A final culinary tale from St. Martin
On Tuesday evenings during the spring and summer, the main thoroughfare of Marigot is closed to car traffic, and tables are set up in the streets for the weekly Grand Fête. A flatbed truck laden with cases of Carib has been dispatched in anticipation of the revelers who will soon throng the streets, and restaurants have been preparing all day for the descent of partygoers. The crowd is mostly well-heeled European tourists - men dressed in pastel linen shirts and shorts, and women in light floral dresses. Their sunburnt teenage children sequester themselves into harmless little street gangs, likely groups of friends that they haven't seen since their families' last annual visit to the island. A few locals mill about too, mostly ducking in and out of house parties along the street and chatting with the vendors. The atmosphere is vaguely commercial, but without pressure - the community seems happy to host any party that brings commerce to their town, but they're having fun too. Overall, it's a pedestrian-friendly way to peruse the wares and tastes unique to St. Martin.
Making coconut ice cream
The most interesting stop for me was the rum tent. I should really say rhum, because we're talking about the French colonial style of distilling booze from sugar cane juice, instead of the English style with which most Americans are familiar, whereby molasses, the rough by-product of sugar-making, is the base. The bright flavor of rhum imparts a crisper, almost mineral flavor, more reminiscent of sugar than the mustiness of dark aged rum. Most importantly, rhum takes very well to infusion. It's common in bars throughout the island to see several jugs of the stuff, each with a generous amount of mango, pineapple, banana or another tropical fruit stewing in the bottom, imparting flavor to the concoction for days, after which they are doled out to customers to be sipped or floated on top of frozen cocktails.
On this warm Tuesday evening, all of the usual tropical flavors were on offer, and for three euros, I was given a couple of generous ladlefuls of pineapple rhum in a plastic cup. As I sipped, I looked up and noticed the vendors behind the table. They were serving each other rhum too, but from another carafe! This one was hidden from view behind the row of fruit infusions, and instead of neatly sliced fruit, had spiny branches and clumps of broad leaves crammed inside. The liquid had taken on a forbodingly green tint, further setting it apart from the golden amber hues of the rest of the lineup. I asked, and was told that this was 'bush rhum'. Further inquiry only produced a bevy of aphrodisiac claims; questions about its ingredients didn't get me anywhere, either due to a language barrier or a simple reluctance to divulge. But cheerfully, one of the the men produced another plastic cup. He ladled some of the green liquor into it, and offered it to me, shaking his head when I reached for my pocket to pay. I smiled, and took a sip. It smelled of lawn clippings and fresh earth, and with my eyes closed, it tasted as if I'd run headlong into a patch of weeds with my mouth open. And somehow, it tasted as if there was more rhum in this rhum - clearly there was nothing sweet in the handfuls of jungle vegetation that could counteract the bite of the Rhum Bologne the way a mango or guavaberry could. I sipped again, and after a knowing nod to my fellow bush rhum drinkers, I thanked them and walked back into the fray of the party.
We were hungry, and followed the crowd to a lolo, or street restaurant. Common throughout the Caribbean, lolos are set up in private homes, along roadsides, and occasionally, as in this case, in purpose-built outdoor dining areas. Famous for serving simple meals at very low prices, they typically offer a variety of meats, all grilled over wood fires in barbecues made from converted oil drums.
I'll be honest - if it's evaluated out of context, Caribbean barbecue pales in comparison to the well-developed standards of regional American barbecue. By many definitions, it isn't even barbecue, but rather just grilled meat - the heat is too high and the cooking time is too short. The meat can be tough, and the flavor too simple, often drowned out by bottled Kraft sauces. But within its context, the technical details cease to matter. Served from a sidewalk restaurant fifty feet from the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea, my plate of pork ribs and chicken thighs, cold Carib and warm johnnycake made everything in the world feel right. Maybe it was the smell of the woodsmoke, or the sound of the steel drum band, or the thrill of sharing the moment with my new wife. Then again, maybe it was just the bush rhum...