Celebrate Jamaican Independence Day with Classic Jamaican Cooking

To celebrate Jamaican Independence today we are publishing Cristine MacKie’s foreword to Caroline Sullivan’s Classic Jamaican Cooking. The mistress of a large Jamaican household at the end of the nineteenth century, Sullivan was the author of the first ever book on the island’s cooking, The Jamaica Cookery Book, of which Classic Jamaican Cooking is a lightly revised edition.


For many British and American people today, the Caribbean island of Jamaica evokes thoughts of paradisal holidays, days spent on white palm-shaded beaches, nights under a canopy of phosphorescent stars heavy with the smells of ‘ganja weed’, fresh thyme and the fragrance of allspice leaves. Frying coconut oil scenting the trade winds is the essential smell of Caribbean cooking and redolent with memories for those who have spent time in the islands.

For those who would like to deepen their experience, Caroline Sullivan’s collection of recipes and marvellous common sense provides an excellent foundation from which to try to capture some of the techniques and flavours of Caribbean cooking. When I first travelled to the Caribbean in 1970, Jamaica had only recently become independent and I was completely beguiled by the strangeness of the produce, smells and tastes. I began to hang about in the doorways of local kitchens and was young enough to inspire sympathy in the cooks, who often felt that I looked as if I needed ‘feeding up’. This way I came to sample a cuisine that I could only marvel at and was hard put to imagine where its roots lay.

Moved by all this to want to write about it, I found a mass of journals and diaries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries that described the dining tables of the Great Houses, but there was almost nothing published on the subject of food and its historical influences so complete and revealing as Caroline Sullivan’s book. It is invaluable for all lovers of the West Indies and its unique cuisine.

Caroline Sullivan was not an innovator but a superb recorder of mid-nineteenth century Great House living in Jamaica. ‘My desire,’ she wrote, ‘is merely to introduce to newcomers to Jamaica our own native methods of cooking our own products.’ And although she modestly refers to her efforts as ‘this little work’, many of the recipes she includes could also, with a judicial change of a few ingredients, have been served at the tables of the great country houses in England.

In 1655 Cromwell seized Jamaica from the Spanish as part of his grand ‘Western Design’ and many English landowning families went to Jamaica, which quickly became the most productive of the sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean. The wealth made from the sugar industrysupported a lifestyle of incomparable opulence. ‘As rich as a West Indian planter’ was a common expression in England to describe people of great means. The island was divided into great sugar-producing estates, their names – Westmorland, Windsor, Chatsworth and Cornwall – resounding with nostalgia for England. The Great Houses were built in classic proportions with elegantly carved fretwork adorning the spacious verandas and wooden jalousies decorating the great Palladian windows. They were set in vast parklands shaded by enormous spreading jacaranda trees with violet bell-like blossoms and their branches dripping with green Spanish moss and epiphytes.

It was in such a setting that Caroline Sullivan spent her life. Her family went back to the Cromwellian invasion and clearly lived in the grand colonial style. When she came to run the Great House in the mid-nineteenth century, Jamaica was still enjoying and practising all the advantages and influences of England’s pre-industrial taste in food and cooking. But there was a difference, for Jamaica’s population was predominantly Afro-English. The English owned the great estates and organised the sugar trade, while the African (who had been transported there as a slave to plant and harvest the sugar cane) lived in small chattel houses within sight of the Great House. The result of such close proximity of two extraordinarily different cultures was a culinary marriage which is still quite unique.

Caroline Sullivan captures this for us in remarkable detail. She had a real interest in every aspect of the day-to-day running of the household, which I can hardly imagine would have met with approval in those times, since this was normally the housekeeper’s responsibility. She was clearly also a remarkable observer and not above travelling to the local markets run by the Africans, even though tradition was that the Africans would take their produce to the back door of the Great House for inspection. This was not always an easy undertaking for, like all West Indian colonies, most of Jamaica’s towns were on the coast, and during the six months of rain each year roads were frequently washed away and travel inland had to be by canoe.

Both land and sea in that part of the world provided an abundance of food. The warm tropical waters provided lobster, turtle, snapper, kingfish, shark and old wife, while the creeks, morasses, swamps and rivers marries traditional English Worcester and anchovy sauces with Jamaica pepper and pepper wine; lime juice is substituted for lemon, while the classic mix of butter and parsley retains its place. Even today salt fish dishes are among those most in demand. Caroline wrote that in England salt fish was then seen as a penitential dish, while in Jamaica it was as popular among the natives as the upper classes.

Her sound common sense and wide knowledge as a working cook is in evidence throughout her book. She insisted that her readers should already have English cookery books which would guide them in the basic cooking of beef, mutton, poultry or pork. Her knowledge of the difference in pricing between town and country must have been invaluable too, and she warned her readers that newcomers might be disconcerted to find that the butcher always served equal amounts of beef and bone. This is still so today and it takes a strong stomach to watch the dismembering of a fresh carcass, flesh and splintered bone flying through the air under the not always expert chop of the cutlass. She also knew that the best saddle of mutton came from the salt ponds or from the grazing pens and was not to be fobbed off with mutton which was in fact old goat, that suet from a mountain-fed goat was better for pastry than the local beef suet, that meat could be tenderised by wrapping it tightly in a towel and burying it in a deep hole for two hours, that nothing could remove the taint of meat that had fed on guinea weed. She must have been a marvellous cook and was obviously always prepared to get into the kitchen, for she writes of successfully overcoming some of the prejudices of visitors who enjoyed her preparation of goat, unaware of what they were eating until afterwards.

In the mid-eighteenth century the majority of seeds taken from England to Jamaica failed, but by the mid-nineteenth century successful planting techniques had been established and an amazing array of fruit and vegetables was available on the island. Caroline Sullivan’s knowledge of tropical tubers and the banana family is clearly the fruit of years of study and is still indispensable to any real cook of Caribbean food. She wrote that ‘plantains green, plantains ripe, plantains turned’ were all liked by the people and the visitor. The Africans put them in their soups and salt fish and it was de rigueur to serve them wrapped up in a napkin to accompany the planter’s cheese. Tropical fruits abounded, and from pineapples, grenadillas, guavas, ackees, mangoes and many more she imaginatively made stews, puddings, preserves, custards and jellies.

Caribbean cooking is strongly intertwined with our own historical and culinary traditions. The ingredients called for in this book are now widely available in Britain, the United States and Canada, making it possible to recreate this marvellous but little-known cuisine so evocatively described a century ago by Caroline Sullivan.

Cristine MacKie is the author of Life and Food in the Caribbean.

Read more about Classic Jamaican Cooking here

Remembering Chenjerai Hove

Two years ago today, poet, novelist, and essayist Chenjerai Hove passed away in Stavanger, Norway. One of Zimbabwe’s leading writers, Hove was born in 1956 in what was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. His novels include Bones, which won the 1989 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. The author of four collections of poetry, including Rainbows in the Dust and Blind Moon, he  also wrote many essays on politics and life in Zimbabwe and a number of radio plays. A strong critic of Robert Mugabe’s regime, he was a founder member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association and president of the Zimbabwe Writers Union between 1984 and 1992.  Hove was living in exile at the time of his death as a fellow at the House of Culture in Stavanger, as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).

Serif were proud to be the publishers of Hove’s Shebeen Tales: Messages from Harareand to mark Chenjerai Hove’s death we’re offering this short extract from the book, in which he reflects on Zimbabwe’s “masked democracy” under Mugabe.
Continue reading “Remembering Chenjerai Hove”

Celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show with Frances Bissell

To celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show we’re offering 30% off Frances Bissell’s The Scented Kitchen: Cooking with Flowers and The Floral Baker: Cakes, Pastries and Breads.

Just enter the discount code CHELSEA at purchase to get 30% off.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for news on Frances’ The Fragrant Pantry: Floral Scented Jams, Jellies and Liqueurs which will be published by Serif Books later this year.

Evelyn Waugh’s travels in Guyana

Fifty-one years ago today, shortly after attending an Easter Latin Mass, Evelyn Waugh died at his home in the Somerset village of Combe Florey. He was 62. More than thirty years before, Waugh had spent a winter in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana). Afterwards, chronicling his travels, he wrote Ninety-Two Days: Travels in Guiana and Brazil.


Even Waugh’s comic imagination could not have invented the characters he met in South America: A cattle-rancher who claimed to be a close friend of the Virgin Mary, a Jesuit missionary with a pet toad that ate burning cigarette ends, and a gold-prospector who believed he was guided through the jungle by speaking parrots. Below is Waugh’s amusingly bad-tempered introduction to the book.

October 12th, 1933

At last, relentlessly, inevitably, the lugubrious morning has dawned; day of wrath which I have been postponing week by week for five months.

Late last evening I arrived at the house I have borrowed and established myself in absolute solitude in the deserted nurseries; this morning immediately after breakfast I arranged the writing table with a pile of foolscap, clean blotting paper, a full inkpot, folded maps, a battered journal and a heap of photographs; then in very low spirits I smoked a pipe and read two newspapers, walked to the village post office in search of Relief nibs, returned and brooded with disgust over the writing table, smoked another pipe and wrote two letters, walked into the paddock and looked at a fat pony; then back to the writing table. It was the end of the tether. There was nothing to it but to start writing this book.

I read the other day that when his biographer revealed that Trollope did his work by the clock, starting regularly as though at an office and stopping, even in the middle of a sentence, when his time was up, there was an immediate drop in his reputation and sales. People in his time believed the romantic legend of inspired genius; they enjoyed the idea of the wicked artist – Rossetti unhinged by chloral, closeted with women of low repute, or Swinburne sprawling under the table; they respected the majestic and august, Tennyson, Carlyle and Ruskin in white whiskers and black cloaks; what they could not believe was that anyone who lived like themselves, got up and went to bed methodically and turned out a regular quantity of work a day, could possibly write anything worth reading. Nowadays, of course, opinion is all the other way. The highest tribute one can pay to success is to assume that an author employs someone else to write for him. Most Englishmen dislike work and grumble about their jobs and writers now make it so clear they hate writing, that their public may become excusably sympathetic and urge them to try something else. I have seldom met a male novelist who enjoyed doing his work, and never heard of one who gave it up and took to anything more congenial. I believe it would have been better for trade if writers had kept up the bluff about inspiration. As it is the tendency is to the opposite exaggeration of regarding us all as mercenary drudges. The truth I think is this – that though most of us would not write except for money, we would not write any differently for more money.

All this is, in a sense, an apology for the book I am going to write during the coming, miserable weeks. It is to be a description of the way I spent last winter and, on the face of it, since there were no hairbreadth escapes, no romances, no discoveries, it seems presumptuous to suppose that I shall interest anyone. Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting? (I will make a presence of that sentence to any ill-intentioned reviewer.) Well, the answer as I see it, is that man is a communicative animal; that probably there are a certain number of people who enjoy the same kind of things as I do, and that an experience which for me was worth six months of my time, a fair amount of money and a great deal of exertion may be worth a few hours’ reading to others. Just as a carpenter, I suppose, seeing a piece of rough timber feels an inclination to plane it and squire it and put it into shape, so a writer is not really content to leave any experience in the amorphous, haphazard condition in which life presents it; and putting an experience into shape means, for a writer, putting it into communicable form.

When anyone hears that a writer is going to do something that seems to them unusual, such as going to British Guiana, the invariable comment is, ‘I suppose you are going to collect material for a book,’ and since no one but a prig can take  the trouble to be always explaining his motives, it is convenient to answer, ‘Yes,’ and leave it at that. But the truth is that self-respecting writers do not ‘collect material’ for their books, or rather that they do it all the time in living their lives. One does not travel, any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life.

Find out more about Ninety-Two Days here.