Get your drinks on!

Hi Everyone, “I ain’t seen you since last year!” A corny joke, it’s true, but we all do it every New Years and this, after all, is my first column for 2010.

So, how was your Christmas? How was your Old Year’s Night? Did you eat, drink, and were you merry? My holiday season was quiet, which is just how I like it, and now I am on my verandah typing this column, sipping the last batch of the Christmas sorrel. The last sips of anything coupled with the first days of a new year make me a little contemplative; so this week I thought I would ponder upon our delicious holiday drinks menu. Why don’t you grab a small glass of your favourite beverage and ponder with me?

As you all know, one of the reasons I started this column was to write about how important taste memories are for those of us who live far from our homes. And it was precisely because I wanted to recreate the tastes of my Guyanese home that I began making my own Christmas sorrel, and ginger beer. When I was growing up, my mother would make these drinks. I would help of course. For example, I would deseed the sorrel and help strain both the sorrel and the ginger beer, but my mom was the one who made the drinks.

When I moved to Barbados I was desperate to capture the types of Christmases my mom

White Sorrel (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

had made for us; making my own sorrel and ginger beer was an important part of this. There is nothing like the smell of the sorrel and spices mixing with all the other wonderful smells of the season to signal a Christmas home.

This year I had an opportunity to experiment a little. It was the first time I’d ever seen white sorrel. When I went to the market one of the vendors had the white sorrel on display. Initially I just thought it was sorrel that was not fully ripe and I wondered why she had it on sale. The vendor quickly told me, no, this was a different variety of sorrel – so you know I had to try it.

I made one batch of red sorrel and one batch of white sorrel, using the same spices and the same techniques in both. Both sets of drink came out perfectly, but there were subtle differences. The white sorrel is a little tarter. The red sorrel is heavier; somehow, it’s like music with a little more bass line. The white sorrel has less bass, and a certain clarity. Listen to me! I’m talking about sorrel like a wine connoisseur, and well I should, there is an art to making a good sorrel.

Sherry (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

Talking of wine, I can’t forget to mention some of the alcoholic drinks of the season – sherry, ponche de crème, and mulled wine are some of my favourites. Hey, even a near teetotaller like me likes to tek a lil’ tooks every now and then!

Sherry is another connection to my mom and the Christmas traditions she created for us when we were young. Of course, when we were kids we weren’t generally allowed any alcohol. However on Christmas mornings, before we dug into our Christmas breakfast, mum would pour out a little sherry for each of us.  It was like a little ceremony. She would first put out her nice sherry glasses and then she would pour just a little of the sherry out for each of us – mom, Pat, Eon and myself. The sherry had to be Harvey’s Bristol Cream. No other sherry would do. We would raise our glasses and mummy or one of us would make a toast to family, togetherness and the upcoming year. Then we would carefully sip the sherry (don’t tell anybody, but when I was younger I always thought it tasted like communion wine!)

In 2007, mommy came to Barbados to share Christmas with me. We planned to have our Christmas sherry of course and we hunted up and down Barbados but could not find any Harvey’s Bristol Cream.  This was so strange. Usually it’s readily available. Finally we went to one supermarket and there, on the shelf, was one lonely bottle of Harvey’s begging to be taken home. The guy packing the shelves near us said, “I think you got the last bottle of Harvey’s on the island!” I guess a lot of families have a Harvey’s Christmas tradition.

Sometimes it’s funny where traditions come from. We never drank ponche crème when I was growing up. It makes sense when you think about it. That heady combination of rum, raw eggs, milk, nutmeg and sugar or condensed milk would have been much too strong for us kids. Mom made sure that one glass of sherry was about as far as we would venture into the world of alcohol. Still, I had a sense in my head that ponche crème was part of Christmas and do you know where it came from?  The Grand Master himself, the late Lord Kitchener. “Drink a rum and a ponche creme, drink a rum, Mamma drink if you drinking!” This calypso is a Christmas classic, played on every radio station throughout the season. So I think I had a feeling that, somehow, ponche crème was part of my Christmas.

However, once again, it wasn’t until I got to Barbados that I tried to make my own. Another Guyanese friend gifted me a bottle of ponche crème for Christmas a while back and it was so nice that I knew I had to make it myself. So I did what I do these days with any dish or drink with which I am unfamiliar. I went online looking for recipes.  I checked out a variety of recipes, analyzed them and experimented until I found my own recipe. Now ponche crème is a real part of my Christmas, not just a musical memory made by a great calypsonian.

Look, it’s getting late. The ice in my sorrel has practically melted. I think I will savour the last few sips before I say a final goodbye to the holiday season just passed. Hope you enjoy your drink too. Cheers!


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