As I trudge through knee-high snow, icicles frozen to my nostrils, ax in hand to chop down a Christmas tree I will never cut in the end anyway as I don’t think a tree should die for one little day of commercial pleasure; I contemplate my upcoming dinner here in Canada and preparations for the holiday, smiling in my soul as I remember the much loved traditional Christmas’ in Barbados, a place where they still say Merry Christmas unlike our politically correct happy holidays!
Typically Bajans don’t prepare for Christmas at the end of October or early November like we do. I suppose we jump the gun to help cope with the dreary weather, lack of vitamin D and being relatively house-bound. Although Christmas in Barbados is not like it used to be due to the need to cater to tourists who wish to spend the season there, one can still find tradition among the commercialism if they choose to spend it with the locals rather than in a hotel, especially in regards to dinner.
Before Christmas lights and spruce trees were imported to this tiny West Indian island, it was all about the curtains and the new outfit locals would wear to Mass and the social public gatherings thereafter. While we sometimes change our curtains for seasons, they change theirs for Christmas. Layer upon layer of ornately designed colorful drapery lavishly dress the windows from floor to ceiling. It is a ritualistic process they undertake with swelling pride as each window is completed and showcased. “It was all we could do in the old days to show our respect for, and celebrate the birth, of our Christ – because that is what Christ Mass is to us Bajans,” my 80 year old friend Coral explained. ‘Now though, we also paint the houses, change cushion covers, buy a new piece of furniture and hang lights!”
While we drink rum and eggnog, the Christmas drink of choice in Barbados is Sorrel. There is a substantial difference in choosing an alcoholic drink off a store shelf and hand making ones own that is packed with vitamin C and numerous other health benefits.
Sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is picked in November and December. Unusual, thick, almost fruit-like calyxes whose color screams Christmas, has a lemony flavor that is amazing both as a fresh bloom eaten plain off the plant or with a smattering of salt and as a drink it’s flavor is unrivaled! The entire plant is edible. Traditionally it has also been used as a folk remedy, a pharmaceutical and a coloring agent.
I experienced the harvest with my friend Fred. We plucked each bloom with love and wonder, left some for the lizards, birds and insects and ate a few raw to honor that which God created. My nerves were tweaking with anticipation as I flagged down a ZR and carried my bounty home to be re-purposed into an easily-made, refreshing drink, by steeping the sepals in boiled water for a few hours, adding sugar, clove and a bit of salt. Of course now many people add rum or bitters…
Sorrel quenched my thirst as we began preparations for dinner. It was time for my hosts, two ladies named Carmen and Coral to teach me a thing or two, via my taste-buds, about the meaning of Christmas in Barbados and how it used to be.
“If ya don’t have new curtains, jug-jug, black cake, pepper pot and sorrel, ya don’t have Christmas, hear!” Coral sang in her Bajan sing-song tone. I heard, and I was about to taste! These recipes have now become a staple for me back here in Canada, but rather than eat them at Christmas, they are my pre-holiday, escapism food to get me through the cold long nights of the Canadian winter!
You don’t need rum in your Sorrel if you eat the customary Bajan Black Cake. Check out the recipe below and you will see why!
image borrowed from http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2007/12/18/dining/1219-CAKE_index.html
Bajan Black Cake
- 5 lbs mixed dried fruits (raisins,currants, prunes, cherries)
- ¼lb chopped nuts
- ½ lb mixed citrus peel
- 1½ to 2 lbs brown sugar
- 2 tbsp mixed spice (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg)
- 10 eggs
- 1 cup rum
- 12 ozs flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 lb margarine
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 cup port wine
- 1 tbsp vanilla essence
- 1 tbsp almond essence
- 1 cup water
- ¼ lb pineapple jam
- Mince the fruit and soak in 1 cup of rum with spices, essences, nuts, jam and ¼ lb sugar. If you don’t like big fruit pieces you can chop them more in a food processor or blender.
Mix ingredients well and put in a jar, cover and allow mixture to steep for 3 weeks or more – even months!
When ready to bake, cook fruit over a low heat with 1 cup of water for 15 minutes
Cream the butter/margarine and remaining sugar well and add eggs beating in one at a time, add to the fruit.
Stir in enough browning to make the mixture dark brown in color. Add the flour and baking powder last.
Place mixture into baking pans -greased and lined with 2 sheets of waxed paper. Fill the pans ¾ full.
Bake in a 300 degree oven for 2½ to 3 hours. Test with skewer before removing from oven.
As soon as cakes are removed from oven, prick all over with skewer and pour slowly over them a mixture of rum and wine which the cakes will absorb. My friends continue to pour even more alcohol over time until no more will absorb!
Allow to remain in baking pans for 2 to 3 days to fully absorb liquor before serving.
What’s Jug- Jug you ask? It’s a pate-ish, cake-like savory made out of salt beef, pidgeon peas, pork or chicken!
