Caribbean Food: History served in a polystyrene cup

Breadfruit pie and chicken foot souse are Tobago staples. Try them, and you get an immediate - and bitter - taste of the island's slave past

`Do I like pig tail?" There's a twinkle in George Leacock's eye as he looks at me. "Very much!" he answers, "Coconut come down with breadfruit, and a piece of salt pig tail, that's high-class food, man!" He laughs, and licks his lips. Three days earlier, while wandering through the central market in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I was intrigued to see plump pig tails on display. They weren't curly as I'd imagined they should be, and they weren't as cheap as the joints and chops next to them.

I'd asked the Trini Indian stall holder what you might do with a pig's tail. "Aw, pelau an' ting, y'know." I didn't know, and that was why I was here, beside George, at the top of a tower looking out over Tobago's capital, Scarborough, as it stretched to the sea. George knows exactly why pig tail is special - his great-grandmother Lydia told him so.

"In the old days massah would have an after crop fete. He would have a big cooking, with a hog or two slaughtered. Of course the best bits were going to massah. It was only the head, the feet and the tail that was given to the slaves."

The Caribbean wears its past proudly and these meaty extremities, whether salted, fried or soused, have become today's delicacies. Visitors can easily forget that this island paradise was once the residence of abductors, torturers and rapists. The Tobagoneans are a polite people and slavery is never talked about accusingly. Instead, past and present intertwine subtly with every helping of "oil down", "corn coco", and "buljol". Variations of these heritage foods can be tasted throughout the Caribbean.

The Leacocks are one of Tobago's oldest and most respected families and George, who is 83, traces his ancestors back to slaves who arrived on the island almost 300 years ago. His great-grandmother was the daughter of a Scottish "massah" who had exercised his droit de seigneur with a slave. After the abolition of slavery, this great-grandmother earned enough gold to buy Franklin's estate, the plantation her forebears had slaved on.

Her grandson, George's father, became the highest ranking police officer on the island. George Jr owns and runs the island's radio station, Tambrin Radio - named after the only musical instrument the slaves were allowed to play.

George himself has spent more than 60 years collecting items of his family's past at his home, a collection that has now been recognised with funding from the United Nations. Last month, George opened "Cosy Comfort" to the public.

"Look you here," says George, "This coin bears the original Tobagonean coat of arms, before she became annexed to Trinidad. The inscription is not a language I know but I was told it says `She becomes more beautiful'. It's the only one on the island. The House of Assembly wanted to borrow it but I wouldn't take that chance!" He chuckles and nods his head knowingly.

The coin may be more than 150 years old, but Tobago hasn't changed much in the beauty stakes. This is the Caribbean of my imagination; an island you can walk around yet large enough to have a feeling of being unexplored. With tropical forest and idyllic beaches, it is also now a package holiday Mecca, especially popular with the British - though, aside from contact with diving instructors and taxi drivers, the holidaymakers tend to leave the locals alone. On a cultural level, therefore, the island has remained relatively "untouched".

For the curious, one of the best times to sample the local culture is on a Friday night. The weekend only kicks off after a cup of souse - sold by women all over the island who set up outdoor shop, with plastic buckets holding various parts of animals boiled to a jelly, soaked in lime juice and flavoured with chilli, chives and "shadow benny" (similar to coriander). Jane Winchester's stand in the south-east of the island is one that attracts a following. "I've got chicken foot, pig foot and cow skin souse," she coaxes and I stare at a woman walking away with a polystyrene cup, full to the brim with tiny claws.

I buy six dollars worth, and a small crowd gathers, sensing my bravado is a sham. "You got to bite right through it, there's flavour to the bones," snorts Jane with amusement. The chicken foot is cold and clammy, with a slightly scaly feel. There's about a millimetre of skin before my teeth hit bone. One of the claws fragments in my mouth. I chew it and find my tongue covered in little splinters. I detect no "flavour to the bone" so I give the rest of it to a small, smiling boy. He wolfs it down in one. I fare no better with the cow skin or the pig foot, for which my new friend is also grateful.

Heritage food can sometimes leave a bitter taste for locals too. Breadfruit was originally brought from Polynesia as cheap slave food. Partly through protest and partly through unfamiliarity it was rejected and there are still people today who will not eat it, regarding it as "poor people's food", fit only for the pigs.

Harriet Martineau, one of Tobago's most famous cooks, swears by breadfruit, though. She has nothing but praise for this versatile fruit. One evening I joined Harriet in her yard for breadfruit picking. Standing next to the tree while her son probed the branches she said: "Ripe or unripe you can do so much with it. Breadfruit pie, breadfruit salad, "oil down", "sancoche", or, just eat it as a fruit..." She tails off and stares at the tree. "Y' know, this is one tree that God made an original. The bread and the fruit." She pauses, still staring. "Yes, it's a big, tasty fruit."

There is a beautiful irony in her words. A fruit originally reviled by the slaves, now revered by their descendants. As if on cue there was an immense crashing above our heads and a huge breadfruit dropped.

From George's home , which was once part of the British garrison, I spotted a huge cruise ship offloading more holiday makers into the harbour. They take almost the same the route into town as the slaves did, dragging themselves up the hill to the small square in front of the garrison house, which is now part of Tambrin Radio. In this square, under the shade of a salmon tree, the plantation owners would watch the slaves being branded with roman numerals on their backs.

The salmon tree still stands. Likewise, George is convinced that, despite the newly arrived American fried chicken shops and the popularity of pizza, heritage food will remain part of daily life, just as the past and present exist side by side.

The Tobago Heritage Parlour adjoins Tambrin radio station and is open Monday to Friday between 8.30am and 4.30pm. Entry costs TT$10 (pounds 1). Only BA flies to Tobago - 0n Saturdays - and Grenada - twice a week - from Gatwick. You will pay around pounds 450 return

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

    £15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Mechanical Design Engineer

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

    Year 5/6 Teacher

    £21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...


    £90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The Job...Due to continued ...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice