Table for one

Anu Lakhan discovers the fears — and joys — of eating alone • Adam Key Raney explores wine making in a bucket and learns the key to making sorrel...

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

Nothing — apart from sticking your head into a vat of chlorine — can bring tears to the eyes faster than the sight of a lone diner. People who eat alone are today’s lepers. We know it’s not their fault, but there’s a tiny thread of superstition that holds us to the belief that they must have done something to deserve this.

This is stupid, and it must stop.

The truth is, many of us are unspeakably jealous of the person who has the luxury of a meal uninterrupted by conversation, sharing, and continual worry about whether or not there is some masticated hideousness sticking out of her teeth. Envy has laid the foundation for evils far greater than restaurant pity, but usually these are things like wars, massacres, and snide comments about a colleague’s thighs. Things, in short, from which it is relatively easy to distance ourselves. Pity, especially faux pity, provides no such shelter. Pity is not about sensitivity towards others, but a deep gratitude that we do not share their lot.

The holidays (I sweep broadly here to include Divali, Christmas, the New Year, and the onset of Carnival) in all their barbarity makes all of this even worse. This is when the pressure to prove ourselves as social beings is at its highest. Or worst. Po-ta-to, po-tah-to. Office parties, family dinners, outings with out-of-towners, shopping amidst the madding crowd, beach limes — it all ends in food. Food under pressure. Food for the masses. Food with the masses.

I’ve given it up entirely. Or, in the ancient wisdom that has come to me through years of whining (and through an old friend long subjected to the whining): the difference between heaven and hell is a point of view.

I no longer feel beholden to eat at large gatherings. Indeed, I’ve started eating before leaving the house, and feigning illness or anorexia at the event. It only sounds curmudgeonly at first; it is, in fact, simply more honest. I don’t like eating with lots of people. I especially don’t like eating with strangers. I have not even the smallest intention of eating with people I don’t like. With these three declarations in mind, it is a great miracle I ever eat with anyone at all, since I have an overarching fear of crowds and strangers and a natural aversion to people to whom I am averse.

People ought to be more open to their distaste for their fellow-man. It is nothing short of narrow-minded to do otherwise. Consider: a Christmas meal at which you are not forced to listen to yet another story about how well Cousin Clara — Aunty Myrtle’s step-daughter from her second marriage — is doing as a dental hygienist in the Hague. Consider: not participating in the horror of Secret Santa. When serving two hundred of your parents’ closest friends, consider pretending you’re ministering to the truly destitute in Bangladesh.

Eating alone is a pleasure I have longed for and feared. I feared the looks I’d seen directed at other solitary eaters. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “You, here, all alone.” Save it. I think the woman who decided to take her three kids and two of the neighbours to a pizza buffet deserves it more. I’ll have another piece of cake. I’m not paying for thirty pounds of partially eaten food, or nauseous at the sight of small people playing a game involving fries and noses.

But it’s not entirely fair (though often more convenient) to blame others. We, the lone diners, take some measure of the blame. We apologise for what we’re doing by disguising ourselves. I’ve considered doing it quite literally, with wigs and hats and such, but more usually the camouflage is achieved with books, laptops, mobile phones. “I’m not really eating alone, see, I’m working.”

The thing is, we’ve convinced ourselves — and we’ve let the rest of the world reinforce it — that it is a small, sad thing to eat alone. There it is. It’s not about never wanting any company of any kind, but we’ve accepted the conditioning that meals are meant to be, no, must, be shared, or the enjoyment is lessened. In this way, eating suffers the same way everything else has come to suffer. Not merely the demands of society, but the demand for society. With few exceptions, it’s no longer acceptable to do anything alone. Why shouldn’t we love to eat alone as much as we love to read in a silent, empty house? Or to go for long walks with no pretence of heading anywhere in particular?

One of the best meals I’ve ever had was at an absurdly fancy restaurant in New York. I couldn’t afford to take a friend and, frankly, had no friends who would have been willing to eat at such prices. I started with the usual apology. I had to do it as research. I took my orange notebook. I made reservations for lunch and not dinner — one is invariably so much more conspicuous at dinner.

And then I got there. I knew it the moment I sat down and let my bag slide onto the sofa beside me. “Just one?” he asked. “Just me,” I answered. I beamed at the waiter as he cleared the place setting opposite me. These were tables for two. A long sofa running the length of one wall and delicate-looking chairs on the other side of the table. I didn’t even have to pretend to surrender the comfy seat. I forgot the notebook.

I was served. I ate. I looked up only to admire the dark wood surfaces and the sleek, ready line of wait-staff brimming with efficiency. All this, all this was mine. And the fifty-something other diners’. But unlike the man lurking between the doorway and the dining room, I wasn’t holding a phone like a lifeline wondering why someone (real or imaginary?) was late. I was not smothered by loud-talking business-folk. I wasn’t schmoozing, canoodling, brokering, or bothering. I was eating. Languorously. Voluptuously. Alone. And I felt the peace that surpasseth all understanding.

