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Eating and Drinking Well in the French West Indies
Creole cuisine, a sultry mélange of African, European, Arawak, even Asian traditions, reflects the islands' turbulent territorial tugs-of-war.
Deceptively simple yet robustly flavored, authentic "Kweyol" cuisine demands patience: continual macerating and marinating, then seasoning as the food simmers. Many dishes developed in response to economic necessities, recycling leftovers and incorporating ingredients such as starches (both hardy and impervious to spoilage). The indigenous Arawaks provided tubers such as tannia and yucca; lemongrass and capsicum for seasoning; arrowroot for thickening; and roucou (annatto, a yellowish-reddish seed) for coloring. The Africans imported plantains, pigeon peas, potatoes, and peppers. The French and British introduced tomatoes, onions, and less perishable salt cod. East Indian indentured servants brought cumin, cardamom, and coriander, notably used in colombo, a meat (try cabri, goat), poultry, or seafood dish that detonates the palate. Wash it down with fresh local juices from pulpy papaya to puckering passion fruit or the fine rums. Bon appétit!
The primary ingredient in this aperitif is 100-proof rum. It's occasionally fruit-infused, muddled with fresh lime and simple cane syrup. Novices might want to request the lighter (weight) ti-bete. Another concoction worth sampling is the classic planteur (rum with fruit juices and spices); finish dinner with a rhum vieux (aged, cognac-quality rum) or shrubb, an orange- and spice-tinged rum-based liqueur. An excellent rhum vieux is Reimonenq's Ste. Rose.
Although 95% of rum is distilled year-round from fermented molasses (industriale), the French West Indies, particularly Martinique, developed the rhum agricole process in the 19th century when cheaper beet sugar threatened the sugarcane industry. Homère Clément pressed and fermented fresh free-run cane juice just like wine grapes before distilling. Rhum agricole uses the entire crop at its mature peak, only during the two-month spring harvest. Eventually France awarded Martinique a coveted Appellation d'Origine Controlée, attesting to the origin and authenticity of each bottle à la French wine certification; producers must observe restrictions on cane varieties, yield, distillation, aging, and production zone. The results, especially the basic blanc, exhibit trademark earthy, vegetal, mineral notes. Aged bottles, including vintage-designates, from top producers such as Clément, J.M, Neisson, and Dépaz, rival single malts and cognacs in complexity: lush and luscious from beguiling hues to unique aromatics and flavor profiles—pepper to pecan, sandalwood to cinnamon to leather and cigar smoke, ginger to gardenia, marzipan to mace.
Blaff. This typical method of preparation is usually used for firm, flaky, white fish such as mahimahi or grouper. The fish is poached in a seasoned broth, often a classic court-bouillon (a quick stock perfumed with fresh herbs). The broth is then doctored with lime, onion, garlic, cilantro, chilies, and other ingredients to create the incendiary "condiment" sauce chien (whose etymology is obscure, but may indeed have been named "dog's sauce" because it would render even canines edible).
Cod. France contributed many basic ingredients over time to economize, notably dried salt cod, which required no refrigeration and became a staple in creole cooking. Accras de morue, fluffy cod fritters, grace every menu. Other popular traditional dishes include chiquetaille, shredded cod usually served with a spicy vinaigrette, and ferocé (saltfish mixed with avocado and peppers, deep-fried in manioc flour). Tin-nain morue, grilled cod and bananas believed to energize, still jump-starts many locals' days.
Crayfish. This spiky freshwater crustacean, both wild and, increasingly, farmed, is usually served whole with a variety of sauces. It goes by many names in the French West Indies, including the more Gallic écrevisse, patois z'habitant or crebiche, and ouassou (generally larger). A favorite preparation is stewed with dombrés (manioc dumplings served pancake-style); you may also see it étouffée (stewed with vegetables, served over rice), underscoring the similarity to Cajun cuisine (alongside such dishes as boudin, blood sausage).
Poulet Boucané. "Buccaneer's chicken" is smoked slowly over burnt sugarcane (a centuries-old warning signal that pirates were coming) in a closed, chimney-topped barbecue. Boucanage is also a French preservation technique, "drying" seasoned meats and poultry on a wood fire (in this case using sugarcane husks). Roughly similar to Jamaica's jerk, it mingles smokiness, sweetness, and spiciness; the marinade typically is a variant of the combustible sauce chien, though milder versions might combine vinegar, lime, garlic, and clove.
Tripe. Another old-fashioned method of economizing was the use of internal organs, offal, which eventually became appropriated by haute cuisine. Tripe (small intestines) is particularly popular. The classic dish is bébélé, a stew of tripe, green bananas, tubers (usually breaded as croquettes or domblés), and gourds such as giraumon (similar to pumpkin).
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