Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams writes for Caribbean Intelligence© about life in Europe
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in London around the Yuletide season, there’s plenty of atmosphere and freebie pleasures to induce some inner Christmas cheer, despite the biting cold, grey weather and the sea of heavy winter coats that greet you as you explore the streets of this large metropolis.
Christmas is a magical time of year to be in the English capital. Trust me.
Architecturally, there is the splendour of that legendary department store, Harrods.
In December, its moss-green structure is transformed, as thousands of fairy lights contrast with the frozen smiles of smartly dressed doormen bidding you Yuletide greetings.
One might also be enticed by the old-world splendour of my personal favourite, Fortnum and Mason’s, purveyors of fine foods to Her Majesty and sellers of the best piccalilli, if you ask this Trini in Europe.
Every year, millions of visitors, local and foreign, flock to shop in the heart of central London and to marvel at the Christmas displays in Oxford and Regent Streets.
And at least one seasonal activity revolves around watching the Christmas lights in Trafalgar Square, officially turned on by the Mayor.
Some 500 white lights are wrapped around a 60ft spruce donated annually by the people of Norway to Londoners, in gratitude for British support during World War II.
“I can confirm that it is cut from the woods above the city of Oslo,” the Wise One interjects without fail every December, displaying inside knowledge gleaned from a diplomatic posting to Oslo and being involved in the tree felling exercise while there.
In the smaller London districts, complimentary glasses of mulled wine are shoved into your hand by store owners, enticing passers-by inside to part with hard cash.
Such bastions of quintessential Englishness are especially appreciated in these hard economic times.
That’s because enjoying the Christmas scene in London doesn’t have to cost a cent.
I can spend hours in Harrods without touching my wallet.
I look at award-winning art, try on expensive cashmere garments, sniff posh scented candles and still walk out satiated from sampling fancy Christmas pudding and bespoke eggnog.
In the country
Any chance we get, the Wise One and I spend time in the undulating, lush English countryside where the Christmas feeling is amplified, made more spectacular by the snow-covered meadows and farmlands, acres of flame-coloured autumn foliage and the splendour of frozen fenlands and waterways close to home.
But for my perfect London day out at Christmas time, I head for Blue Mountain.
No, not the Blue Mountains of Jamaica (that would be a real treat from Santa Claus).
I am talking about the Blue Mountain supermarket in the ethnically vibrant, bustling neighbourhood of Harlesden, north-west London.
Blue Mountain is a Pakistani-run spilling-out-onto-the-streets supermarket specialising in Caribbean produce, fruits, spices, vegetables and meats, including triple-smoked Christmas ham that is without rival in any posh department store.
So it was with great pleasure one evening, while enjoying a good ole’ homecoming lime, (mixing in log fires and freezing temperatures outside) deep in the English countryside with my dear friends, fellow Trini John Lyons and his lovely wife Jeanie, that I had my “aha” moment.
Reaching Blue Mountain
“John. But wait. How long now you in de mudder country and you ain’t reach Blue Mountain yet?”
How could Trinidad-born John - a man with “sweet hand”, as Caribbean people describe brilliant home cooks; an artist famed for his cuisine, his popular cookery book, his poetry about cooking and art influenced by Caribbean traditions and food - not know about the renowned Blue Mountain of London?
I kept up the teasing and picong.
“Jesus, Mary, Sparrow and Kitchener, we have to fix that!” I concluded with a delivery more suited to Palestine-Israeli negotiations about Gaza.
In fairness to John – an acclaimed poet and painter with works in British national collections – his usual stomping ground is the city of Manchester, where he has made his creative name for nearly two decades.
But the look in his eyes, responding to the look on my face, said he might come to believe there were indeed treasures to be found in Harlesden.
So some 80 miles from London, in an idyllic little hamlet in the Fens, the plan was hatched - and with zeal aplenty, we plotted our pilgrimage to seek all we needed to feed our bellies (and souls) for a Caribbean Christmas in England.
Fast forward a week and there we all were, resembling Christmas turkeys - stuffed into winter clothing of every description, as we piled out of the car of another dear friend who needed no convincing to accompany us with full gas tank and an empty boot, accepting instantly that this caper required the appropriate getaway chariot.
Even before we reached the entrance of Blue Mountain, dear John ignited my spirit with a kerbside running commentary.
