Melting pot. It's a lazy phrase, one used far too easily by people from a predominantly white skinned country. Want a melting pot? Consider our own history. Picts, Scots (from Ireland), Angles, Saxons, Danes and Vikings. And that's before you get to the Norman Conquest over 1000 years ago, and everything that's followed from there.
But take an island such as Barbados whose economy, before it was supplanted by tourism, was based on sugar, and the metaphor becomes almost irresistible. In fact, the vast majority of the population are of African descent, but our food tour in the capital Bridgetown was educational in more than just the culinary sense.
Our driver is a handsome Barbadian, or Bajan as they call themselves, name of Neil McIntyre. There are McIntyres in my family tree, though our respective skin hues suggest that the relationship twixt Neil and me is not of the closest. But it is a reminder that Scots and Irish were also important in the island's development, many finding themselves there as "indentured servants", often having been transported as punishment. (Their expertise in distilling was also handy in developing the important rum industry, but I digress.)
Neil delivers us to our tour guide in Independence Square. Hello, I'm Ravi, he introduces himself. As in Shankar? I ask. And yes, that is indeed his name, a Sikh whose parents came to the island to swell the important and influential Indian community.
Appropriately we start in a bakery, Crumbz. It's appropriate because Bajans have a famously sweet tooth, resulting in a very high incidence of Type 2 diabetes. The range on the shelves is pretty extensive, but we begin on the savoury side. Their meat rolls are very similar to our sausage rolls, but with rather more chilli, a satisfying kick delivered at the end of each mouthful. I couldn't decide what the pastry was - a variation on puff, I guess. A good start.
We were rather less taken with the coconut cake. Unsurprisingly, coconut is a very common ingredient. The cake itself was fairly dry, best eaten with a cup of coffee or, better still, with a glass of aged rum. Next, to Tim's Restaurant, a simple buffet joint on the first floor, as many eateries in the town seem to be. We take a seat on the balcony while Ravi rustles up a traditional plate of island food. We'd already sampled the famous macaroni pie. It's an absolute Bajan standard, akin to lasagne but without any meat sauce. (Recipe to come in Tom Cooks! soon.)
Many countries, of course, have a pasta culture. What intrigued me here were the other contents of a balanced plate of food Bajan style. There was some protein in the shape of a tasty chicken drumstick, but we also had macaroni salad (using the short stuff), and a portion of cassava. I defy anyone to turn the latter into anything I would ever want to eat. There was a touch of green in the form of pickled cucumber, but this was one heck of a lot of stodge, Yes, said Ravi, reading our thoughts. We do have a high incidence of heart disease too.
Just round the corner we stop at the most unassuming stall, literally no more than a small table on the street. This is to buy sugar cake from Victor. He looked no less ordinary than his table, but the man is a genius. He told us that he used to pay someone to make the stuff for him, then decided he could do better. It involves coconut and brown sugar boiled together. First experiments came out like rock, apparently. The new recipe is secret, but it involves cinnamon and ginger. I think some of the liquid from the initial boil finds its way back in again. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, but this was amazing stuff, a perfect balance of caramel, sugar and spice. All things nice, indeed. 9/10.
The Skyline Cafe looks like a small chip shop, but seems to sell everything from behind a row of deep fryers. How they're producing the advertised range of Chinese, Indian and Bajan food I have no clue, but we are there for the salt fish cakes. They are deep fried, not much smaller than cricket balls, and we receive two each. They're a bit solid and a bit soggy, and I'm glad of the good glug of hot sauce to to help them over. L discreetly disposes of her second. Wise woman. 4/10.
Next, a quick pop into the fruit market for a golden apple and a glass of sorrel. The golden apple when peeled resembles a kiwi fruit, but it's hard with quite an acerbic taste. Not my favourite. Sorrel is a common drink in these parts. It's made from the buds of the red sorrel plant. We had previously tried a commercial carbonated version, which was very refreshing. This was a home made version, a gloriously festive burgundy colour. It's apparently very rich in vitamins, and tastes good too. I'm fairly sure this was flavoured with cloves. Just like mulled wine but without the sweetness. A real find.
Upstairs again to the Courtyard Cafe. While we wait for our food, I'm astonished by the menu for the Christmas Buffet. They do turkey as do we, but ham is very big here. You can also have mahi mahi. (I was horrified to learn this a member of the dolphin family. Don't worry they said, nothing to do with Flipper.) You will also be served a dozen or so types of veg, plus ordinary gravy and jug jug. I did research the latter. It involves pigeon peas, salt meat, bacon and corn meal. My inadequate researches suggest that even Bajans aren't all that keen on it.
We have a chunk of fried fish with rice and a rather good sauce. My taste buds are giving up by now, but I'd score it 7/10.
En route to our last stop Ravi takes us to the site of a very old synagogue. Next to it, a potential development was halted when the remains of a Jewish cemetery were found. This is the part of the city where the Jewish and Muslim areas touch. Put food ingredients in a melting pot and everything merges. Sadly, here we have the familiar divide. Jewish people won't rent from Muslims and vice versa. Not much you can do with oil and water (apart, obviously, from a vinaigrette, and even that's a temporary truce).
To finish, we are promised ice cream, and find ourselves at Agapey, the only artisanal chocolate maker on the island. The website says that the factory welcomes chocolate lovers. No such thing as a welcome from the proprietor, a surly, thoroughly unpleasant individual. His chocolate ice cream is nothing special, and Lesley's vanilla turns out to be coconut. We make it with coconut milk, he shrugs, turning his back. Avoid.
Barbados is the most easterly of the West Indies islands. My impression is that the food is a little blander than in some others. This may, of course, be due to the British influence. But for a grand day out you shouldn't miss Lickrish Food Tours and the estimable Ravi or his colleagues.
Lickrish. The polite definition is someone who likes his food. Yes, that's us, but on the day the alternative meaning of gluttonous could equally apply.
Find out more about Lickrish Food Tours on their website here