History through local food

There are many ways to connect with a country but one of the most powerful is through its food.

christmas beef

Papaya can help tenderise the dish. Photo: Joe Shooman

And in Cayman there is an organisation that offers truly authentic culinary experiences for less than the cost of a couple of happy hour burger and chips meals downtown.

The National Trust is renowned for its work in assuring the future of the flora and fauna of the Islands and restoring and looking after the historical side.

Every second Wednesday of the month at its centre at Dart Park, 558 South Church Street, it also runs a cookery class that introduces traditional Cayman dishes to visitors, members and interested cooks of all ages.

It’s as informal as it is highly informative as not just techniques but context is communicated to the students. So far classes have been held to teach how to make fried red snapper (it’s all about the marinade), custard-topped cornbread (don’t add the coconut milk too quickly) and Christmas beef.

The recipe, said Denise Bodden, who led the demo, is one that she learned from her grandmother. The most important thing, she told her class, was to recognise that Cayman beef was some of the best in the world.

It’s different from American beef, for example, because on Cayman there is none of the preservative-heavy, inorganically-farmed technique going on. A Cayman cow is well-kept, eats and roams naturally, and has a generally happy life doing as little as possible. What this does is keep the meat ‘marbled’ with streaks of fat, which serve to allow a tenderisation that is just not possible with heftier, muscular US cattle full of antibiotics and steroids.

In times past, Ms Bodden explained, Caymanians survived on a diet of fresh fruit and masses of seafood with meat a rarity both due to its scarcity and subsequent difficulty of storage. Now, the roles have reversed with fishing seasons and quotas reducing the Poisson parade and cheap imported red meat a feature of everyone’s modern fridges.

Given the relatively tiny area available for pasture, though, Caymanian beef is still relatively rare and therefore always a treat.

The meat is cut into chunks in this recipe and marinated overnight in a blend of onions and local seasoning peppers.

The meat is seasoned and cooked in the oven or on the stove on ‘a whisper above minimum’ for as long as possible, until it is falling off the bone and naturally shredding. Simple in theory, harder in practice – but there are ways to slightly speed up the process. One ingenious method is to add some cubes of papaya to the dish; these help the tenderisation process and are discarded before eating.

Served simply with yam, pumpkin, sweet potato and other starchy goodies, this is the basic recipe that’s lasted through the ages. Modern innovations such as garlic and other herbs can be added according to taste.

Another version of Christmas beef involved cooking the beef together with pork. The pork fat would render into the beef, creating a succulent dish. Another way is to use a large cut of meat rather than the smaller cubes of Miss Denise’s recipe. There are as many ways to do it as there are grandmothers to learn from.

The audience that participated in the latest National Trust class certainly appreciated the flavours along with the history of Cayman life. It was a deliciously seasonal piece of history delivered with professional enthusiasm.

Christmas Beef (stew)

‘Serves about 18 – depends on how healthy your ‘Caymanian’ appetite really is!’ – Denise Bodden

Ingredients:

9 lbs stewing beef

9 lbs short ribs

2 medium onions – chop fine

12 local seasoning peppers – chop fine

6 cloves of garlic – chop fine

Salt and pepper

2 scotch bonnet or mutton peppers (optional for heat).

Method:

Prepare and clean beef; bring water to a boil, scald beef then drain.

Combine onion, peppers, garlic, salt and black pepper. Mix with beef in large pot. Place on stove at very low heat.

Cook until tender and meat falls off the bone. Plan a minimum of four hours of cooking time. Keep checking and stirring. Longer cooking means more tender beef and better taste. You can try adding a green papaya as a tenderiser.

Suggested side dishes:

Boiled pumpkin, sweet potatoes, yam or breadfruit – just add butter and salt; rice and beans with coconut milk, thyme and basil or white rice with coconut milk; fried plantain (has to be very ripe and soft).

Suggested dessert:

Cassava heavy cake.

Suggested drink:

Sorrel with either ginger or cinnamon.

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