And so, it is the Christmas season once again and with it comes great memories of our past. I am sure that I am not the only one for whom Christmas evokes memories like these.
It is difficult to restrain the memories that Christmas brings – memories of cleaning items in the cabinet, bringing white marl to put around the house and the lingering smells of the ham, put in that special part of the house, that seemed to get even stronger as it got closer to Christmas.
But how much tradition has really been retained from Christmases long ago?
Being well aware that with our development, traditions may have evolved in other areas as well, this week my focus is on the culinary traditions of Christmas and where they are today.
As we get closer to that eagerly anticipated day, one might well remember the Christmas Day feast.
As I mentioned earlier, the ham would have been hanging in the house for the last few weeks; the chickens, turkey or pig, being raised for this specific period, would have been receiving their final extra special meals to fatten them up; and the green peas, planted around the hedge row, would now be receiving special attention in readiness for harvesting.
Then, there would be the excitement of seeing special items of fruit or produce, not seen throughout the year, coming in for Christmas and, of course, the fruit for the Black cake would have been ground and in the jar since January.
Is there anyone like me who was always captivated by this fermenting fruit?
Come to think about it now, it was probably the alcohol that drew me and kept calling to me, to the point where I gave in to the temptation. When I thought the coast was clear, I snuck into my Grandmother’s room where that jar of well-doctored and closely guarded fruit was carefully tucked away and I was too mesmerized to remember that once you took the cover off that the penetrating aroma would filter through the entire house. No need to tell you what the result of that experience was, when you were literally caught with your hand in the jar!
Just before Christmas, the ham was removed from its sack, soaked overnight and vigorously scraped to remove the fungal growth that would have formed on the outside after weeks of curing. On Christmas Eve night, it was plunged into water to slow cook for a couple of hours, which always felt like days to me, then it was studded with cloves, basted with a mixture of sugar and mustard and decorated with pineapple slices, before being baked in the oven.
There was also the preparation of the cake which was like a ritual. While the house was being decorated with curtains and the new mats put in place on the freshly re-laid Congoleum, the children’s job was to beat that course, yellow crystal sugar and butter by hand with a wooden spoon or cou-cou stick until it was creamy. This was always done in that special crockery bowl – I can still see it today, beige on the outside, white on the inside – and I can still hear the yells of my mother and grandmother with warnings not to drop that bowl, ringing in my ears.
Eggs, special flavouring ingredients and flour were then added before it was placed in the oven to bake, giving off aromas that mingled with those already being emitted from the pineapple-brown-sugar-glazed ham, creating its own unique mesmerizing aroma that tells you it is Christmas.
For all of that hard work, there was always a sweet reward – being given the bowl and spoon to clean at the end of the preparation. That is when my siblings and I sat around the bowl using our fingers like the proverbial squeegee and by the time we were through, all you had to do was turn it down on the cupboard.
Fast forward to Christmas of today, where the hams are store bought and in some cases, even the entire Christmas meal is ordered and delivered days before, just to be re-heated on Christmas Day.
And don’t even let us get started on the cake. Well! Well! Well!
The cake! What have we come to when it comes to Christmas cake? Have you seen those videos that were being spread far and wide of our people in supermarkets actually fighting for cake at Christmas? I am sure if my grandmother were not dead that this would have driven her straight to her grave.
Talk about being robbed of the beauty of Christmas – not being able to smell those aromas which I just described and not being able to experience the feeling of being awake all night waiting for these products to be completed, while listening to your favourite Christmas songs on the radio or the Midnight Mass which your parents always made sure they were tuned into.
But I am still on the cake, as it continues to burn me to think that this can be happening in Barbados. What is even more aggravating, is travelling to another country and being the butt of the joke based on these videos and being reminded by these folk that you are not even sure if you are receiving a box cake mix or a frozen cake mix straight out of a tube. This leaves me to wonder how we view Christmas in these modern days.
I think that it is my responsibility as a Chef and Bajan food-loving person, to do something towards alleviating this situation. So here are some simple cake recipes you can make at home, so enjoy.