 pint heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
1 1/2 cups pumpkin, boiled and mashed
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh rosemary

You want a friend with you for this. Not a new friend, who understands neither you nor your kitchen, but one who can be trusted to take the helm if you grow faint at any point in the proceedings. If the ice cream maker needs to be tamed, as mine did, you’ll need the extra body.

On low heat, scald the milk with the vanilla bean. Don’t let it boil. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and a pinch of salt until thick, then slowly add the hot milk, stirring constantly. Cook this mixture in a double boiler, always stirring, until it thickens. Remove from the heat and cool. (If you’re using vanilla essence, add it now.)

As the custard mixture cools, boil and mash the pumpkin. (Use a blender if you want perfect smoothness, or a hand masher if you prefer little threads of pumpkin here and there). Add the pumpkin and rosemary to the cooled custard. Add the cream and chill.

Convince your ice cream maker to co-operate. Threats may be necessary. Fill the container about halfway to allow for expansion. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions until the mixture starts to resemble the thing you recognise as ice cream.

Ah, Zaboca!

Keith Smith on the sublime delights of the avocado

I stared at the doctor fixedly, all 250 pounds of me.

“Doc,” I said, “I am not accepting any diet plan that eliminates zaboca.”

He nodded with understanding.

“Ah, zaboca!” he said, and I swear to you, it was almost like a purr.

“Oh, avocado,” I countered, and I swear to you the way I said it, it was nothing short of a hymn of praise.

In the end, the diet plan he gave me was silent on the subject of zaboca, which was just as well, because the season came and went and I would be lying were I to tell you that I ate any less of it than the seasons before — or, indeed, the seasons after.

But such is the all-round virtue of this fruit that it tells you when you have had enough. A single slice, and not a particularly large one at that, is enough to sate the, well, z’appetite. OK, maybe two slices. But what a difference even a sliver can make to “a food”.

Take one hops bread — or, if you are particular like me, and sneer at the modern hops bread with the curled lip of distaste that these pretenders deserve, take two slices of any bread — lavish it with a filling of smoked herring or salted fish, garnish it with a single slice of zaboca, and that’s it, assuming you have livened up the ensemble with the ritual bits of tomatoes and onions, of course.

The only wrong way to eat such a zaboca-ed sandwich would be to eat it in a prim and proper style. Naturally, certain civilities must be observed (unless, of course, you are eating it naked in your bathroom just before a shower, and there’s a certain something to be said for that). But at the family dining table all will understand if, as bite follows bite, there is a trickle of tangy oil meandering down your cheeks. You will not notice anything awry, your eyes being raised in thanksgiving to heaven.

What zabocas bring to sandwiches (a sullen salami beams anew with a little zaboca and pepper) it brings as well to many a meal. A pelau becomes all the prouder for it. A red-beans-stew-chicken-and-rice rouses itself to applause at its inclusion. A curried beef cosies up to its embrace. A slice of fried or steamed fish fairly salivates at the prospect of a merry meeting. The zaboca’s range is limitless. In fact, the only food with which it fails as garnish to “gee up” the imagination is soup. But could it not be because I have not tried it?  Is it that tradition and all my mother’s cook books have failed? Supposing? Ah, now, leave well enough alone, my son, surely what you have is more than enough to go on.

Snow cones

Vaneisa Baksh on the sweet shaved-ice-and-syrup treats, loved by children and adults alike

Adanma and Amy were discussing which secondary schools they wanted to go to. Amy opted for St Augustine Girls’, while Adanma chose the equally prestigious Bishop Anstey High.

“I want to go there because they have the best snow cones in the world,” said Adanma, lost inside her bliss. Every evening she has one. Rich with syrup, which you can suck at through the ice until it seems you’ve drained all the colour and flavour from it; and then, miraculously, as you keep poking it with the straw, the colours return and you do it all over again, until every last sparkle of crushed ice has melted.
Amy was not to be outdone. The snow cone man outside her school, Curepe Presbyterian, was even better — in fact, the best.

One afternoon, after braving a horde of rabid school boys to buy a snow cone for Amy, I remained chatting with him, as he deftly filled cups with scoopfuls of shaved ice, squirted the syrup of choice into each cone at the half mark and then crowned it, and carefully wiped the edges clean, before passing it to the grubby hands. Within a few minutes in the afternoon’s heat, he had dished out about 30 of them.

This was once his mother-in-law’s snow cone cart, until she retired and he downed his agricultural tools to take over the business. You can take the man out of the fields, but the fields never go away — he brought his feel for nature to his snow cones. Every evening fresh guavas, pineapples, and oranges are carefully sweetened into the thick syrups that top the pristine white shaved ice.