But I did kind of understand. I was doing what I loved the most. And like most things we love doing the most, we most love doing them alone, uncompromised or diverted by others with lesser feelings on the matter.

It also helped that I knew Waitress Two would tell me in a discreet but friendly way if there was white chocolate on my chin.

MENUS FOR ONE

Breakfast

Tea. Get a whole pot, not just a cup. Cream and not milk, if possible.

Flaky croissants. Lots of butter. Don’t even look at the silver, you’re meant to glide your fingers over the glazed surface.

Sweet scones. Thick cream, butter, or jelly.
This shows the world how little you care for the hurried breakfast sandwich or the buffet omelette. Far better than today’s inspirational column, a breakfast like this affirms your love of self, however others may try to discourage it.

Lunch

Smoked salmon. Or marlin. Or snails. Alone, you abandon the concern about whether the marlin smells too fishy or the snails too garlicky. There are mints for that later.

Soup. Definitely have the soup. When I have soup in company, everyone finishes before me, and I am left feeling soup-challenged.

Something light. A soufflé, perhaps. A soufflé can stop the rush of the day dead in its tracks, because it takes time. It means you don’t mind waiting alone for something civilised amid the barbarians ordering the faster-pasta.

Dinner

Don’t you see what all this means by now? See the man ordering the bland chicken breast with no sauces because he’s afraid he’ll spill something on his shirt and his date will end in naught? That’s not you. Or the woman in inappropriately officey-looking clothes not having any wine at all because she’s with The Client and does not want to fall prey to a giggling fit (she knows how she gets with wine)? This is not you either. And the families and the birthday dinners and the bachelorette parties and the scenes of seduction? None, none of them is you. Order. Like no one else matters.

Tropic of wine

Adam Key Raney talks to some men who make wine, and develops a minor fascination with buckets

To speak of fine wine in the Caribbean usually brings to mind a good fete, or a memorable J’Ouvert morning. But these days, from Jamaica in the north to Trinidad in the south, wine bars are popping up throughout the islands. They import vintages from five continents, and offer a fine-wining experience rather than a folksy vibe.

But the Caribbean has its own wine history, and there’s no need to rely on flashy imports to get your fill. There are old winemakers who fill buckets (yes, buckets) with their homemade tropical concoctions and those who are building on tradition — combining fruit recipes with a scientific approach to wine (i.e., no buckets). Come Christmas season, just about anything that was edible in an earlier phase is fair game for winemaking. The predictable grape, the common American apple, the beloved five-finger or carambola, rice (but not to make sake), hibiscus (as in the flower), sugar cane, even bread. There is even rumour of a champagne-like brew made from corn.

John Clarke — a.k.a. De Wine Man — is a spindly stick-figure of a man. Clarke, 71, has been making wine for nearly twenty years. He gave up his shop in the suburbs of Port of Spain, but still makes wine from his hillside perch overlooking Maraval, north of the city. Clarke uses five-gallon buckets to mix his batches, and says he has made about sixty different types of wine. Passion fruit, star fruit, jamoon (a kind of berry favoured by bats), pineapple, and cashew. “Cashew wine, man, that is a wicked wine,” he says, sounding more like he’s describing the sensuous Caribbean dance than a wine made from the abandoned fruit of the popular nut. “So sweet!”

He believes the typical three-week fermentation time common in Trinidad is too short. “Twenty-one days, that ain’t enough time for wine. My wine needs at least three months, if not half a year, to settle into itself. Otherwise it tastes too bitter. You can’t rush it.”

Fellow winemaker John Kitson frowns on bucket-fermented vino, but agrees with Clarke’s protracted timetable. “You cannot produce good wine in 21 days,” he says. Kitson got interested in wine while at school in Canada, and learned enough to start experimenting when he got back home. Tropical wines, he thinks, have a rough-around-the-edges taste. “People make it in a bucket,” he says. “That’s all right, I just want to make it more scientifically.”

Kitson, who teaches social studies full time, started making wine out of his house, and opened a wine shop in Port of Spain three years ago. His operation is still a hobby more than a money-maker.

Dominique Afoon, a buyer and general manager at Trinidad’s upscale wine bar More Vino, likes a cherry wine her grandmother once made for Christmas, but says she doesn’t have much of a market for the local vintages. “We specialise in premium wines, and the local tropical wines don’t really meet that standard,” she says. Unlike Kitson, Afoon is not anti-bucket. “But,” she says, “if the bucket were an oak cask, that, of course, would be better.”

More Vino’s patrons may not care for it, but Kitson thinks there will always be a market for sweet tropical wines. “West Indian tastes in wine differ from Europeans. What they find acceptable, a West Indian might not find sweet enough.”

Kitson may have modernised his winemaking, but like Clarke he loves to come up with different fruit blends. “That’s where the art comes in,” he says. He’s recently come into eighty pounds of carambola. He’s got lots of room to experiment.

Bello gelato

Jamie Eliot tells the tale of a brief, chilly romance

Our story begins with a woman in search of the great love. Not just any great love, but the great love of ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but the finest, purest ice cream.

