Butter must come

Does anyone still churn butter at home? How about Anu Lakhan? • Plus Debbie Jacob on the delights of roadside peanuts, and much more...

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • cookup77-3B
  • Caribbean Rum Map
  • Edris Drew. Photograph by Gemma Hazelwood

In primary school, random visits from a government goodwill service inflicted milk and exactly three vanilla biscuits on unwitting children. The milk was thin and served in plastic cups that appeared to have been chewed by generations of students. When I proved intractable on the issue of throwing the milk into the drain (where it looked even more like the residue of a washed paintbrush), the teachers allowed me to forego the treat.

There’s nothing wrong with milk, per se, it’s just that it’s capable of so much more. Like coffee beans or grapes, its original state is far from its best. By sheer force of numbers, someone in my family should have been a milk drinker, but as soon as any of us could articulate a choice, we were apt to decline that beverage. But feelings on cream, butter, and everything issuing from those two differ absolutely.

The great butter escapade starts early one morning with a drive to a dairy in an unlikely vicinity: a frenetic thoroughfare linking two of Trinidad’s busiest roads along the East-West Corridor. I’d called the day before, asking for unpasteurised milk. He didn’t say it in so many words, but from his tone I felt the man on the phone suspected I didn’t know what that was.

A narrow wooden building with a squashed look and a forlorn shopfront seems to be the address I’m looking for. I didn’t quite expect rolling pasture, but I did think a small field at least, a few PR cows. The lady at the counter tells me to ring the bell at the other door, but fails to mention where that might be. I follow a milky smell to a door that opens on to what looks like — and I’m fairly sure is — someone’s backyard.

The man I speak to sounds shocked when I ask for the milk, but is certainly the man I spoke to before. On weaker days I might have wilted under such a tone, but I have not braved early-morning school traffic for nothing. Or perhaps I’m a little delicate today — feeling, as I am, a bit foolish, clutching my metallic mushroom-coloured basket with an empty gallon bottle in it, while all around me nothing remotely dairy-like is in evidence. I feel like I’ve wandered onto a construction site and asked for a shampoo and a perm. I glare. At length, he relents, and mumbles instructions to the milk minions. I want half a gallon. This measurement, seemingly precise, is entirely arbitrary. I have no idea from whence it came or why. It is a great mystery.

At home I spend a long time staring at the milk that must become butter. It looks and even smells like normal, that is to say, boxed, milk. Doesn’t taste all that different — but then, how little I know milk.

I have looked at dozens of recipes to get to this point. Some problems are obvious, and I’ve figured out how to experiment around them. For instance, recently an accidentally abandoned egg yolk cooked as it sat beside my kitchen sink. Obviously, all the recipes suggesting cream will form if you leave the milk out in a cool place do not come from this part of the world. The recipe suggesting it be set in a cool running stream is apparently not from a recent century.

The fridge, then. I pour the milk into a quiche dish and a baking tray to maximise the cream-making surfaces, and cover them with plastic wrap to prevent fridge odours from sullying my as yet unborn cream. There is a small amount of milk left over, and I offer it to the cats. It is the first time either has shown the slightest interest in milk — their dairy palates being naturally more refined than mine.

The next day, there is an unmistakable layer of cream formed at the top of the trays. A clean spatula and a bowl and two things become apparent: cream, as they say, will rise; and this is enough cream to make about a tablespoon of butter.

The cream is then supposed to age, mature, or sour — possibly the only activity in which those three words are openly acknowledged as synonyms. One of the ways to encourage this is to introduce a yeast culture, like a bit of store-bought yoghurt or sour-cream. This will get the right bacteria going, and hinder the wrong ones. I don’t like to judge, especially not something like bacteria, which already gets such bad press, so I decide to let things proceed unaided. And I kept forgetting to buy the nice yoghurt made by monks in the hills above St Joseph.

On the second day, the cream, while still not smelling like a wet mop, as I’d been led to expect, looks a bit poofy. Not volumised, like it’s been whipped, but ever so slightly lighter than before. I consult my tea leaves and decide today is the day. Also the cats seem less interested in it.

All the butter-making devices seem to use only one paddle: churns, food processors, even blenders. I dislodge one of the beaters from my hand mixer and get to work. After about half an hour of varying the speeds, mostly to break the monotony, something seems to be happening. Even though there are no gold flecks, nor has the cream become soft-peaky, I decide to investigate.

At this point, numb of arm and despairing of appliances, I no longer believe this will work. But on closer inspection, what I took for tiny bubbles turn out to be semi-solid. With a fine sieve I find I have, amazingly, extracted a small amount of butter from the cream.

Everything seems to fall into place after that. The washing of the butter turns out to be easier than it sounds, as is the kneading. It is a very pale yellow, and creamy in appearance. It smells like butter.

I wrap it in wax paper and, after refrigerating to firmness, I take it to visit the family. I had not imagined these relatives would expect to eat it. More milk, then. Apparently more than half a gallon.

Dairy notes

Get Milk
Fresh, whole, unpasteurised — essentially, milk as has been unmodified since its emission from the cow.

Set the milk in low, wide containers like baking tins or quiche dishes and leave them somewhere cool where they will not be disturbed by pets, pests, or natural disaster. In hot places like the Caribbean, the least cold part of the refrigerator might be best. In a day or two, an unmistakably thickened film will cover the surface: cream. Use a flattish implement to transfer the cream to another bowl.

Again, leave the cream in its cool place for about a day to allow it to age. The butter won’t separate from the buttermilk during churning if this ripening doesn’t happen.

Churn, Churn, Churn
Put the ripened cream (its smell should not be offensive, but a bit sharper than fresh cream) into a food processor or large bowl. Mix. Whatever you use, start slow and gradually increase. A fast start just gives you whipped cream.

After what seems like a very long time, tiny flecks will appear in the cream. Using a fine strainer, separate the butter from the buttermilk. Wash the butter — at this point it feels enough like the thing we recognise as butter to call it that — by repeatedly covering it with water and draining it off until the water runs clear. Knead the butter by working it into a ball with a spatula.

Go nuts

Debbie Jacob on the joys of freshly roasted roadside peanuts

The official tourist version of Trinidad and Tobago is the land of limbo, steel pan, and calypso, but if you’re coming to these shores you should be aware that when it comes to culture, we can also be judged by our nuts.

You don’t have to travel far in Trinidad to realise you will always have some nuts in your life. There are nuts everywhere you turn — on the street corners of Port of Spain, along the highway, in sporting events at the stadium, and even at formal events. We’re talking about the cultural culinary delight of peanuts here — not the slicked-up oily ones in fancy Planters jars that go whoosh! when you break the seal, but the baked ones that come in miniature brown-paper bags that fit in the palm of your hand and sound like Christmas paper being unwrapped when you open them up.

When I first came to Trinidad, peanut vendors were like sirens beckoning sailors in the night. Vendors had fancy metal carts that emitted shrieking, high-pitched whistles as they spewed clouds of steam in the air. This meant your little brown bag was full of toasty warm nuts.

I used to think my nuts were being prepared right in front of me, when actually this was just one step in a long line of rituals that starts with buying raw nuts in the market and going home to bake them in the oven.

I always found myself gravitating towards whichever nuts vendor felt the most like the Pied Piper. Nuts vendors don’t have flutes, but they rely on the rhythm of their chants. “Nuts, nuts, nuts! Get your nuts! Fresh nuts, salt nuts!”

Trinidad is probably the only place in the world where nuts have been elevated to a form of entertainment. Ask anyone who is the most famous nuts vendor in Trinidad, and he’ll tell you Jumbo, the jovial Rastafarian whose presence graces the top sporting and cultural events of Trinidad.

Jumbo is the pre-show entertainment. Look up in the stands where patrons are patiently waiting for the show and you’ll find more hands than in a classroom shoot up in the air. They’re all volunteering to buy Jumbo’s nuts.

All eyes are on the brown bag of peanuts as it flies through the air with the grace of a tennis ball. Jumbo never misses his mark, much to the audience’s delight. Between laughs and sighs, a grateful audience passes Jumbo’s money through the chairs or bleachers. Jumbo could have been a big-time bowler if he played cricket, but he chooses to be a nuts man, as we call peanut vendors.

In the late 1980s one of the most popular songs in a calypso tent was “The Nuts Vendor”, sung by Organiser. It was one of those defining moments in Kitchener’s Revue on Henry Street. Of course, the song was a naughty double entendre about the size and saltiness of the nuts. For months after Carnival you could hear nuts vendors singing their calypso.

The long and short of the story is this: you’d have to be nuts not to buy nuts in Trinidad. It’s a sensual experience: the warm smell, the feel of peeling off the skin, the crunchy, salty taste. Our nuts are something you just have to get your hands on.

That’s the spirit

Edward Hamilton on his ongoing search for the best rum in the world

After more than a decade sailing the Caribbean in search of the finest examples of the distiller’s art, I ask myself if there is anything I’d rather be doing. Sure, I’d rather not think about scraping and painting the bottom of the boat or fixing the exhaust system. But until I think of something better than sailing to the next island to visit another distillery, I’ll continue the research.

I find a bus going in the right direction, and my pulse quickens as the road heads downhill through the sugar cane fields and I get a glimpse of a river. Most rum distilleries were built before steam power came to the islands and needed flowing water to power the cane mill. The sight of a smokestack or the scent of fermenting sugar cane usually confirms that I am on the right track.

At almost every distillery, the legacy of sugar and rum reveals itself in the surroundings — the stone aqueduct that once carried water to the abandoned waterwheel, broken cast-iron pots once used to boil the sugar cane syrup, a pile of rusted steel and tarnished copper that was the heart of the distillery up to a century ago.

Following the rum-making process from the fermentation vats to the towering still and its associated pumps, boiler, and machinery to the bottling area, one question always comes to mind: what makes the rum from this distillery unique among the more than five hundred rums bottled in the Caribbean basin?

A master distiller talks about the yeast used for fermentation and the copper still used to separate the alcohol from the spent yeast. But the real secret of the distillery is in the stone building where the alchemy of turning clear raw spirits into golden treasures takes place. The heavy, weathered iron door is unlocked and opened; columns of rum barrels form an aisle lit by sunlight from openings high in the moss-covered stone walls. The air is much cooler here, and offers refuge from the hot tropical morning. Inside these walls, not much has changed since the stones were set in mortar to protect the precious contents of these barrels and provide a home for the most important inhabitants of every rum-aging warehouse — the angels who reside among the racks of barrels and extract their share of the sleeping spirit.

Moving between the barrels, the master distiller — my guide — scrutinises the painted markings on the flat heads of the casks, then taps the curved wood with a brass tube. He smiles as he leans over a dusty barrel and removes the bung. As he thrusts the brass tube into the bunghole, the rich fragrance of vanilla, charred oak, and aged liquor fills the cool, heavy air. The distiller carefully transfers a sample of golden aged rum from the thief to the glass he holds in his steady hand. We toast the angels and then taste the spirit. This is much more than just a glass of fine aged rum. This glass holds the culmination of centuries of history, tradition, and a large measure of pride. I pass the glass back to my host and ask what he calls this rum. “This, my friend, is the best rum in the world.”

Of the more than five hundred rums I’ve tasted, there is none I like to drink to the exclusion of all the others. Before dinner, I prefer an unaged sugar cane spirit from the French islands; after dinner, I prefer a fine aged rum that has spent as long as a decade in an oak cask.
These ten are some of my favorites.

Edward’s top ten

1 Barbancourt Five Star, Haiti
The rich butterscotch flavour comes through nicely with a little water or ice. Slightly smoky, with hints of candied nuts. But let the drink breathe a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.

2 Cruzan Estate Diamond, St Croix
Named for the Diamond Estate; the full-bodied flavour brims with roasted tropical coconut, nuts, and smoky tones that carry through the finish.

3 English Harbour Five-Year-Old, Antigua
Garnering respect wherever it is enjoyed; slightly heavier in character than some of the other aged rums. Perfect for sipping after dinner.

4 La Favorite Agricole Blanc, Martinique
Distilled in a single-column still, this 100-proof clear spirit overflows with floral notes in the body, followed by a distinctive sugar cane flavour in the finish.

