This is no mean adventure. When I say we’re getting into the blood and guts of things, I’m not speaking metaphorically. This is extreme cooking. This is sausage-making.
Early in the exercise, I see subtle signs that my testosterone level is on the rise. It’s not the lustful expectation of getting my hands into viscera, nor the primal meat-flame urge — these feelings are quite familiar, one might even say they characterise me. No, it’s going out and finding very complicated books about the process of meat-curing, pitting my puny brain against directions that look as likely to produce a space ship as a ham, and deciding that after all I can do it without instructions; that’s what really put me in touch with my masculine side. Instinct is all I need. That thing we had when we lived in caves and chased large beasts over cliffs to feed our families. The thing that stopped us from eating the plants that would kill us and made us kill the things that might eat us. Instinct will prevail. And so to the Internet I go.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of recipes, some of them embarrassingly simple. “Sausage”, it seems, is a very broad category. Basically, anything that can be squeezed into a cylindrical form can be called a sausage. Some don’t even require casings (making ridiculous the old simile “stuffed like a sausage”). So many recipes, they seem to say, “Hey, any idiot can make a sausage!” Well, I can be that idiot!
I will make lamb sausages, since I want my family to share in the proposed delight, and God and health have conspired to otherwise limit their sausage intake to some hateful turkey varieties.
My father, procurer of all animal parts unmentionable, expounds on the merits of different portions of the sheep’s digestive tract before handing over the beginnings of my experiment: about two feet of a small intestine and eight inches of a rather baggy large intestine. Here I feel a slight but perceptible drop in the cave-man factor.
Common decency forbids any description of the smell. The texture, however, can fairly be described as oyster-like. Fresh, just-out-of-the-shell oyster. In fact, the very feature of the oyster that makes it difficult to hold on to. It is no surprise, then, that the preparation of the intestine-that-would-be-a-sausage-casing is charmingly called “sliming”.
The intestines are soaked overnight in salted water. The next day I plunge in ungloved, grasping an end with one hand and slicking off the . . . er . . . oyster-like stickiness with the other. Really, it could be much worse. I could be trapped in a dentist’s office being menaced by clowns. O God, I have to turn them inside out and do this all over again. Send in the clowns?
After a successful sliming, I resign the clean innards to the fridge, and prepare for phase two. This is where we get ready to mix things up; again, I do not speak metaphorically. There’re no absolute rules about proportions, at least none that I’m in a position to acknowledge, since the hard books were too hard and the easy websites were dangerously laissez faire. Seasonings also seem entirely at the discretion of the maker. Here, at phase two, meat, blood, fat, and seasonings are ground and mixed. And, as if that were not joy itself, the family’s appliance graveyard yields an unexpected treasure: a professional-type meat grinder.
It’s big and heavy and clunky. Many steel parts, dulled to a greyish-charcoal softness, must be fitted together. It does not chop or shake or mix cute cocktails. It has no other purpose in the world than to reduce flesh to pulp. This is no ordinary kitchen appliance. This industrial mincing machine has the soul of a power tool. I feel like I should have special safety goggles or a licence to operate it. But, of course, cave-person that I am, I would forego those trinkets of civilisation anyway. The animal bits are ground to the soundtrack of cavernous, metallic crushing.
Apart from the great jerk sausage of Boston Bay, Jamaica, the West Indies is not a sausage haven. But I decide to season with a blend of very Caribbean spices that will bring patriotic flavour to one of my favourite meat preparations. Stuffing is perhaps the easiest and most readily satisfying part of the job. Many food processors come with sausage-stuffing attachments. Not so mine. This exercise in primitive existence is perhaps, out of necessity, getting a bit out of hand. I am forced to improvise with a fluting bag. What is gratifying is that, once the minced mixture is pumped into the ready and waiting intestine, the thing immediately looks like something you recognise as a sausage. I tie the ends with white string, which makes it look like all the ones I’ve seen in books and delis.
And now the trick we’ve all been waiting for: smoking. No one I know has any wisdom to convey on the matter.
(Exception — actual conversation:
Me: What do you know about smoking?
Sister: It’s bad for you.
Me: I mean animals.
Sister: It’s bad for them too.)
Now, smoking is not essential. At this stage, the sausage can be grilled or fried as is. Depending on the recipe and your comfort level with complex chemical equations, you can brine or cure in a number of ways. To use it in its raw condition would be too easy; feels like a cop-out (not unlike the skinless sausage). I consider my options. Tea-smoking looks relatively easy, but still sounds intrepid.
I manage to rig up a stove-top smoker: aluminium roasting pan, grill, foil. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a ready stash of good tea leaves. Cutting open 50 tea bags (suspiciously labelled “quality selected”, but more likely randomly selected) is less fun than it sounds. Three minutes after the fire is lit under it, the cats take flight. I open all the windows. When the smoke thins, the cats return and sit around the stove, looking sad (I have seen that look before: nothing good or edible can come of this).