A woman of such desires will naturally think of Italy — for it is generally accepted by readers of fine paperback romances, even readers in far outposts in the Caribbean, that love and ice cream come from Italy.

Being of modest means, she cannot sojourn in Florence, wandering the streets, gaining weight and looking for perfect flavours. She settles for Tobago. Her mental abstraction is acute. She misses her flight, having somehow managed to enter the departure lounge at the airport in Trinidad without actually checking in. It is clear to the check-in staff that some manner of mental deficiency in the passenger is responsible. Might she be lost? Alzheimic? No, she says, merely hungry. They put her on the next flight.

The Ciao Café is tucked into a bend on Scarborough’s Burnett Street. Mirka d’Alessio, a dental technician from Rome, has come to the small, hot island with no other purpose than to make gelato. The element of destiny is there from the start. He found Tobago while absently flipping though a travel magazine, visited, settled, and began to churn. Fate — and a café in Trinidad that sells his gelato — led her to him.

But in seconds she is looking beyond him. The introduction, the preliminary questions are hurried past, and he whisks her into the kitchen. His laboratory, he calls it. It is cool and clean. There are two machines (one for pasteurising, one for churning), a chiller, shelves of Italian flavourings. He pours the milk base from its stainless steel vessel into the churning machine. It whirrs. All the while he speaks of his move to the Caribbean, of his move from the clinical world of making things to do with teeth to the gentle world of gelato-making. In her head, only the whirr in the metal churn. Whirr. Whirr. She waits. A sudden hollow thumping says it is ready. D’Alessio sets a pail under the churn and a slow stream, thick and cold, pours out.

A spoon is in her hand. The ice cream maker has added nothing. She will taste it in its purest form. It tastes and feels like the best, freshest whipped cream, but intensified. Or maybe densified. She knows she is blushing in the sight of it. The ice cream maker splashes the cream with caramel. She moans. And then he does it again.

The Bailey’s-flavoured gelato is Ciao’s bestseller, and what d’Alessio offers after the caramel. All the cream-based flavours are made this way. The ones involving alcoholic flavourings require some tinkering with the basic milk-sugar-water formula. The fruit ones are made only from fresh Tobagonian fruit, and contain no milk. The art and science is all in the churning and chilling. The same smoothness and richness of cream can be found in fruit if it’s treated right. Every day a new batch.

She does not move to Tobago. It turns out Caio’s gelato will soon be available in Trinidad at two locations: Les Jardins at the Falls at West Mall and Café del Mar at the Crews Inn complex in Chaguaramas.

Our story ends here. Or does not end here. Sated only for a moment, she must find a way to move beyond her fixation with the tiramisu gelato and on to other flavours.

Three questions about sorrel

Adam Key Raney asks the experts how to make Trinidad’s favourite Christmas beverage: sorrel

Sorrel: if you’re from the Caribbean, you know it well. You’ve probably made it your whole life with your family in the days before Christmas. But like any old friend you’re used to having around, it’s good to reevaluate your relationship from time to time. Since I’ve never made sorrel myself, I wanted to get the basics right. I went straight to the pros.

Adrian Gift, a long-time bartender at Martin’s in Port of Spain’s Newtown district, suggests an uncompromising approach to avoid a disaster with my first batch of sorrel.

Adrian: “I don’t like it when people don’t put cloves in it. If you forget the cloves, or for that matter the bay leaf, then it just isn’t sorrel. Also, don’t be lazy. Nobody wants to give sorrel the time it deserves these days. People just throw everything in it without cleaning it up. They forget to pick off the green part of the stem, and leave the seeds in too. That’s just laziness. They do it too fast. Also, dry your sorrel first. Stick to those basics and you’ll be fine.”

Paul Amar, owner of Pabloz Bar in St James, likes to put a little sin into his sacred sorrel.

Paul: “Sorrel makes a great glorified frozen daiquiri. Last year we mixed up shots of basic sorrel with Absolut Vanilla vodka. It was an improvisation, we really just grabbed what was at hand. At the time it was all the vodka we had, and it did the trick. People still ask for us to make one of those daiquiris for them whenever we have some sorrel lying around. Although we made it on the spot without much forethought, everyone agreed the bouquet of the sorrel was perfectly suited to the vanilla vodka. It made me realise how accidental a lot of drinks must be. I mean, someone had to have made up a rum and Coke one day.”

Port of Spain’s Hilton is an iconic Trinidad institution, whether it’s for your friend’s wedding or to cut an oil deal. At the bar, I put this potential plight to Joanne Roache: what do you do when you think you’re more popular than you are, and find yourself left with several litres of untouched sorrel after Christmas?

Joanne: “I tell people to make wine with their leftover sorrel. You can throw some yeast in it and maybe some brown sugar, and let it ferment. I’d tell you some other secret ingredients, but that wouldn’t be too smart. Angostura would never give the secret to their rum, so I’ll have to keep a little mystery for you. Also, if you have some extra fresh sorrel on hand, you can make sorrel soap and shampoo. Surround yourself with it and Christmas will last the year through.”