Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Street Food in Marigot

A final culinary tale from St. Martin

Almost party time

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 FĂȘte. 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
Serving fruit-infused rhum

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.

One of the fancier lolo kitchens

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...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cooling Down with Dark Beer in the Caribbean

Upon first consideration, it would seem logical that the heat and glaring equatorial sunshine would make a crisp, light lager the preferred beverage of locals in the Caribbean. It’s certainly what the tourists prefer, and the discerning visitor can find great enjoyment in regional offerings like Carib, Presidente, or my personal favorite, Amstel Bright, all served with a wedge of lime jammed into the neck of the bottle, a la Corona


 It's the best (marketed) beer in the Caribbean

But for native islanders, this logic doesn’t necessarily compute. On St. Martin, as is the case in Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Bahamas, the local residents have a taste for dark beer - stouts and porters - served ice cold. 

Foreign Extra is Extra Exotic

First brewed in Dublin in 1802, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout has been brewed by a number of licensed breweries around the world since the 1960s, and is hugely popular - it accounts for 40% of worldwide sales of Guinness, despite being sold almost exclusively in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Surprisingly, this variety of the globally famous beer can’t be bought anywhere in the United States*. 

The main difference between Foreign Extra Stout and the standard variety is alcohol – depending on the country, the alcohol level ranges from 5% to 8%, compared to Guinness Draught’s 4.1%. The variances are the result of the way it's distributed - the wort is shipped from St. James' Gate in Dublin, then brewed according to local tastes in various markets around the world, with adjuncts (sorghum in Nigeria, for instance) and adjustments to fermentation as regional markets demand. The specimens I acquired on St. Martin and Anguilla had a bit of a sour pinch in the aftertaste that I don’t normally associate with Guinness. They were served numbingly cold, and went down incredibly easily (straight from the bottle of course; a beach is no place for a pint glass).

 Not the most obvious choice on the beach

The other dark tipple that I found commonly on bar menus and for sale in beachside markets was Mackeson Triple Stout. Nearly impossible to find in the American market, Mackeson is a major player on the bar menus of the West Indies. Its popularity appears to have been preserved as part of a cultural time capsule from the Caribbean islands’ past; in this case, it's a carryover from the 1870s, when milk stouts were enjoying their heyday in southeastern England, and the trend caught on in the colonies. Although Mackeson as a brand has only been around since 1907, and has been available in the UK ever since, today it's brewed under license by Carib in Trinidad, and is sold throughout the region, regardless of former colonial allegiance. I found it on English-speaking Anguilla, but saw it for sale throughout the French side of St. Martin as well. 

It’s lower in alcohol (4.9% ABV) than Guinness Foreign Extra, but more aggressive in flavor, with a sweet pleasant maltiness. Overall they were quite pleasant, and seemed entirely appropriate for the heat of the day. Both had a cooling and restorative effect that seems paradoxical for a such cloying dark beers.

But maybe it isn’t as paradoxical as it seems; perhaps, just as spicy food promotes sweating and is a reliable antidote to hot weather, there's a real explanation here. Maybe the added nourishment in heavy beers strengthens the body’s defenses against the ravages of heat and replaces the nutrients lost by perspiration. Is Guinness the 18th century’s malt-based equivalent to Gatorade? I'm not sure, but I'm happy to continue the research. I had no trouble sipping three of them over the course of a couple of hours relaxing in the shade, without a single lime in sight.

*As of May 2010, Guinness Foreign Extra is being test-marketed in Atlanta and New York, so it may soon become easier to find. Sadly, this news doesn’t help me at all in San Francisco, but time will tell.