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Spirit of the Caribbean

The Georgian era saw Britain extend its political and economic reach across the globe through a combination of trading power and military might. Although British rule in North America was challenged during this period, the East India Company was strengthening its grip on the Asian sub-continent, and the British presence in the West Indies remained strong.

As well as disseminating British culture across the world, these international interests deeply influenced English fashions back home, and nowhere more so than in the kitchen. Coffee, curry and sugar cane were at the heart of this taste revolution in the English home.

We’ve already seen how the English developed a taste for spice, with curried soups and side dishes. Today’s first recipe bears the name and influence of a small island on the other side of the world: Curaçao in the Caribbean.

19th century recipe for curaçao fromThe Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

19th century recipe for curaçao fromThe Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Curaçoa (Curaçao)

Put five ounces thin cut Seville orange peel, dried & pounded, into a quart of best rectified spirit. After it has been infused a fortnight, strain it and a[dd] a quart of syrup and filter.

Seville oranges have been chosen to simulate the bitter taste of lahara, the fruit that was originally used in making Curaçao liqueur. This small, green, bitter citrus is a descendant of the Valencia oranges which the Spanish had tried to introduce to the island in the 16th century. The orange trees didn’t take to the island’s Caribbean climate nor its barren earth, and gradually evolved to produce the lahara.

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies also records an English take on arrack, a South Asian liqueur:

Mock Arrack, an early 19th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Mock Arrack, an early 19th century recipe from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

Mock Arrack

Dissolve two scruples of flower of Benjamin in a quart of good rum.

Rum is combined with 2 scruples (just over 1 gram) of flowers of Benzoin, or crystallised benzoic acid. The acid was processed from the resin of the North American shrub Benzoin, and was known for its aromatic properties, its use as a preservative, and for its pungent taste.

The fashion for exotic liqueurs such as Curaçao and Arrack was buoyed by the transatlantic sugar trade. Whether in the pure form of cane sugar, or fermented and distilled to form rum, imports from the West Indies made new flavours available to English cooks.  But there is a dark side to this story of the nation’s sweet tooth: the human cost of the slave trade.

Immense fortunes were made through the use of forced labour on West Indian plantations, and the most desirable streets of Marylebone were populated by slavers and their families. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the legacy of the Slave Trade in this area of Westminster, and explore how the English taste for sweetness fuelled one of the worst violations of human rights in recorded world history.

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