Page 1 of 4
Story and Photos by Dave DeWitt
Recipes on Page 4:
The Prime Minister’s Hot Sauce
Enid Worrell’s Corned Bonney Peppers
Creole Pumpkin Soup
Roasted Pork with Bajan Seasoning
Fried Flying Fish
Bajan Cabbage and Bacon Salad
Bajan Rum Punch
<< Sandy Beach Resort
"One bellyful don’ fatten de hog," goes a proverb in Barbados, meaning that it takes bit of an effort to achieve anything worthwhile. That saying applies to finding true Bajan food if you’re staying at a resort or beach hotel, because they serve mostly American-style fare. So, to experience the wide range of fiery island delights, we had to desert the beach and meet the cooks, chefs, and saucemakers of Barbados.
Ground Provisions and Bonney Peppers
Our main guide to the culinary delights of this 122-square mile island was Anne-Marie Whittaker, an energetic go-getter who markets food products under her brand, Native Treasures. With her help and the assistance of the Barbados Tourism Authority and driver Emerson Clarke, we were able to conduct our whirlwind culinary exploration with maximum efficiency.
We began with a visit to Cheapside Market, a hundred-year-old metal building that housed vendors both inside and outside. This market is a trip into the past, especially in Barbados with its fancy supermarkets. According to Anne Marie, most of the locals were "too big-up to go to market," too full of their own self-importance to be seen buying "ground provisions" such as yams and sweet potatoes and the vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, christophene (chayote), and eggplants. This was no tourist market--Mary Jane and I had the only white faces and the closest thing to souvenirs were the bright red bonney peppers that appeared in nearly all the vendors’ stalls.
Bonney Peppers on the Bush
The bonney pepper, a member of the same species as habaneros and Scotch bonnets, Capsicum chinense, closely resembles the Congo pepper from nearby Trinidad. Fragrant and powerful, the Bonney has a long and celebrated culinary history in Barbados. Richard Lignon, in his History of the Barbadoes (1647), described the two varieties of peppers he found on the island: "The one so like a child’s corall, as not to be discerned at the distance of two paces, a crimson and scarlett mixt; the fruit about three inches long and shines more than the best pollisht corall. The other, of the same colour and glistening as much but shaped like a large button of a cloak; both of one and the same quality; both violently strong and growing on a little shrub not bigger than a gooseberry bush."
Anne-Marie was shopping for a picnic and she needed more than bonney peppers. We stopped by the stall of the one vendor who had seasoning peppers. Anne-Marie bought every one she had and ordered more, explaining that the vendor had carried the seasoning pepper seeds from St. Lucia and grew them in Barbados. The pods were identical to Trinidad seasoning peppers and Anne Marie planned to use them in a seasoning paste for roasted pork.
At the stand of one grizzled old man, I spotted a jar of small, thin peppers.
"Bird peppers?" I asked the vendor.
"Nigger peppers," insisted the vendor, who was a black man.
"Not a very polite term," I observed. The man just shrugged.
"They’re bird peppers in Trinidad but nigger peppers here," explained Anne Marie. "Nobody thinks anything about the word." Indeed. Later, I asked our driver Emerson, and he just laughed. "Nigger peppers is what they are." I decided to drop the subject.
Inside the market were the meat vendors offering beef, pork, and what I took to be goat but was really black belly sheep, a common island farm animal and apparently a sheep that’s adapted to ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity. At Nora’s stand, we ate the traditional Saturday souse, which is pickled pork parts with cucumbers, bonney peppers, and other vegetables. I use the term "parts" because the cuts of pork used are generally the less desirable--the feet, facial meat, and other trimmings. Except for being overly fatty, the souse was delicious.
Does it sound strange that even in a tropical paradise I’d rather visit a museum than lie around on a beach? It’s either curiosity or nosiness, but I want to learn all I can about the country and the people I’m visiting. The Barbados Museum, conveniently located near Queen’s Park, was the perfect place to start. Its modern, interpretive displays tell the story of the island from an emerging coral reef to settlement by Amerindians to the arrival of the British and the birth of the sugar cane industry. Special exhibits describe the natural history and prehistory of this easternmost island of the West Indies, complete with early artifacts. A map room of the Caribbean and gallery of early colonial art are equally fascinating. Fortunately, the gift shop has reproductions some of the maps and prints.
Another place to catch up on island history is the Mount Gay Rum Visitors Centre on the Spring Garden Highway. Nobody seems to know precisely when Mount Gay started producing rum, but the date of 1703 was given most often, with 1663 also appearing in the company’s brochure. At any rate, the scholarly work Rum Yesterday and Today confirms that Mount Gay was the first rum made anywhere in the world.
Sampling Mount Gay Rum
In a theatre designed to resemble one of 1,200 sidewalk rum shops in Barbados, a twelve-minute multimedia presentation on the history of sugar cane and rum making on the island tells of early beginnings of rum production in St. Lucy Parish, using very pure water that has filtered through limestone. Sugar cane and rum made Barbados the pride of the British colonies. Even today, sugar cane is the second largest industry, after tourism.
The film is followed by displays of antique equipment used in the early distillation of rum; a tour of thousands of barrels of rum ageing for up to twelve years; a viewing area of the blending and bottling processes, a tour of the cooperage where the barrels are assembled, and finally a stop at the bar in the gift shop for a tasting of the finest Mount Gay aged rum.
Since many of the processes in rum-making are similar to those in making hot sauce, I suddenly flashed back to the special tour of the Avery Island Tabasco® plant arranged for me by Paul McIlhenny. It was uncanny: in both places, there was fermentation, storage in oak barrels from Kentucky, blending, and bottling. Of course, instead of hot sauce, the fermentation and distillation at Mt. Gay produces intensely flavored rum with overtones of sweet vanilla, bitter almond, and charred oak.
My favorite story of the Mt. Gay rum operation is that of Aubrey Ward, who bought the operation in the early 1900s. His hobby was fathering children by his women workers, somewhere between sixty and a hundred kids. Blame it on the availability of rumbullion, the first term for rum. The women were elevated to the lofty position of "child mother" and each was given a brick house to live in. No wonder there are plenty of Wards in Barbados today.