Vanessa Bolosier: ‘To me, Creole is the collision of histories... on a plate’

Food writer Vanessa Bolosier is frank, funny and a champion of the food of Martinique and Guadeloupe. She talks to Ella Walker about Creole Caribbean cuisine, ancestry and ‘big bowl food’

Thursday 01 July 2021 15:43
<p>Bolosier’s new book comes from her experience of not finding regional Caribbean food in Britain</p>

Bolosier’s new book comes from her experience of not finding regional Caribbean food in Britain

If ever you find yourself caught in the gnarled pincers of a crab, you will wish you had food writer and supper club host Vanessa Bolosier by your side. “I know how to escape,” she explains sagely. “You have to press their eyes and they’ll release you; growing up I had all the training, good home training.”

Bolosier grew up on French Caribbean islands Guadeloupe and Martinique and it was her father who taught her crustacean husbandry; in the weeks before Easter they’d farm crates of live crabs in preparation for dishes of crab callaloo and crab matete (spicy rice with crabmeat). “We’d feed them not only chillies, but spring onions, garlic, thyme, and the flesh is different. It’s slightly softer. It’s tasty. You do feel the difference. It’s the same way if you feed your animals organic, beautiful grass, or you feed them grain – it won’t taste the same,” says Bolosier.

Having been based in London for the past 16 years, her cookbook Sunshine Kitchen – came from her experience of not finding in Britain the regional variety of Caribbean food that she was raised eating. “There’s myriad cookery books where you can learn about food from the north or south of Italy, and that’s just one country,” says Bolosier, 37, but when it comes to Caribbean food, “generally everything is lumped together”, she adds, and often the assumption is that it’s “food that actually originates from Jamaica”.

Flambé bananas is one of the most popular desserts in Guadeloupe and Martinique

That homogenisation, she says, is partly down to migration. “The people that migrated to the UK were people of Jamaican origin, in majority,” she explains, whereas in France for instance, migration from French Caribbean islands has been more common, so “the food I’m talking about is the food people know; no one knows what jerk chicken is in France. No one knows what ackee is. Some of the ingredients and spices, they’re the same, but the application of them is completely different.”

Factor in access to funds and how difficult the restaurant industry can be anyway, and showcasing regional varieties gets even tougher. “Being able to educate people into coming to a restaurant [to eat] food that’s quite unfamiliar, requires the ability to sustain the business long enough for people to come and see and try it,” says Bolosier. However, she does think street food traders and supper clubs are helping move things forward – which, let’s face it, is good for anyone with taste buds.

Sunshine Kitchen shares her version of Creole Caribbean food; one that draws on the way her parents and grandparents cooked, traditional dishes from Guadeloupe and Martinique, with a few contemporary angles and tweaks that reflect her own style. Ask Bolosier to describe Guadeloupe and Martinique, and she can do it in one gleeful word: “Paradise!” Defining Caribbean Creole is trickier though. “That’s a problem because it’s Creole Caribbean, but you’ve got Creole from Louisiana, you’ve got African Creole. So it’s all about fusion,” she notes. “These cultures will be beautiful; they collapse into something that makes it even more beautiful. To me, Creole is the collision of histories and migrations into a plate, with a French touch.”

As a result, the cookbook, she says, doesn’t work without the history section that precedes the recipes. “I do feel it’s very important for people to understand the sort of ambivalence that happens in the Caribbean, especially on French islands that are still very much French governed,” she explains.

I think you can’t really understand Creole food and Caribbean food as a whole, if you do not understand the sort of ambivalence that lives within people’s blood

“There is an ambivalence in the Caribbean, just generally, because of history that has very, very unfortunate and sad elements to it from the moment it was discovered, until probably now. But out of all of that has come such an amazing culture.

“It’s very difficult to explain to people, for instance, why nose-to-tail eating is so big in the Caribbean, because if I just gave you one of these recipes and you saw the ingredients list [pig’s tails, tripe, etc], you’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, this is disgusting. No, I will not eat that’, but [not] if you understand where that comes from, and how that has been flipped on its head and how it’s been embraced, and how it’s celebrated now.

“I think you can’t really understand Creole food and Caribbean food as a whole, if you do not understand the sort of ambivalence that lives within people’s blood,” she continues.

Bolosier learnt much of her own ancestry from her dad in the kitchen. “He was a very serious man, but the kitchen was kind of a confessional for him; the only time he would relax and smile and laugh and share stories.

“He is not here any more, but he was the best mentor you could ask for,” she says. “He loved his grandmother – she was native Caribbean – and she taught him so much that he wanted to pass that down.” He taught Bolosier how to do everything from scratch, be it picking ingredients from the garden, or scaling fish (“How often will you really need to scale a fish? You’re gonna go to the fishmonger – but I know how to do it. I know how to gut a fish and it’s useful!”)

Throughout Sunshine Kitchen – a reformatted issue of her 2015 cookbook Creole Kitchen – Bolosier happily admits the dishes are “not sexy on the plate”.

With a laugh, she adds: “To this day, people don’t understand why I’m not an Instagrammer.” Her food just doesn’t lend itself to looking artful on a sparse white plate. “I try, but it’s big bowls! And a lot of it is brown, a lot of it is red and a lot of it is yellow,” she says wryly. “It’s not sexy food, but it is delicious food and it’s food that people just dig in and get at together.”

Generosity, hugeness of feeling and lots of food is far more important. “I don’t even think it’s a case of having it for yourself. It’s actually something to share,” says Bolosier of Sunshine Kitchen. “Share the sunshine, share the joy. That’s what I want people to feel when they open this book: I just want them to feel loved and warm.” To be loved, warm and well-fed; Bolosier’s father taught her well.

‘Sunshine Kitchen: Delicious Creole Recipes from the Heart of the Caribbean’ by Vanessa Bolosier (Pavilion Books, £12.99; photography by Clare Winfield) is available now

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