Chapter 1: Gran
My Jamaican Grandmother lived with us and took full responsibility for feeding my brothers and I (and half the neighbourhood!) while my mother worked long shifts as a nurse.
Gran grew up on the Caribbean island of Jamaica in a parish called St Thomas. This portion of fertile agricultural land that stretched from mountain to sea and upon and around it grew everything a person might need for sustenance and good health.
Gran loved to grow, cook, feed and heal – she knew remedies for many common illnesses. We were fed honey and lemon blends that she adapted to fit severity (ginger? fresh garlic? pepper?), she grew aloe vera to sooth my eczema and treat burns, mint for digestion and whole raft of other concoctions I can’t remember.
We had two small gardens, the front gave us a patch of grass for summer days while the back was filled with food to eat. Gran grew seasonally and more often than not the kitchen table top held a seed catalogue and recipe books. Two of her most referenced books, Farmhouse Kitchen and a giant Mrs Beaton, now sit on my own recipe bookshelf. Gran grew staples like onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage and potatoes alongside herbs, soft fruit, apples, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, broad beans and cucumbers.
Chapter 2: The Community
Sharing food lives in all my fondest memories. I grew up in Bristol, a city in the South West of England with a sizeable Jamaican community. Following World War II, the Queen invited residents from the old Empire’s new Commonwealth to bring their skills to the UK and help rebuild the motherland. In those days our community lived the word because despite the invitation we were largely unwelcome so we helped each other. Gran’s reputation as a fantastic home cook was well known and she took enormous pleasure in feeding every visitor. No one was ever unwelcome and no time was ever inconvenient because she could make something delicious out of nothing.
At the heart of these memories one item always takes pride of place: the steel curved bottomed lidded cooking vessel known as a Dutch pot – or dutchie, as referenced in the song ‘Pass the Dutchie’ by Musical Youth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFtLONl4cNc. This versatile pot was comfortable on the stove, in the oven or above an open fire and they can be found in every Jamaican kitchen, even today. I have the pot that lived on our stove top in my kitchen now. Decades of frying, steaming and stewing have blackened its base and seasoned it perfectly. That dutch pot travelled to England from Jamaica with Gran.
During my childhood holidays were rare but we did take a lot of trips around the country to visit family. Our most regular destination was London where my Aunt, Uncle and many cousins lived in Battersea. This was a bustling family home filled with teenagers, and like my own home, there were always extra visitors.
I recall arriving at the house and as soon as we’d found our sleeping spaces and eaten a quick snack, my youngest brother and I were shuffled back outside and into a car to go shopping. As we were the youngest in the family at that time, we both had to go shopping. Though my brother had to come shopping, he wasn’t welcome in the kitchen. That was the place for women.
That day we’d arrived for a week’s break and a special occasion – I believe it was a cousin’s eighteenth Birthday, and at the time I was only around seven or eight. We drove for a long while to an unfamiliar place. I remember stepping out of the car onto dusty, slightly muddy ground and being hit by the smell of animals, excrement and iron. That day they took us to an abattoir to choose the sides of goat, mutton and chickens while big men in rubber boots would stand over wooden blocks to chop off their heads.
Chapter 3: Never forget the following…
There is not a day I can remember without the following ingredients being present in our kitchen…
- A giant sack of Basmati rice that we’d decant into a Tupperware bucket using a blue plastic mug with a handle.
- A tub of medium ground cornmeal that was used as an ingredient in porridge, dumplings and crispy fried coatings.
- Bulbous heads of fresh garlic and extra-long strings of scallion (spring onions)
- Smooth skinned gnarly hands of fresh ginger.
- The fruity, fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers that originated in West Africa but give Jamaican cooking its distinct flavour. We also always had a bottle of fresh chilli sauce and a jar of pickled peppers.
- Limes and lemons for flavour and cleaning purposes – to remove the residue of fish from the sink or to wash fresh chicken.
- Honey for sweetness and as a saviour from illness.
- Overproof Wray and Nephew rum that had been hidden deep inside someone’s luggage to make the journey to us from home, Jamaica. When I was young you couldn’t buy overproof rum anywhere on this isle. It was a treat for certain male visitors, and used as a saviour from illness.
- The tiny silver tipped leaves of fresh thyme cut from the bush outside the front door before they were dried and put into store.
- A narrow glass jar filled with mace-encased rugby balls of nutmeg, curled rolls of tanned cinnamon. This old mayonnaise bottle was refilled with spices every time someone returned from abroad. In the midst of the pungent spices lived a tiny sharp sided metal grater.
- Packs of turmeric and madras curry powder for use in goat or mutton curry.
- Dark round balls of pimento, a spice I’ve grown to adore and use more and more. Its sweet fragrance adds the taste of home to savoury dishes.
- Tins of unctuous condensed milk for sweetening lumpy, thick-skinned cornmeal porridge or vegetable and Guinness punch drinks.
Chapter 4: God forbid a single feather be found!
Jamaica is a tropical country and most people who inhabit the island were originally from Africa, another hot country. Many of the habits I inherited are linked to the safe preparation and storage of food in heat.
It was essential that all potential parasites be killed. There was no question of cooking ‘rare’ or medium, they believed that this half-cooked ridiculousness was the cause of all English ill health. All meat had to be cooked, completely through to the core to ensure there was no chance of death reaching the door. Anything less was returned to pot or oven until definitely DONE!
But before cooking washing was done. All meat, vegetables and fruit had to be thoroughly cleaned, poultry in particular. I have clear memories of acrid, burnt flesh seeping upstairs to the lounge where I’d inevitably be watching TV on a Saturday evening. That was the smell of Sunday’s Chicken roast being prepared:
- Pluck all visible feathers from the bird.
- Turn on the gas stove and burn off the resilient tiny feathers, scraping the residual blisters with a paring knife.
- Wash under cold running water.
- Submerge in a pot filled with water and lemon juice. Soak for an hour or so.
- Wash again in running water. Dry.
- Wash the sink with soap, rinse, wipe with fresh lemon and rinse again.
- Season the chicken and leave overnight in the fridge.
Chapter 5: Who comes for dinner?
I was the youngest of three and the only girl. I don’t remember a time I when I wasn’t involved in the preparation, cooking and serving of food.
A job that was long but always worth the outcome was the preparation of vegetables for juice. In the time before vegetable juicers, producing enough fresh juice to serve to all possible arrivals meant grating a huge pile of carrots or beetroots. And this wasn’t like preparing the hot slaw Gran often made with chunky grated root vegetables, this meant grating on the finest mesh to macerate flesh to pulp. I’d sit with the wide, low enamel pan and steel grater for hours. Then Gran would add a little water and start to squeeze with her strong hands before draining the juice through muslin. I can vividly remember the joy brought by the arrival of the Kenwood food station with its blender, mincer and food processing attachments!
Chapter 6: Rice and peas is not a side dish
We had few absolutes in our home but one item could never be absent from a Sunday, holiday or celebration table: rice and peas. As a late teen I took over responsibility for Christmas dinner, and I’d start out planning a restaurant style menu where all elements were designed to fit together. Often rice and peas didn’t fit so I’d argue against making it. I lost that argument every time and to be honest, I didn’t know why until I started writing this.
Rice and peas is, to Jamaicans, what potatoes are to the Irish – an essential side dish. It seems a simple dish – soft, fluffy and flavoursome grains of pink tinged rice in which al dente beans merge, but it isn’t really. The best rice and peas is packed with flavour – fragrant, savoury but with a touch of sweetness. It is a soothing dish.
Preparation began the day before with the soaking of the dried peas. My grandmother preferred black-eyed, gungo or kidney beans. They each produce different coloured rice, from a pale brown to a purple or pink hue. After soaking for 24 hours the peas were rinsed, then slowly cooked from cold in a pot of water flavoured with scallions, a sliver of scotch bonnet or chill pepper for flavour, garlic, stalks of fresh or dried thyme and finished with the liberal addition of coconut.
Mostly this was cut from a block of creamed coconut, but I remember Gran preparing this with fresh coconuts too. Cracking the outer shell with the machete we kept in the cupboard outside the kitchen. Grating the flesh into a bowl, adding water and squeezing by hand to release all the milk from the flesh.
Once the peas were fully cooked in their liquid you add basmati rice that had been washed until the water ran clear. To ensure the grains separated, you had to remove the excess starch. Add rice until the liquid rose just above the first bend in your index finger. Then throw in the essential taste enchaining dose of salt and a pinch or two of ground black pepper. Bring to the boil quickly, put on the lid, turn down to the lowest setting and steam.
Rice and peas is not a side dish. Its presence provides a bed upon which to rest your head and be comforted. It is a centrepiece, a dish designed to be shared, a solid source of protein that could ensures everyone who turns up at the door will never go hungry.
Chapter 7: Home leaving
I grew fat on the food of that house. By the age of thirteen I was thirteen stone. When I moved out of home at seventeen, I stopped eating rice. Forsaking the food of my family’s tradition I became a vegetarian.
Vegetarianism lasted a few years until meat and fish drew me back, but now for health and ethical reasons my meat intake is very low. Once a week if at all. However, what has returned to my repertoire are the spices, vegetables and sensibility common to both Jamaican food and our family’s philosophy.
