The World's Best Food
A queue is forming outside a mint-green wooden shack near The Boatyard in Bridgetown. It's Saturday morning and the locals have come to collect their take-aways from Mrs Simmonds, a renowned pudding-and-souse-maker. As she busies herself in the kitchen, I see the front room has been transformed into a makeshift barber's shop with her husband giving one of his neighbours a close shave.
Mrs Simmonds comes to the door with my portion of pudding and souse with breadfruit and I hand over B$2 (about 60p). I lean against the wall outside in the sunshine and open the polystyrene container. Beads of sweat pour onto my temples as I taste the hot-pepper punch of the pickle against the grainy sweet-potato pudding and tender pieces of pork souse. In the admiring words of the young boy next to me: "Her pudding 'n souse too sweet, it is".
After a month in Barbados, I have just discovered this national dish and one of the island's best-kept secrets. Tourist restaurants serve a wealth of red snapper, dolphin fish, marlin and shark, but little pork and no pudding and pork souse.
The only local speciality highlighted on most menus is flying fish. This exotic-sounding fish even appears on the Bajan (Barbadian) coat of arms. In reality, it no longer inhabits the waters around Barbados and is imported from Trinidad. Compared with the sweet and fiery flavour of other local dishes, flying fish is a tame token effort. Is pudding and souse too adventurous for the tourist palate? Or are restaurants pandering to diners' expectations that desert-island dining is all about fish?
Bajans eat fish, but they love chicken and pork - especially with rocket-fire seasonings using Scotch bonnet pepper, cloves and allspice. Bajan cuisine dates back to colonisation when food was designed to fuel the heavy manual labour of workers in the plantation fields. African and English influences combined with native Amerindian cooking to create filling and economic food. Dishes were made from the odds and ends of meat left over after the plantation owners had taken their pick of the better cuts of meat. The spicy seasonings originated from the need to preserve the meat. Pigtails, cow heels and chicken feet were served with rice, pasta or potatoes, as well as locally-grown starches such as sweet potatoes, chewy breadfruit and richly-flavoured eddoes.
One starchy dish with African origins is cou-cou, made from ground cornmeal, okras and water and stirred with a large cou-cou stick. The ability to "turn a mellow cou-cou" is symbolic of domestic bliss - or quite literally a women's ability in bed. Such culinary secrets have been passed down for centuries from mother to daughter and no self-respecting Bajan woman owns a cookbook.
Each day of the week is allocated a special dish. While fish and cou-cou are relegated to midweek, weekends are for roast chicken with peas (usually beans), rice and macaroni cheese or pork chops and crackling. Despite the competition, pudding and souse remains the favourite Saturday dish. For those too busy to make their own, most villages have a self-appointed pudding-and-souse specialist who cooks up a huge quantity to sell to neighbours on Fridays and Saturdays. One such guru, Yvonne, has agreed to show me how she makes it. Laden down with a pig's head and trotters bought from the local abattoir, I arrive at her wooden chattel house in a sleepy village near Six Roads. We sit on her terrace drinking mauby - a dark brown syrup drink made from tree bark - as Yvonne explains the basics.
The traditional preparation of pudding and souse is not for the faint-hearted. The sweet-potato pudding is darkened with pigs blood and stuffed into pigs intestine, while the souse is made from pigs head and trotters. Nowadays, a tamer preparation is preferred with the pudding made in a bowl and darkened with food colouring. Although pigs head and trotters are still often used, some households use pork chops as a tasty alternative, which may be more appealing for the squeamish European palate.
As we cook, several friends arrive in a white minibus, curious to meet the pale, blond journalist. The sun is falling and the whistling frogs are starting up. We crouch on the terrace steps with glasses of rum, looking out over the fields beyond the hut and waiting for the pudding to finish cooking and cool. An hour later, it's ready and we tuck in. The flavoursome trio of the pork, the sweet potato pudding and the breadfruit mingle with the pickle that prickles and soothes at the same time. Bajan author Austin Clarke's words spring to mind: "Gimme Saturdays seven days of the week! Saturday [is] the day for making black pudding and souse, the best food in the world."
Some of the Best Desert-Island Dining in Barbados:
For the Cognoscenti
In the quiet backwater of Little Good Harbour is Fish Pot (tel: +1 246-439-3000, www.littlegoodharbourbarbados.com). This 17th-century fort has been converted into an informal watering hole for locals and tourists in the know. Sunday lunch is the best time to go with the reasonable menu offering fish in every form. There is little to compare with sharing the enormous seafood platter between two with some wine on the wooden deck at the water's edge. Meanwhile, the watchful eye of the manager ensures sharp service and large portions.
For the Gourmet
Chef Paul Owens at The Cliff (tel: +1 246-432-1922, www.thecliffbarbados.com) is Barbados's answer to Gordon Ramsay - combining imagination with the freshest fish and most succulent cuts of meat. Several terraces of candlelit tables curve around the cliff. Steep steps reach down to a tiny cove to accommodate guests arriving by yacht. The downside of dining in paradise is the arrogance of some staff. That said, no right-minded gourmet would visit Barbados without dining at this west coast restaurant.
For Glitterati Seekers
Bajan Blue is part of Sandy Lane (tel: +1 246-444-2000, www.sandylane.com) the west coast hotel where dining is an excuse to be pampered and to spy on the super-rich. Impeccable service accompanies a menu with little local flavour. Instead, try the Tuesday-night BBQ with its delicious Trinidadian flour pancakes, spicy prawns and roast pig.
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