Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Loquat Tree, Part Three

Jack spying on the dairy cows
and feral chickens
of Lolly's Well Road
Smith's Parish

Bermudian Honey is exquisite -- there is a handful of beekeepers on the island and each one is registered with the Bermudian government, says so on their unique packages...unique packages? Each bee keeper had their trademark recycled container for their liquid gold, and the apiarist of my choice always decanted his honey in bottles that formerly held rum. There was the honey that came in old vodka bottles and the honey that came in a globe like Courvoisier bottle, but for me it was the native rum bottle that I chose. I tried the other honeys, but this one made my morning tea sublime. Naturally, I assumed that the bottles were emptied of their original alcoholic contents by the beekeeper on cold Bermuda evenings after he had finished wrangling with bees all day. And I wondered sometimes if my beekeeper didn’t leave just a bit of the original tenant in the bottle to make his honey slightly more magical.

Of course, I bought my honey along with other groceries at Harrington Hundreds, a small grocery owned by a barrel-chested Portuguese man, that sat on a curve on South Shore Road in Smiths Parish, not far from Watch Hill Park and my neighborhood beach, John Smith’s Bay. I call the grocery small, but it was grand in its offerings. All groceries on Bermuda are small, simply because living on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean limits your choices. The milk and cream came from the little local dairies -- we had one at the end of our road, with exactly ten Holstein cows that my dog Jack and I would walk by every day. Miss number 42 was our favorite, a social girl that took a liking to our daily chats. You could buy local chickens and eggs, but beef came from the UK. In fact much of our pantry was filled with products from the UK. We enjoyed European yogurt and Belgian chocolate -- no Hershey bars in Bermuda. There was local carrots (the sweetest), broccoli, cauliflower, red potatoes, fennel, cabbage, and of course, Bermuda Onions! But other than those few locally produced fresh foods, everything else came on a ship or a plane.

And contrary to what you might think, sea food was not abundantly available. Almost all seafood came from abroad and it was frozen and priced like rubies. Bermudians favored cod fish for special occasions like Easter and Christmas. Occasionally you would run across locally caught Parrot fish, but only if the fisherman was a friend and willing to share. Shark showed up every once in a while too, but I consider shark a poor man’s swordfish really. February was known as Lobster season -- Bermuda lobster is, in my humble opinion, a sorry impostor for what we Americans enjoy -- the great and buttery Maine Lobster. Bermuda’s lobster is a small and tough Rock Lobster who is sinewy and tasteless. They foist them upon tourists at great expense in grand Front Street restaurants in the winter season...I am certain the tourists walk away perplexed and still hungry. The seafood situation in Bermuda was one of my biggest disappointments as an expat -- I longed for huge plates of fish out there on my island in the sea, but there was none to be had, we were too far from the gulf stream and upon a barren sub-tropical sea mount.

Prices were astonishing. Our grocery bill was a force to be reckoned with every month -- it was three to four times what we paid to feed ourselves back in North Carolina. And because you had so few choices among similar products, there just wasn’t any competition, you had to buy the brand you were offered, the price be damned. We learned a few tricks, one thing that we never bought was paper towels, at 6 dollars a roll, who needed ‘em! But of course you had to buy toilet paper, they had you there. I learned to go to different stores around the island for certain things, somedays it would take me a full afternoon of driving from one store to another to get all the things I wanted, but the savings was worth it, and I found the things that made life a bit happier in our kitchen.

We were vegetarians for ten years before moving to Bermuda, but that ended when we got to the island. It became apparent to us that refusing to eat meat would almost be impossible on Bermuda. Py went to elaborate company dinners that Goldfinger held, 5 and 6 course meals at Tom Moore’s Tavern or out on Goldfinger’s schooner...late into the evening they would linger on deck, while plate after plate of amazing food would be put in front of them, the stars would wink on and off, as they filled their bellies and drank sumptuous wine. Py couldn’t just up and say “So sorry, can’t eat that, I’m a vegetarian, you know.” Nope, just not cool, not cool at all. So we went from being meek vegetable and tofu people to all out meat people. We decided if we were going to eat meat again, we would eat every kind of meat we could find. And we found it, in a hole in the wall Indian take-out grocery that sat in the Back-A-Town -- where you almost never found white people and never-ever found tourists. Back-A-Town was the backside of Hamilton, the big city, the capital, where all the action was. It was boisterous and chaotic with crazy loud motor bikes ridden by Jump-Ups (Jamaicans who came to Bermuda to work).