Three days later the apartment still smells like a burned forest. Still, the flavour is acceptable: garlicky with pimento highlights. The skin is perhaps too smoky, but attractive in colour. It is far from perfect, but, as with all developmental work, it’s the process that counts. I have survived, at various points, death by tea fumes and ickiness. I have lived to try again.
RECIPE: Lamb sausages
2 lbs lamb
1 cup lamb blood
handful of lamb fat
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 onion and a bit
2 tablespoons ground fresh green seasoning (chive, thyme, celery)
2 teaspoons pimento seeds
1 tablespoon chadon beni
5 or 6 bay leaves
For the casing:
a couple feet of intestines (sheep’s, lamb’s, whatever’s available. The narrower bits are better, produce prettier, more obviously sausagey sausages) salt
Wash the intestines with vinegar. Several times, or until you think you’ve done all you can do to make it a thing you’re willing to ingest, rather than a thing used for digestion. If there are things to be scraped off, use the back of a knife or the rim of a spoon; the important thing is not to rend the surface. Add a few ice cubes and a tablespoon of salt to two cups of cold water. Let the intestines sit in it overnight. You want to use a container with a really secure lid for this; no mystery why.
Next day, sauté a bit of onion and toss in the blood. It cooks in about 10 to 15 minutes — black and crumbly. In a food processor or grinder, mince together the meat, cooked blood, and fat. Crush the pimento seeds and mix all the seasonings into the meat by hand. Run the lot through the grinder one more time. Put in the fridge and prepare to slime.
I want to save the world as much as the next person, but just this once the environment will forgive you if you leave the water running in the kitchen sink. With one hand, hold the length of intestine in the running water, pull down along it with the other so that the gooey stuff slides off and down the drain. Keep going. How long can you hold your breath? To turn the length inside out, use a chopstick. The whole thing slips over quite easily. The sad truth is it never really becomes un-slimy.
Use the sausage-filling attachment on your food processor if you have one. If not, the fluting bag is not to be scorned (well, perhaps you might after you’ve used it. Who wants to put marshmallow frosting through a bag that’s seen blood action?). Brush the inside of the bag with a little vegetable oil, then fill ’er up. Tie the ends of the casing with string.
I’m going to stop short of recommending my smoking method. Try woodchips, put them on a barbecue, or just fry them. These sausages are not in it for the long haul, like the ones that can live forever in supermarket freezers. Treat them as you would any fresh meat product. Should make just a smidgen less than two feet of sausage.
An old wife tale
Caribbean men love an old wife. If she has weathered the storm, passed through the fire, and is real spicy, she is especially sought after. Before men start aggressive denial, and I am accused of mixing metaphors, let me point out that an old wife is a fish. A highly palatable fish, common to those Leeward Islands surrounded by the mesmerising coral gardens of the Caribbean.
Old wife, Balistes vetula, is common in the Eastern Caribbean, and its name belies its legendary beauty. A cousin to the trunkfish, it is a scintillating sea-grotto blue. Distinctive lines on its body radiate from eye to fin like a mask. But don’t be fooled, old wife is a tough biddy. The scales are so hardy that its entire skin is usually removed during cleaning. On some islands, the old wife’s skin was used to scrub pots and pans long before commercial scrub brushes became household necessities.
And, in this case, the harshness isn’t just skin-deep. According to local folklore, Queen Triggerfish (as she is also known) can be merciless. In Anguilla, for instance, it is not advisable to eat old wife when the cedar trees are in bloom. The heavy June rains heralded by the trees’ pink and white blossoms stir up the ocean floor and cause the fish to ingest more bacteria than is good for either the fish or you. Fishermen usually refrain from catching old wife at this time of year, for fear of catching something less pleasant.
Despite the domestic implications of its name, old wife is not always found in the kitchen, but is known to frequent roadside grills or seaside restaurants. If you like saltfish, you might appreciate old wife au gratin, or you can try an equally fulfilling grilled fillet. Its mild, flaky white flesh absorbs flavour like a sponge, and is irresistible when well-seasoned. For the true Anguillan experience, an accompanying johnnycake (a round, soft bread) is a must-have. While old wife abounds all year round on most Leeward Islands, you might want to try it now, since fish dishes are particularly popular during the Lenten season and on Good Friday in particular.
And whenever you do find yourself a good old wife, I can guarantee that this marriage will be nothing but pure culinary contentment and satisfaction.