Some like it sweet and thick, others prefer just a hint of flavour. The ice used to be shaved off large blocks swathed in crocus bags, with something akin to a carpenter’s plane. It’s easier now to crush ice cubes, and the choice of flavours is infinite. But, sucking at a snow cone outside Amy’s school that day, I realised some things don’t change: the pleasure still comes in a rush.

Cooking for the ancestors

Anabelle Brasnell attends the Tobago Heritage Festival Salaka Feast

Leader Moses sounds like your granny. “Stick to the method — don’t add anything in, and don’t leave anything out.”

He has the automatic authority of an elder. You can almost see him as a wizened woman, too arthritic to stand over a pot with a spoon, but quite capable of directing from a chair in the corner.

It is the first night (and first act of the three-act play) of the Salaka festival, and Leader Moses, in imperial robes, clutching a gnarled walking stick, instructs another elder, Mother Mathilda, on exactly what needs to be done for the second night’s feast. Leader is something like the tribal chief, communicating with the ancestral spirits.

The Salaka Feast is a staple on the annual Tobago Heritage Festival menu. Wendell Berkley, artistic director of the Salaka festival, says, “Food is always an integral part of the celebration, but Salaka [a Yoruba word meaning thanksgiving] is also music, cleansing, sacred preparations, and veneration of the ancestors.”

On this night, on an outdoor stage, in the country village of Pembroke, the celebrations centre on the percussive heritage of the ancestors. At midnight, led by Leader Moses, this “feast of the ancestors where the big drum dance is done” starts with Leader’s instructions to Mother: “Stick to the original method. Remember to pay special attention to the parent plate. Put everything in its sacred order.” Mother, a village elder, is no less daunting as she delegates the tasks to her sous-chefs. Particular attention is paid to what goes into the parent plate — the dish that will be offered to the ancestors in preparation for blessings. As with most secret family recipes, some of the ingredients seem obscure — but who dares suggest it can be done differently?

Mother Mathilda directs the preparations intently: “Don’t forget the conconte [cassava coo coo], a flask of white rum, it must have sugar water, plain water, callaloo, a pipe and tobacco. And I hope that them women who doing the cooking didn’t sleep with their husbands last night.”

Who knows what lovemaking does to a cook? But this final admonition is accepted with wise nods and secret smiles, as the women declare their intent to “wuk till morning come”.

Before the feast, the tribesmen beat out thanks on goatskin drums, as bare feet, caressed by cotton hems, sweep the earth rhythmically. Voices lend melody, and usher in the Mother, bearing a wooden tray with the sacred parent plate atop her head.

Chocolate affair

Anu Lakhan discovers that premium rum and gourmet chocolate are unexpectedly thrilling partners

Tobago-born sommelier Duane Dove moved to Sweden for love and chocolate. (The presence of phenylethylamine — the in-love chemical — in cocoa may even make chocolate and love the same thing, according to all the fashionable reports.) Dove co-owns the Sjögräs restaurant in Stockholm, where he has pioneered the somewhat surprising taste experience of combined chocolate- and rum-tasting. The rums are Caribbean, for the most part. The chocolate includes the revered Valrhona, among others — all premium, high-cocoa-content blends.

Dove is a cheerful and down-to-earth fellow, nothing like the sneering wine aficionados you occasionally encounter, who make you regret ever trying to taste anything more sophisticated than milk. Perhaps there is something to be said for the conviviality of the Caribbean. To say nothing of the conviviality of good chocolate and rum, in generous quantities.

At a recent tasting session at the House of Angostura, just outside Port of Spain, Dove paired premium chocolates from Valrhona, Amadei, Pralus, and Michel Cluizel with Angostura’s exquisite 1919 and 1824 blends. The rum opens up the subtle and elaborate world of flavours within each chocolate. Like an exquisite but delicate soundtrack, you are aware of what the rum is doing, are grateful that it is doing it, and all the while unable to tear yourself away from what is happening within the chocolate. Shivers.

While the combination is yet to achieve full-scale fad-hood, the fact that it works is easily explained. Angostura rums are made from Trinidad sugar. Some of the most prized cocoa in the world comes from the hills not far above those sugar estates. (Valhrona’s Gran Couva is made from beans grown on a single estate in Trinidad’s Central Range; a special vintage blend uses beans from a single year’s harvest.) These rums and chocolates are already family: same soil, same influences (the French call it terroir — a term usually applied to wine, referring to the local conditions that give each variety its own personality). Do they get along? Let’s see: an intense, slightly overwhelming, yet oddly familiar experience resulting from a seemingly unlikely combination — sounds like a family reunion to me.