It was a part of Bermuda that I was so glad existed, because I knew there had to be a seamy side of the island, the side of the island where the machete robberies were planned and where pot was freely smoked. Bermuda had an underbelly, whether she liked it or not, Queen or no Queen Gov’ner! And so the underbelly was revealed in Back-A-Town, a place that Py and I only ventured into during the day light hours. And oh, the wonderful things we found there in the Indian Take Out grocery! They had a huge Tandoor that burned all day and even all night I suppose. And out of it came the most beautiful flat breads and the reddest Tandoor Chicken. There was Lamb Rogan Josh and Goat Curry and then they would pile this gorgeous yellow rice in your styrofoam box to hurry home with. This was where we learned to eat meat again. And best of all, we could buy all the supplies and spices we needed to make our own Indian dinners at home and at Back-A-Town prices. Sure, anybody with enough money could spend an evening in The Bicycle Club with all the tourists down on Front Street and get their fill of “Curry” but we could fill our car with enough supplies to live on Dal and Rice for a month.

And we learned about real Indian food -- it must have been because we were in a British colony that we felt a need to learn something that the British colonists never learned. We found this most satisfying not only for our bellies, but our souls. Madhur Jaffrey, the Julia Child of Indian cuisine taught me immediately with this passage from her Invitation to Indian Cooking:

“To me the word ”curry“ is as degrading to India’s cuisine as the term ”chop suey“ was to China’s...”Curry“ is just a vague, inaccurate word which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn got it mistakenly from us (the Indians). It seems to mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is used synonymously with all Indian food. In America it can mean either Indian food or curry powder...The origin of this English word could be kari, a Tamil word meaning ”sauce“, it could be a spice called the kari leaf, or it could be karhi, a North Indian dish made with buttermilk and chick pea flower. Who knows where some wandering sixteenth-century Englishman found his inspiration! Whatever its source, the word is obviously a British oversimplification for what is recognized as a richly varied cuisine.

If ”curry“ is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then ‘curry powder” attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself. Curry powders are standard blends of several spices, including cumin, coriander, fenugreek, red peppers, and tumeric -- standard blends which Indians themselves never use. Here again I am sure the British are responsible for its creation. This is how I imagine it happened:

A British officer in full uniform (possibly a young David Niven) is standing under a palm tree and looking fondly at his bungalow as Indian servants go back and forth carrying heavy trunks from the house into a waiting carriage. When the carriage is loaded, the servants line up on the veranda with tears in their eyes. The officer himself, overcome with emotion, turns to khansamah (cook).

OFFICER: How I shall miss your delicious cooking. My good man, why don’t you mix me a box of those wonderful spices that you have been using. I will carry it back with me to Surrey, and there, whenever I feel nostalgic about India, I will take out the box and sprinkle some of your aromatic spice mixture into my bubbling pot.

KHANSAMAH: Yes, sa’ab, as you say, sa’ab. (Runs off to the kitchen.)

Scene shifts to kitchen, where cook is seen hastily throwing spices into box. He runs back with it to officer.

KHANSAMAH: Here is the box, sa’ab. Sa’ab, if your friend also like, for a sum of two rupees each, I can make more boxes for them as well. . . .

Several years later: Former cook is now successful exporter. He is seen filling boxes marked “Best Curry Powder.” When boxes are filled, he puts them in a large crate and stamps it in black: FOR EXPORT ONLY. Then he goes to his money box, opens it, takes out his money, and gleefully counts it. As scene fades away, former cook and present exporter is doing Dance of Joy. . . ."

Ahh, yes, the British. . . making the world a better colony for everyone.


Robert said...

Great picture of Jack and the cows!

wolfy said...

Thank you Robert -- dear Jack, he loved Bermuda more than any of us, he relished every sight and sound, and of course, every smell!

Caitlyn Hentenaar said...

"making the world a better colony for everyone" - You have the best lines.