Fire down below
Rum & Pepper: Hot! Hot! Hot! Recipes from the Caribbean
Julie Morton (Morton Publishing, ISBN 976-8130-15-6, 100 pp)
The two things that best characterise the Caribbean? If you said sun and sea, you’ve obviously spent too much time reading tourist brochures and not enough in the islands. Rum and pepper, that’s what the Caribbean is about. Each country has a rum blend of which it is especially proud, and a pepper that inspires fear. Locals consume both in great quantities, but the uninitiated would be wise to practice moderation. While both offer some of the most exhilarating taste experiences of the region, excess can have humbling (in extreme circumstances, humiliating) effects. Julie Morton’s new recipe book shows off the wonderful and sometimes surprising uses to which the two have been put. Let the American South keep its mint juleps — on a hot day what you need is a rum-soaked hunk of melon: in one of the more amusing recipes, a watermelon is turned into an organic keg for a few days by having quantities of rum poured into small holes in its side. The holes are then stopped with real bottle corks. The melon is chilled and sliced for serving.
A lot of Caribbean staples, and a few international ones, are given an extra zing with the generous addition of one or both of the stars of the book. The collection is varied and creative — and accompanied by many illustrations of dancing peppers.
Hunting the greens
A lean spinach leaf, disguised in a brackish-green overcoat, scissored at the waist to the shape of a heart. Goes by the name “dasheen”.
My mission, should I accept it, is to find a bunch of “dasheen bush”, as per wife’s instructions.
I cruise England’s ethnic food markets. The leaf forms the base of callaloo, the slippery, silky, viscous soup made with okra, coconut milk, maybe crab. Would anyone but a die-hard Trini know this elusive leaf? Could they truly appreciate this Sunday lunch staple that I’ve so often seen cascading over macaroni pie and stewed chicken, Congo-pepper hot, heavy enough to sustain a day languishing on the porch?
My locate-and-purchase operation begins, watery August sunshine bathing a suburban kitchen counter 13 miles south-west of London. It’s a multicultural enough neighbourhood, with a good mix of Sri Lankan and Korean residents, lightly peppered with Italians and Greeks. You don’t have to look too hard for slim varieties of aubergine, okra, and chilli. But dasheen is unheard of in high street groceries in Tolworth, Surrey.
“Why not try spinach?”
“Actually, spinach is more popular in Barbados and Jamaica. I want dasheen, its flavour is softer, more rounded.”
I slink back to the car.
There’s a snaking corridor that winds its way to London’s fringes through the West Indian neighbourhoods of Tooting, Streatham, Balham, and Brixton.
Their high streets, unlike mine, trill with colour from Jamaica, Trinidad, and the smaller islands. You can sit and quaff a Carib or a Red Stripe in its stubby brown export bottle. Check the near distance for pholourie, the fried bite-size chick-pea-flour snack, or doubles in Clapham or Elephant and Castle.
Crawling through lazy summer traffic, I consider my callaloo — its name derived from calulú, the Latin American cousin to spinach; its origins in African gumbo, okra stew; the vegetable that came to the Caribbean with slavery.
I stop in the largely Indian Balham at a stall that dominates the pavement. The thick-set vendor looks blank at my request, then proffers a bunch of thin-leaf spinach.
“Make saag aloo.” Edict delivered in Indian accent.
I turn away, calling headquarters on the mobile.
“This could take some time,” I say. “I’ll keep looking.”
Walking into crowds laden with shopping bags, I turn into a watering hole with Carib on the menu.
Some recipes, I decide, just shouldn’t be rushed.
10 meals in (and around) Kingston
The thing about being extremely popular is that everyone thinks they know all about you. So while the other islands may be unknown quantities, visitors have been coming to Jamaica for years thinking that owning two Bob Marley CDs makes them practically native. You’ll quickly discover that Jamaica’s best secret is its diversity. It’s the same with the food. The national diet is made up of more than jerk and patties. These two are everywhere from the streets of Kingston to the coastal resort towns; they’re cheap and easy to find. But to get you started on Jamaica’s hidden treasures, here are a few places to eat in Kingston that defy the stereotypes while still being very, very Jamaican.
1 Breakfast: the Terra Nova Hotel — elegant, refined. Everything from bacon and eggs to banana and liver.
2 Brunch: Strawberry Hill — gorgeous opulence. You’ll want to stay for hours, and they expect you to. A good place to pretend you’re in a Merchant-Ivory film. After your meal, collapse on a deck-chair at the edge of the mountaintop lawn and admire the view of Newcastle a mile and a half away.
3 Lunch: Jade Gardens. There are loads of good Chinese restaurants in Kingston. This is one of the best.
4 Dinner: Norma’s — the godmother of Caribbean cuisine puts a fancy twist on some Jamaican staples.
5 Breakfast: Hellshire Beach — pick a parrot fish, any parrot fish, and have it fried or grilled right there on the beach. Hellshire is also the home of festival (looks like a dumpling, tastes like a fried doughnut).
6 Lunch: Star Apple — bright and busy, with a bustling work-crowd for lunch (always a good sign). Very exciting bathroom.
7 Tea: Suzie’s — the stuff good picnics are made of. Great baked goods. Excellent smoked marlin sandwiches.
8 Dinner: Guilt Trip — wonderfully tucked away, like a good secret. A bit eccentric in décor, creative menu. Stunning desserts. Oh, and there’s a pet snake.