Eat something before you go

Franka Philip has a new home, and Boxing Day dinner will be her first bash there. In true Caribbean fashion she’s planning a feast for the occasion

Heaps of deep red sorrel piled high in the car trunks of a roadside vendor in Trinidad. Photograph by Robert Taylor

There’s nothing to concentrate the mind on the festive season like having to think about a menu for Boxing Day dinner for your closest friends. What will be truly special about this Christmas for me is that it’s the first I’ll be celebrating in my new home, so it’s a great chance to push the boat out and have an amazing bash.

Looking at my hugely ambitious menu, I already know that military-precise planning will be needed—or I’ll end up too stressed-out to enjoy the meal myself. This is the kind of meal that has to be cooked in parts, with a lot of preparation taking place as much as two weeks before Christmas. I want to have the pleasure of just shoving dishes in the oven on Boxing Day morning, sipping rum on the rocks and moving effortlessly through the day. But that probably won’t happen, and I’m most likely to be still hustling when the first guests arrive.

The inspiration (or blame, depending on how it turns out) for this sumptuous feast is calypsonian Scrunter, who paints such beautiful and evocative images of a Trinidadian Christmas in his parang soca tunes. When Scrunter sings his paeans to Christmas food, he’s not singing from his imagination, because he is a true food lover. I’ve had the pleasure of attending his famous Wild Meat Party in the hills of east Trinidad, and describing the spread as lavish is actually an understatement.

One of my favourite tunes by Scrunter is Eat Something Before You Go, which sums up typical Trini hospitality. During the Christmas season, you can’t pay even the briefest of visits to someone’s home without being offered at least a small plate of food, and to refuse would be an insult.

In the tune, Susan tells Scrunter: “Ah have roast pork, curry chicken, dhal, crab and dumpling, pie, pastelle, paime—Eat something before you go.” She then advises that he cannot drink alcohol on an empty stomach and offers even more: “Ah have black cake, turkey, wild meat, lappe and gouti, grapes, apple—Boy, eat something before you go.”

So like Susan, I intend to lay on a spread that would make Scrunter proud. I’m cooking a Caribbean-inspired dinner that also incorporates other culinary influences.

The most challenging part of this meal is going to be the main course, and since I’m pushing my own boundaries, it would be far too easy to stick with regular turkey and ham. I’m not really a big fan of turkey, so instead I have my heart set on making a multi-bird roast: three birds stuffed into one and roasted to glorious perfection. This kind of roast goes back to medieval times, and is said to have been the centrepiece of the Christmas meal for affluent families long before turkey became the main festive bird.
My roast, which I’ll begin preparing early on Christmas Eve, will comprise chicken, duck and pheasant. To make the roast, the birds are all boned, trimmed and placed on each other, with a layer of stuffing between each bird and the next.

I’ve seen this demonstrated on television and I was amazed (and frankly quite appalled) at how little seasoning the chefs used for the birds. That won’t do for us Caribbean folks, so the first step will be to make a green-seasoning marinade for the birds with herbs like chadon beni (or coriander), parsley, garlic, ginger, chives and thyme.

To prepare the birds, I’ll bone a large chicken (or a capon), but keep the legs on to maintain the shape. With the duck and pheasant, it’ll be mainly the breast and boned thigh meat that will be used. The birds will then be generously covered in that delicious seasoning and left to marinade for at least six to eight hours.

Most of the recipes for a multi-bird roast call for sage and onion as the main seasoning for the sausage-meat stuffing, since sage and pork are great together, but to keep it Caribbean, I’ll use jerk seasoning. I’d love to say that I’ll make jerk seasoning from scratch for the stuffing—but why reinvent the wheel? There are many very good jerk seasoning blends on the market.

The really tough bit will be putting it all together, but I’m sure that the huge needle, industrial-strength thread and the stitching skills that I learned in Mrs Alcala’s home economics classes all those years ago will guarantee a well shaped roast, with no stuffing seeping out.

My Caribbean-style multi-bird roast will sit proudly on the table next to a roast leg of deer, baked fish, geera pork, stewed pigeon peas, scalloped potatoes, soya pastelles (you’ve got to have something for the one vegetarian), buttered vegetables, and wild rice salad.

Oh, there’s also an appetiser of Thai-style mussels with roast coconut bake, and dessert of black cake, German stollen cake (with some Grenadian nutmeg syrup in the mix), and ice cream.

A Boxing Day meal in a Caribbean house wouldn’t be complete without traditional Christmas drinks like sorrel. Sorrel is a species of hibiscus also known as the roselle; it’s easily identifiable by its deep red petals, which hug a tough green seed.

Heaps of deep red sorrel piled high in the markets and in the car trunks of roadside vendors in Trinidad are a sure sign that Christmas is just around the corner.

Unfortunately, there’s no such visual pleasure in the UK, and we have to rely on the small (and not inexpensive) packs of dried sorrel from West Indian shops.

If I were spending Christmas in Trinidad, I’d be begging my cousin Sandra for a few bottles of homemade wine. She’s just like Scrunter’s Miss Gloria, who in his song Homemade Wine boasts of having practically every kind of wine in her cupboard: hog plum, cashew and guava, banana, five finger, balata and cane.

Winemaking is a fascinating thing that I’d love to try. So who knows, next year my friends might be drinking Franka’s Homemade Wine at Christmas time.