I’m inspired by freshness, and I incorporate all the familial flavours into my own lighter, more vegetarian fare. I’ve been blending pimento with sage and rosemary or paprika. I’ve rediscovered cayenne pepper and scotch bonnets, and choose them less for heat and more for their distinct citrus flavours. I’ve started making and gifting chutneys and relishes that introduce these flavours. My most popular chutney recipe to date has a quintessentially English apple base, layered with Jamaican flavour and flourish.
Chapter 8: Mother nature feeds her children
My Grandmother celebrated nature’s gifts, often with song. She would sing while she cooked or gardened. My mother continued this tradition after my Grandmother’s death and I’d often get calls from her describing of particularly delicious or beautiful home grown produce.
I carry this attitude of gratefulness and praise for nature’s ability to feed us with me every day. So as my understanding of how industrial animal husbandry has grown, my desire to eat meat from animals that were never allowed to live happily has gone. I explore the ways I can translate the depth of flavour present in some of my favourite Jamaican meat dishes into vegetarian or vegan food. The only aspect missing is growing my own produce, and I intend to start soon.
Chapter 9: Home coming
Most recently the one dish that I avoid is Oxtail. This is my favourite dish. It reminds me of home and of my mother.
A dish we shared many times. A dish we’d take turns to cook, me trying to perfect a lighter version, Mum cooking it exactly like my Grandmother would. My attempts were never as good.
Mum’s oxtail is a glossy mahogany stew with rich spicy gravy dotted with creamy white spinners. These small, hand-turned dumplings are made by mixing white flour, cornmeal, salt and water into a stiff dough, then rolling portions between palms to create the distinctive doughy worms that cook with the meat.
This is my homecoming dish. Its smell is what I sought whenever I opened the front door. We’d eat it together while watching a film. Usually she’d leave the final step for me, she may not have liked the way I made Oxtail but she was happy for me to make coleslaw to accompany. This is a homecoming I no longer receive because Mum can’t cook anymore. Not since Alzheimer’s took hold of her. I used to buy it occasionally but it was never the same. I should probably make it again before I stop eating meat completely.
Chapter 10: Food philosophy
Sharing food is as natural to me as cooking, but my adult lifestyle in London is very different to my Bristol childhood. I live alone and don’t have children. Despite this every time I cook I try and add cook with and light.
One of my favourite films is Like Water for Chocolate. In this Mexican film the protagonist cooks her emotions into the food she makes for everyone, and they fall under the spell of whichever emotion she cooks with.
Fresh, flavourful, simply cooked and fast. If I can do it in one pot it’s a winner! I avoid processed food as much possible and instead make large quantities I package and freeze or store to use for future lunches and dinners. Winter is all about protein packed soups, Summer is protein packed salads.
Midweek, one pot fast cooking is my go-to option and although my process is simple, it starts a day or sometimes two before the oven is lit.
First step is to soak beans for 24hrs, then cook. I buy seasonal vegetables at the weekly farmers’ market and I’m lucky enough to live next to Brixton Market, an area that is home to one of the oldest and most established Caribbean communities. Here I’ll buy deep orange fleshed pumpkins, slices of dense yellow or sticky light yams, dasheen, chou chou, breadfruit, green banana, plantain, leafy spinach or its Caribbean cousin, callaloo. Then finally the aromatics – a bunch of fresh thyme, a hand of fresh ginger, scotch bonnet peppers and spring onions.
I’ll chop the veg and herbs and divide by cooking times, adding the longest cooking items to the pot first before topping with fresh water, generous spoons of seasoning, lentils and cooked beans. Then simmer slowly, adding the remaining ingredients at intervals. I may finish with coconut cream. I may even add spinner dumplings.
I have always cooked. My mother used to tell a story of me aged two. She came downstairs to find me and my brother sitting on the floor outside the kitchen. I had eggs and flour and a pot. I was mixing it up. He was waiting for breakfast to be served.
I spent my childhood dreaming of appearing on Children’s Masterchef but as I hated the spotlight, the furthest I ever went was completing the application form aged ten, and testing the three-course menu at one dinner:
Starter – Vichyssoise
Main – Veal Milanese
Dessert – Baked Apricot Cheesecake
I went to our local butchers the week before and asked them to order veal. Looking back I realise this was a crazy request from a child living on an inner-city estate. They laughed when I first asked, but they still sourced it for me.
Fresh apricots were harder to find but I got them somehow, I think my cousin found them for me. I never made any of those dishes again. Although everyone was confused by the cold potato soup, they loved the veal and the cheesecake.