Many dishes that are a traditional feature of the festivities are not prepared at any other time of year, which makes having them at Christmas time all the more meaningful. Here’s a sampling of the many unique meals that go into the recipe for a Trini Christmas!
The season just doesn’t taste the same without Black Cake! Nobody makes it exactly the same way, but in all its variations, there is no doubt that Black Cake (or Fruit Cake, as it is some- times called) is a Christmas institution. Fruit like raisins and prunes are liberally soaked in alcohol like rum and cherry brandy, which helps to not just make the cake moist, but also practically everlasting! Ask any couple whose wedding cake was Black Cake – chances are that 20 years later, they still have remnants of the original cake in the freezer and it’ll be as good as new once thawed out!
There’s no disputing that this Christmas staple is a lot of work, but the results are certainly worth it. Pastelles, which boast Spanish origins (they are called “hallaca” in Venezuela) were originally a meat-based dish, but nowadays, you can order them with a variety of well-seasoned fillings, including chicken, fish and “vegetarian”, which usually means that the cornmeal shell is stuffed with beans or peas. But the filling is the easy part – which is probably why the pastelle-making business is so lucrative! The real work involves the cornmeal, which needs to be combined with water, salt, and butter to make a smooth dough. Critical to the process are a pastelle press and cleaned, steamed, well-oiled banana or fig leaves: the balls of cornmeal dough are dipped in oil and placed between two fig leaves on the press to be flattened – after which, you add the filling and fold and tie the pastelle. Then you need to steam the wrapped package – which looks like a really neat Christmas present – in water for about 20 minutes. Freeze them and voila! All you need to do is re-heat when you’re ready to eat!
This is a Portuguese dish (its Portuguese name is “carne vinha- d’alhos”), which is traditionally served, for the first time each season, on Christmas morning. It is a dish with a long history – the manner of preparation alone harkens back to a time when refrigerators were not common; it was actually a rather ingenious way of curing and preserving meat. The recipe calls for a lot of thyme and vinegar (real aficionados use a combination of cider and white vinegar), in which cubed pieces of pork are left to marinate, preferably in an earthenware jar. This provides the perfect environment in which the vinegar can begin to cure the meat; it helps to place the jar in a cool, dark area of the kitchen, ideally two weeks before the first sampling. To cook, just warm up a pot on high heat, using a touch of oil. Put in the pork, then reduce the heat. It usually springs its own water, which you have to intermittently pour out. In some Portuguese families, it is traditional to have the first mouthful of garlic pork with a shot of gin, which reputedly enhances the flavour of the dish.
Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the smell of ham baking in the oven! Some people glaze their ham with a honey- mustard mix, others prefer to add chow-chow only when it’s ready for eating. There are many approaches to cooking a Christmas ham, including covering it with banana leaves and adding cloves before baking, but whichever way it’s done, there are few Trinis who would turn down a good ham and hops!
This Christmas, may you be surrounded by the deliciously diverse aromas of your favourite dishes, as well as lots of family and friends to share them with!