5 Neisson Rhum Agricole Réserve Spéciale, Martinique
Born as a clear spirit bursting with fresh sugar cane flavour; aging brings a balance of smoked nuts, dark fruit, and oak to this classic aged rhum agricole.

6 Captain Bligh, St Vincent and the Grenadines
Tropical fruit and light coconut flavours are balanced with the smoky aged notes acquired from the barrels in which it is aged. With coconut water, it’s hard to beat.

7 Mount Gay Extra Old, Barbados
Bajans commonly mix this old rum with ginger ale, but you owe it to yourself to try it neat or with a little water.

8 Angostura Premium White Rum, Trinidad
Light, crisp, and dry; slight hints of coconut and tropical florals bring a pleasant flavor to citrus-based cocktails.

9 Santa Teresa Antiguo de Solera 1796, Venezuela
A well-balanced blend of aged rums with a bouquet of roasted nuts, honey, vanilla, and smoky oak.

10 El Dorado Special Reserve, Guyana
This fifteen-year-old rum demands attention. Heavy, smoky tobacco flavours dominate the body and finish — perfect after dinner with a cigar.

Three questions for Miss Drew

In Antigua, some of the tastiest and most authentic food can be found on the streets, especially on weekends, when moonlighting chefs offer after-hours dining for the clubbers and late-night snackers. Edris Drew serves up her fare from three different spots on the island — New Winthorpes, Piggotts, and St John’s City — between Friday and Saturday. Her regulars tend to converge upon New Winthorpes, where she’s been serving up conchs water (her hottest seller), bull foot soup, goat water, head skin, souse, maw, and more for twenty years.

Your rice pudding never tastes the same twice, but it’s always just right — not too spicy, not too mild. Why is that?

When I’m doing anything, I say, let me try a little thing. My husband was the one who said, “Why don’t you crush the seasoning?” [I put] natural seasonings — the herbs — and a lot of onions, garlic, celery, thyme. I crush everything. If you just cut them up, you’d definitely say, “Me bite a piece of garlic”. But when you crush it, not even the rice you taste. It’s all blended. When the rice is cooked, you add the oil, and with that you add the necessary seasoning, tasting all along the process. Then you add the blood. [The variation in taste] depends on the animal. Sometimes the blood might be a little richer than ordinary.

[When I was little] I saw my mother doing it, and when you hear I like something, I work at it. Mine is a little better than hers. She used to do them nice . . . they used to be sweet.

If you had to eat one thing from your menu every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

The goat water . . . That too is a hit. When I go to cook it, I’m not in a hurry to do anything. I simmer them down first, in the browning, so it actually get that seasoning in it. Then I put on the water, let it boil for a while; then I add the flour to it, let it simmer for a while; and clove, everybody one time. I crush everything, so you don’t have that taste in your mouth with anything. When you go to drink that goat water, it’s the meat and the water, nothing else; not even the clove you taste in it . . .

That goat meat can be done in different ways. I can use the goat with rice, maybe stewed, whatever. I can cook it in the rice, curry the goat, eat with fungee, whatever.

Is there anything you wish you could make as good as someone else?

I always thought about this cassava thing — bambula — and I think for this coming [Independence] festival, I’m going to try it. I see people preparing it at the food festivals, so I say let me try my hand at it next time.

It’s coconut and cassava grated and [cooked on] a cast iron flat thing and put over the coal pot. What they do is put the cassava first, a little of the coconut, and then the cassava again. Then put it to “bake”, and just turn them. Not very many people make those things, just a few. I’d like to keep up those things because it’s an old type of product. When they do it at the food fair, people come right at that spot and wait.

Antiguan flavours

Conchs water: a dark, rich conch stew

Goat water: stewed goat, traditionally served at weddings, christenings, and other celebrations

Head skin and maw: a cow’s head and tripe, respectively, cooked with cucumber, sweet peppers, and celery in a sort of thick broth

Souse: boiled pork preserved in a marinade of salted water and lime juice

Rice pudding: a savoury version of the dish known elsewhere as a dessert

Fungee: a ball of cornmeal and minced ochro, often eaten with pepperpot

Bambula: a roasted coconut and cassava bread

– Joanne Hillhouse

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