- 8 cups green peas
- 1 cup corn flour
- 1/2 lb salt beef or any other salted meat.
- 1/4 lb fresh pork or chicken.
- 2 tablespoon margarine
- 2 medium sized onions (chopped)
- 4-5 cups water
- 1 bunch mixed herbs ( thyme,marjoram finely chopped)
- Salt and Pepper to taste.
- Boil salt beef, pork or chicken in water; add the peas and herbs. Cook the mixture until peas are soft.Strain off, saving the stock. Mince the meat, peas and seasoning.
Cook the corn flour in the stock for about 10 minutes-stirring constantly.
Add minced ingredients, stir and cook for about half hour until it reaches a fairly stiff consistency. Cover and allow to steam for 5 minutes.
Before removing from the heat, stir in some of the margarine, then turn mixture out on a dish-spreading it smoothly with the rest of the margarine.
Serve Jug-Jug hot.
- Can also be spread on crackers or bread like a pate.
The following recipe and the image above are from http://www.justfoodnow.com/2009/06/04/a-taste-of-the-caribbean/
Please check out the blog for some other amazing recipes!
- 250 g dried pigeon peas – in those countries where they can’t be found use ordinary dried peas that you use for soup or lentils
- 500 g braising beef, cut into bite sized pieces
- 1 x 500 g smoked ham hock, sliced in half crosswise (optional, my variation)
- 2 liters water
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 large onion, diced finely
- 4 spring onions, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
- 1 fresh hot chili pepper (Scotch bonnet) finely chopped
- 1 tsp allspice berries
- 1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 500 g tin peeled tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped
- 100 ml tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 medium aubergine (egg plant), cubed into bite size pieces
- 250 g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 500 g fresh spinach, well cleaned and coarsely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- Cook the pulses by standing overnight in boiled water, rinsing and then draining them.
- Return to a large pot of water and boil for an hour, drain and rinse again & if you’re going to use a tin, drain and rinse.
- Bring the beef and the ham hock to the boil in plenty of water and over high heat.
- Once boiling, turn the heat down and simmer until the meat is soft – it shouldn’t take more than an 1 – 1,5 hours, then drain the meat and reserve the meat and the cooking liquid.
- Remove the meat from the ham hock and chop it coarsely, discarding any bones.
- Preferably use a 5 liter pot and heat the oil over medium heat, adding the onions, spring onions, garlic, and chili.
- Stir fry until the onion has become translucent & then add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chives and thyme and bring to a brisk simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the aubergine (eggplant) and all the vegetables except the spinach & cook until the vegetables are tender.
- Add the cooked pigeon peas and the spinach right at the end and cook until the spinach has just wilted.
- Check and correct your seasoning but make sure that you taste first because it is possible that you may not need pepper.
By now I am sitting in the snow, have decided not to cut a tree and trudge back home to pull out the artificial….wondering if I should just eat the fruit soaking in rum to warm up! Or save it for the Old Years Night Celebration! Bajans’ don’t celebrate the new year because they haven’t lived it yet, they celebrate the one past and I really like that ideology! I think I will have a bath to warm up!
Thanks for following my blog. I like your blog so far. I’m from Ghana and how we celebrate Christmas is very similar. thanks for sharing.
Thank you back! I absolutely love your work! The only thing that tugs on my heart-strings when I re-read this story, is I can`t get fresh sorrel straight from a tree in Canada ;(
As someone who is trying to recreate what my Grandma made at Christmas I appreciate your passion and prose in remembrance of a time when everything seemed like magic to me . Thank you.
You are so very welcome Deborah, I’m so glad you came across my page and found it worthy of helping you re-create something so special! I feel your love and passion and wish you the best dinner ever! Merry early Christmas – and feel free to send me a piece of your Black Cake! LOL
As a Barbadian, I am proud and glad that you were able to sample some of the delicacies that make Christmas here so truly wonderful.
Merry Christmas Andre!
I love Bajan Christmas’, the Candlelight vigil at Ilara Court, hand picking the sorrel and nipping rum soaked fruit before it ever makes it to the black cake. But what I love most is the sense of family and sharing in the preparation process! There is nothing better than being in BIM for Christmas, sharing stories and love and hand-making all the food, OH Indulging on PONE!! My very favorite – I’m a cassava freak and must have devised a 101 ways to prepare it –
We eat sorel leaves when hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Same lemony taste but much smaller plant, I imagine, in the alpine
The littel grass like sheep sorrel? Yes I eat that as well and LOVE it! Rumex acetosella is a species of sorrel, bearing the common names sheep’s sorrel, red sorrel, sour weed, and field sorrel. The plant and its subspecies are common perennial weeds.
The latin name for the bush sorrel in Barbados is Hibiscus sabdariffa – though they both taste similar – you won’t get that fabulous deep red refreshing drink from sheep sorrel – BOTH have amazing health benefits!
Glad to meet another sorrel lover!