Total local | Cookup

Christmas means feasting, and traditionally many of the Caribbean’s seasonal delicacies — from roast turkey to black cake — use imported ingredients. But could you create a Christmas lunch or dinner using only locally grown food? Franka Philip takes up the challenge

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

If you ask anyone in Trinidad and Tobago about Christmas lunch, you’ll hear about ham, turkey, pastelles, sorrel, ginger beer, and black cake. Even in the diaspora, people excitedly seek out the ingredients to add that Trini twist to their Christmas meal. When I lived in London, I used to go to the West Indian shops in Shepherd’s Bush and Harlesden to find dried sorrel to make the drink. I even remember asking someone to bring a pack of Promasa cornmeal from Trinidad so I could make pastelles, as if there weren’t enough varieties of cornmeal in British supermarkets.

Shopping for Christmas dinner in T&T seems pretty straightforward: go to the supermarket and pick up a ham, a turkey (most likely a Butterball from the US), ingredients for stuffing, potatoes for roasting or the ubiquitous scalloped potatoes, cranberries for sauce, raisins, currants, and Maraschino cherries for black cake, and of course Venezuelan Promasa cornmeal for pastelles — almost all imported ingredients.

Admittedly, it’s not the time of year when most people think about making their shopping as local as possible — so when I was asked to contemplate a total-local Christmas meal, it took a fair bit of thought. I went back to the 1980s, when T&T was going through a recession and foreign exchange was scarce, not unlike now. The difference was the dreaded Negative List, a list of banned goods that included “Christmas” fruit like grapes, apples, and pears, and a whole set of items that are commonly found on our shelves today. In the absence of preserved fruits and mixed peel in cakes, people substituted sugared green papaya or sugared christophene. A lot of it was awful, and nobody was fooled.

Today, however, more people are going local because they’re aware of the need to bring down our monthly national food import bill, which stands at around TT$542 million. And, unlike in the 1980s, our farmers and artisans are today offering a wider variety of excellent products.

I’ve heard about some adventurous foodies who are going all out to have totally local Christmas meals this year, and I was intrigued. Would it be difficult to find local alternatives for some key ingredients? I thought of what I’d usually prepare and, by a process of elimination, identified the foreign stuff that could be swapped for local ingedients.

 

To get some tips, I talk with Gaytree Maharaj, a food blogger and activist, who runs the annual Eat Local challenge. She feels it isn’t difficult to prepare a totally local Christmas meal, especially if it’s a vegetarian meal. “Most of the ingredients can be bought at farmers’ markets,” she says. And it’s true, because more farmers are growing items like kale, arugula, and a range of salad greens that were once only imported.

“Most substitutes are available, making it easier to use them in traditional Christmas dishes,” Maharaj adds. “However, in some cases where substitutes are not readily available, we are forced to let our creativity shine and craft new dishes using what is available.” One of the ingredients she points out is wheat flour. Even our “local” flour is made from imported wheat. So what do we do about pasta dishes, bread, and cake?

“In these cases, it is necessary to improvise with root-based breads like sweet potato bread and provision pies,” Maharaj suggests. There is indeed a small but growing segment of the market for wheat flour substitutes and gluten-free options. Moylan Lovell of Moy’s Gluten Free Kitchen has been using flour made from plantains, sweet potato, and cassava in products like tasty vegan waffles. Fitness guru Jody White of Slimdown 360 is also producing a new range that includes sweet potato and cassava pasta as well as instant ground provision mashes. These goods are a little more expensive than their traditional counterparts, as you’d expect, but as it’s Christmas, we’ll push the boat out a bit.

My Christmas lunch is definitely not going to be vegetarian, so meat must figure quite prominently. In the past, I’ve done spectacular meat centrepieces like a multi-bird roast, but that was in the UK, where I could find birds like pheasant, grouse, and pigeon quite easily.

I asked Chef Jason Huggins how he would use local meats in a Christmas dinner. “If we look at our traditional meats, the ham is no problem, because we produce good hams locally,” he says. “The challenge is the turkey, because the most common turkey is the American turkey.

“You tend not to find local turkeys easily, so I would say you’d have to change to either chicken or duck,” Huggins explains. “Now, our local ducks are not bred for roasting, so the duck dish would have to be a braise.”

My other meat would be a stuffed roasted shoulder of pork, and that is not a problem, as our local pork is of a very high quality.

Huggins, who is known for his jams, chutneys, and sauces, said having to think of a totally local Christmas meal prompted an idea for a new accompaniment for his meats. “Most times we use cranberry sauce, and my cranberry and apple sauce is a big seller, but I was thinking a pommecythere chutney would go down well.”

Pommecythere — known as golden apple or June plum in other parts of the Caribbean — is a small fruit with a prickly seed and the texture of a firm apple. It maintains some of that texture even after cooking. “When you cook that down with some sugar, citrus, and spices, it will be real nice,” Huggins says. “Mango is also an option, but that’s so run-of-the-mill, and you want an added something special for Christmas.”

While Huggins doesn’t think it’s hard to produce a totally local Christmas meal, he admits it takes a little more research to choose some ingredients. “You will find some excellent local products like our chocolate,” he says. “I think Cocobel chocolate, for example, is great, and I use it a lot.”

Huggins is right: our locally manufactured chocolate is excellent. I think, for a different twist on a Christmas cake, a flourless chocolate rum cake using local dark chocolate and Angostura rum is a great idea. Another treat that includes local ingredients is a sorrel cake. Gaytree Maharaj rates this dessert quite highly. “Sorrel cake is becoming increasingly famous,” she says. “In this local version of fruit cake, sorrel pulp and local dried fruit can take centre stage.”

 

While a totally local Christmas meal is an admirable quest, I wonder about some basic items we take for granted — like sugar. Since T&T’s sugar industry was shut down in 2003, we’ve been importing sugar — so how is that going to work? In some cases, honey might serve, but I would say look for Guyanese sugar — at least it’s from Caricom.

I’m definitely going to aim for as many local products as possible in my 2017 Christmas menu. But before heading out to shop, I’ll take some advice from Gaytree Maharaj.

“First, go through your recipes and substitute what you can — some research and creativity is required to completely substitute all ingredients,” she says. “Visit the farmers’ markets to procure your ingredients — this way you are sure all their produce and products are one hundred per cent local. Seek out local producers and create relationships and network with the people who feed us.”

It’s great advice, and not only for Christmas time — but for us to take on board all through the year.

 

Flourless Chocolate Rum Cake with Chocolate Rum Glaze

Yields one eight-inch cake

6 ounces (1 cup) dark or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

½ cup butter, cubed

½ cup sugar

4 large eggs

1½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup cocoa powder

1/3 cup dark or light rum

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease an eight-inch baking pan and set aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt together chocolate and butter, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat, transfer to a mixing bowl, and mix in the sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing until smooth between each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and rum until well mixed.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out relatively clean, with a few crumbs. Do not over-bake or the cake will become dry. Allow cake to cool in pan for five minutes before inverting onto a serving plate.

For the glaze:

4 ounces (2/3 cup) dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon rum

In a small saucepan, melt together chocolate and butter, mixing until smooth. Stir in the rum. Spread evenly over cooled cake.

This recipe comes from the Pastry Affair blog, pastryaffair.com