By Alisa Lashley
IT is always said that there is no Christmas like a Guyanese Christmas, and with the commencement of the season, one would find that a Guyanese home may be in a bit of a messy confusion as Christmas cleaning begins, and the ovens are ‘popping’ with many delicacies to tickle our taste buds.
Let’s consider the refreshing flavour of the traditional sorrel drink, the energetic sharpness of ginger beer, the spiciness of the Pepperpot or the vibrant taste of rum embedded in the black cake.
The Guyanese holiday season would be truly incomplete without our holiday traditional foods. Just the smell or taste of these foods can invoke emotions and memories of Christmas. It is with good reason then that the tradition of crafting these delicacies continues.
In the olden Christmas days , during colonial British Guiana, which is before the invention of the electric stove, folks on the coastlands of the British colony, prepared their pepperpot somewhat like the Indigenous peoples in the hinterland from whom the dish was learnt.
It was cooked over wood fires or on coal pots but that was a long time ago, and even though the method of preparing pepperpot has been modernised using electric stoves and pressure pots, the basic elements remain the same.
Pepperpot is one of Guyana’s popular national dishes, which has its origins in the heart of the hinterlands where many of Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples reside. For many Guyanese, pepperpot is prepared and consumed mainly at Christmas time,
while for others it is enjoyed all year round.
PAMELA’S TRADITIONAL PEPPERPOT
Pamela Harris Lashley, in an interview with this publication, listed her techniques to making what she terms a traditional Guyanese Christmas Pepperpot.
“I would usually season my meat, a day or two before the day I plan on making the pepperpot with ‘marrid’ man pork, celery, pepper and other traditional seasonings. I would then add some fresh leaf thyme, spice and clove on the meat then the cassareep, mix it up, add water and then put the pot on the stove to boil,” she said.
She also expressed that in her opinion it is always better to boil the pepperpot meat instead of pressuring it.
Meanwhile, the traditional taste of sorrel has its origins in West Africa. Known as Roselle or less by its scientific name “Hibiscus Sabdariffa”, sorrel is a species of the hibiscus family.
It bears annually, maturing in about six months and growing about seven to eight feet. It is probably a known fact by now, that we will never encounter one standard recipe that is used for making the classic sorrel drink.
It is those types of vague and unquantified secret ingredients that make it difficult to replicate someone else’s recipe, unless such a person offers it to you.
Hailing from Buxton, on the East Coast of Demerara, Patricia Smith, speaking with the Guyana Chronicle, listed her techniques to making what she terms, the perfect Ruby Red Sorrel Drink. She said that, after receiving the fresh fruits, she first removes the seed and proceeds to wash the fruit, later placing it in a pot with water where they are carried to a boil.
Smith then adds cloves and other spices to the mixture. Once the mixture has boiled and turned red, the flame is removed and the mixture is then left to cool for about 20 minutes. Once it has cooled, the drink is ‘sugared’, strained and bottled.
Patricia also noted that sometimes she adds rum to the mixture for that extra Guyanese Christmas flair.
Further, making the perfect black cake is considered a rare skill that requires a perfect balance between the cake’s texture, flavour and colour, with both amateur and professional bakers undertaking this task with the utmost seriousness.
Skilled bakers usually soak the fruit that they will use for their black cakes months in advance, weighing and measuring each ingredient as carefully as if it is a scientific experiment. Anyone who has had any experience in black-cake baking considers himself/herself an authentic black cake maker, and is a subject to be raised in a circle of bakers. One would hear the boastings and heckling as persons try to prove themselves the “top black cake experts”. Making black cake is considered a labour of love, and an achievement to indeed be boastful about. And with the range of mixers and food processors on the market, baking the black cake is now as easy as it would ever be.
GWENDYLN’S PERFECT BLACK CAKE
Mrs. Gwendyln Forde, in an interview with the Guyana Chronicle, listed her techniques to making what she terms the perfect black cake.
“The texture is very important. Usually, the consistency of any black cake will make it either a good or bad treat. Recipes and techniques for black cake vary according to personal preferences. This cake is, therefore, an extremely special one. It’s one of those cakes where crucial steps, like how important a low baking temperature is, or how to make the burnt sugar to colour the cake, hold extreme importance, and if not done correctly, could be like the Grinch ‘stealing Christmas’, but in the form of a cake,” Forde stated.
“Dried fruits,” she went on to explain, “usually work well with this cake. You can grind the fruits, using a traditional food mill or a blender. The blender has the grinding power to get the fruits to a smooth consistency, and it does so quickly. Grind your fruits, then soak with rum and wine,” she recalled.
She continued: “An alternative method is to soak the fruits whole, and grind when ready to bake the cake. No method is wrong here; just different, and based on preference. If the fruits weren’t soaked for months prior, an alternative would be to soak the fruits in wine for about 30 minutes or more, and allow it to cool, then soften and combine with rum. This is not a crumb-type cake; it resembles more of a pudding, so a high temperature is not needed to cook the cake. Some people bake this in a bain-marie (water bath) to steam the cake. You can bake the cake anywhere between 250-300 degrees, and this temperature will determine how long to bake the cake. For example one can bake at 250 degrees for two hours, or 300 degrees for one- and-a-half hours.”
GRANDPA’S GINGER BEER
And what is black cake without some good old ginger beer. The delicious, brewed, fermented beverage that we all know and love – first appeared around the mid-1700s in England. It was initially made as a fermented alcoholic beverage using ginger, sugar and water. For the preparation of what Patricia Smith described as her grandfather’s traditional ginger beer recipe.
It all starts with fresh ginger that is washed and peeled. Smith explained that there are a few options for the next stage in the process. The ginger may either be placed in a blender or grated. After that, water is added in proportion to the amount of ginger that was prepared. Spices and cloves are then added to the mixture, not forgetting the small piece of orange peel.
A small bucket/container is used to hold the ginger water mixture. “You just add a little rice to it,” Smith said.
The rice is added to the mixture to aid in bringing the ginger beer to the surface and allows it to ripen faster.
As the holiday season draws close and will soon come to an end, the memories of the scents and ‘taste’ of the season will remain with us until next Christmas comes along. It is therefore without a doubt that the varying traditional recipes passing from generation to generation will forever remain a legacy and like Dave Martins says, “We Own”.