Caribbean Food: Cinnamon and spice and all things nice

Even when catering for a funeral, cooking on the Spice Island is a celebration of life.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE SMALL leaflet advised me that "when one gets a chill, first to offer in a house is a hot cup of cinnamon tea". Wandering around the Saturday market in Grenada's capital, St George's, the leaflet had caught my eye as I passed stalls selling nutmeg still in their shells, packets of feathery orange mace, loose rolls of cinnamon and long, brown tonka beans that smelt of almond and vanilla.

Steaming in the noonday heat, I wondered when anyone might need cinnamon tea here. There were also instructions for making hot chocolate, but surely only a lunatic would want it in this weather.

Three days later, I found myself on a balcony in the hills above St George's clutching a huge mug of the stuff. This time I was with caterer Dorothy Lessey, who'd spent the morning cooking for a funeral and showing me how to rustle up a few of the local spiced-up specialities. The hot chocolate was certainly one of those: Grenadian cocoa beans, dried, roasted and ground with bay leaf and cinnamon, then cooked up with water, milk and sugar.

"Bay leaf?" I asked, puzzled by this unusual use of an otherwise unexotic plant. Dorothy said: "Most put bay leaf. Some put a little tonka bean, a little nutmeg; makes it taste good." She was right; it was delicious.

It had been an action-packed morning on the culinary front, particularly for Dorothy who had cooked enough pelau for 200 people. She'd started the day before, marinating a huge quantity of chicken overnight in a mixture of cive, thyme, seasoning pepper, onion and garlic. "I add salt to taste and black pepper, preferably hot pepper, because people like a little hot pepper in their food." Then she'd made a browning with butter and dark sugar to cook the meat and colour it, before adding rice and vegetables.

It was a straightforward dish to prepare and one you could cook back in Britain with few modifications. You might need to cut the quantities, but cive turned out to be a close cousin of the spring onion, and sweet red pepper could stand in for the seasoning pepper.

That same mixture of cive, thyme, onion, garlic and seasoning pepper turns up in the Grenadian national dish, oil-down. So while I peeled and chopped them, Dorothy made coconut milk, whizzing chunks of fresh coconut in the blender with water. Then we were ready to pack the oil-down in the pot, starting with the meat.

"You can use any meat, but English people wouldn't eat pig tail," Dorothy pointed out. I had to agree. So we compromised with chicken, and built a little igloo of breadfruit over it. Then came carrots, chunks of cabbage, coils of dasheen leaves, and blugga, one of the 10 types of banana that grow here. So what about the spices?

"Some people like curry in it," Dorothy said. "But I don't think it's oil-down without curry." Judging from the colour, the main ingredient was turmeric, but Dorothy had thrown away the bag it came in. Last in was a different type of thyme, with large furry leaves, and the coconut milk. Now all it had to do was boil down until it was almost dry.

While that cooked, we prepared the callaloo and pumpkin, neither of which featured spices at all. It seemed a strange omission on an island famous for them, but that was before I learnt that nutmeg wasn't introduced to Grenada until 1843. Even now, there are people who use spices mostly for special dishes.

"Did you buy spices in the market?" Dorothy asked. "No? Then you must have some of mine." She scooped handfuls of nutmeg into a bag, enough to last several lifetimes, and added some tonka beans. Then she gathered a great bundle of cinnamon. It seemed rude to refuse. Anyway, now I know what to do with them. More hot chocolate, anyone?

Claire Gervat travelled as a guest of Grenada Board of Tourism and Caledonian Airways, which flies from London Gatwick on Wednesdays and Fridays. Return fares start at pounds 230 through Golden Lion Travel (01293 567800). Cooking lessons with Dorothy Lessey can be arranged by appointment (00 473 440 7674). For more information contact the Grenada Board of Tourism, 1 Collingham Gardens, London SW5 0HW (0171-370 5164)