From 10 yards he spotted a green gem, and the eloquence usually reserved for his poetry readings began:
“O Jesus Christ, dat is breadfruit? Look breadfruit. I ain’t see breadfruit in more than 10 years…wait, Natalie, longer that dat! I don’t believe I seeing breadfruit!”
John exclaimed, dashing across the road, the Queen’s English and all of us left in the dust.
Pigtail, cassava, Crix, it’s all here
Inside the supermarket, his excitement was evidenced by the shelves left with huge gaps, whole crates of spices emptied as wire shopping baskets filled.
John was a delight to watch.
The Wise One said it reminded him of whenever we stumble upon a West Indian vendor somewhere in this world on our travels, but I confess to feeling rather emotional at sharing this first-time experience with my Trini friend John Lyons.
Strolling up and down the aisles, mental menus for dinner, lunch and breakfast are planned as we stop for the umpteenth time in front of pepper-sauce bottles spanning the entire Caribbean (almost).
There he is, head inside a freezer laden with proper Trini-style roti skins, frozen creamy cassava and mounds of fresh pink pigtail simply begging to be tossed into a warming soup on this wintry day.
“John, we’d better close the freezer door now,” I whisper, peeling his hand away, having spied the owners frowning.
Repeatedly I observe John’s wide grins and eyes lighting up like that Trafalgar Square Christmas tree.
And when in one corner of the shop we discovered actual Crix biscuits, I knew this was the best Christmas present I could have given John and quite frankly, myself!
“Oh my word, here’s real Trinidad curry and mango kutchela! How they get this to England? …I really seeing sapodilla? Oh my, real pommceterre fruit for my pickle and chow…and, gosh, look, look real zabocas!”
He lifts two huge vivid green beauties to his chest to show his wife the size of proper avocados, then inhales their fragrant lure, before depositing them in to his already heaping basket.
Is there Scottish mauby?
His joy-filled Scottish wife is not to be left out.
Jeanie’s passion warms our cheeks with her thrill at recognising indigenous produce and the mauby she enjoyed years ago in Trinidad, and her constant marvelling at new ingredients for John’s splendid home cooking.
Suddenly we spot them: the crate of triple-smoked Christmas hams, like manna from heaven.
And right there in the middle of Harlesden, we are transported back to childhood in the Caribbean – memories of boiling ham in pitchoil tins in water infused with cloves, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, filling the house with beautiful smells....
Now, the brains behind Caribbean Intelligence tells me she sources her Christmas ham in Shepherd’s Bush, another landmark West Indian community area.
But I will go down arguing that any establishment named after Jamaica’s majestic, bountiful, lush Blue Mountains must sell the most delicious, succulent, righteous hams.
Yet, for me, the Blue Mountain supermarket experience is about more than finding the perfect Christmas fare.
I am uplifted by the numerous differing West Indian accents that fill the place, coming together harmoniously like a jazz melody.
All human life is here
I love watching the elderly shoppers of all ethnicities converge, exchanging life stories, health issues and gossip while doing their weekly shopping.
It is a ritual best appreciated at first hand.
It is equally entertaining to eavesdrop on the armchair politicians debating British coalition politics over the yams and plantains, like those legendary West Indian soapbox lecturers in Woodford Square or Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner.
“You see what this government doing to pensioners? Every last cent they give we with one hand they take back with de other. Like…how he name in the Bible…hmmm, can’t remember he name just now, it will come to me,” I hear a St Lucian granny lament, plantain clutched in hand.
So it is that John and I and the gang wrap up a day of brilliant Christmas shopping and exit the shop, content in purchases and spirit.
We have just one more Christmas wish: to quench the real hunger and thirst stirred by hours of planning meals in our minds and shopping baskets.
Upon leaving Blue Mountain we spot salvation: a sign saying “TRINIDAD ROTI SHOP”, a popular restaurant recently relocated across the road from Blue Mountain.
Two hours later, a social networking link and new friendships have been formed with the Roti Shop owner, a Trini engineer who has taken a break from working on multi-million-pound road projects to “mind the shop” for his parents who are on vacation in Trinidad.
John says: “All we need now is a cold Carib to wash down the excellent roti and little calypso to send we on our way.” With one click of a digital device, music fills our ears as we depart the roti shop, heading a mere two doors down for the cold Carib beers.
What more could a Trini in Europe want for Christmas?
(Editor’s note: I still think my Shepherds Bush ham is de best!)
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