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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Antiguan Old Timer

I feel great kinship with my Caribbean compatriots. Because, you see, Caribbean Standard Time (CST) is even more capricious than Indian Standard Time (IST). And while IST always means “late” – the only surprise element being how late, CST is far more wonderfully vague. CST could mean early or late, filling one with suspense-filled wonderment. Early? How early? Late? How late? What’s better than one surprise? Four of course! Keep ‘em guessing! 

Take for example, our very own experience. Just last week, we were sitting at Barbados airport at 6pm, for a 7:30pm flight. We were sipping cocktails and twiddling our thumbs, all at the same time, and having ourselves a jolly good time. When suddenly, we hear our names being called on the PA system. Uh oh, I think. This probably means something very, very bad. The PA person sounds cheerful. Not that that means anything given that everyone in the Caribbean seems to be in a perpetual state of cheer. With that weather, who wouldn’t be? Anyway, so we abandon our cocktails and head to the ‘white courtesy phone’ with great trepidation. To our immense relief, however, the person on the other end is merely requesting us to board our flight. It’s 6:15pm exactly. A bit early for a 7:30pm departure, but I can handle this; early boarding – not totally unheard of.  At 6:25pm, we are sitting in our seats, twiddling our thumbs (sans cocktails) and wondering what we’re going to do for the next hour and five minutes, when, exactly three minutes later at 6:28pm the flight pushes off from the gate! On anxious enquiry, the explanation from the very-smiley stewardess is as such: “Well, everybody was at the airport and everybody boarded the flight, so we decided to leave early.”
Got to love CST!
So: to make a short story long, given the wonderful vagaries of Caribbean Standard Time, we are not too bothered when we are already 30 minutes late for an 8pm dinner reservation at Sheer, one of Antigua’s best fine-dining restaurants. The reason we are 30 minutes late is because we are completely lost. Sid is the designated driver and I, by default, am the designated navigator. I am a bad driver (despite having passed the notoriously failable UK driver’s test on first attempt), but an even worse navigator. Evidently. I am sitting in the passenger seat of our jeep with a map of Antigua spread-eagled on my lap. The map of Antigua is amoeba-shaped with lots of bays with pretty names dotting it’s circumference (Non Such Bay and Runaway Bay and Half-Moon Bay and... you get my drift) and a few random lines going through the amoeba. Yes, I understand these are roads, but for the life of me, I can’t find a single line that joins where we are, to where we need to go. I rotate it left and stare at it for a few seconds. Nothing. I rotate it left again. Still nothing. I do this a couple of more times and then realize I am back to where I started. Sid is looking patiently at me waiting for an answer, which of course I don’t have. I sigh. “You better ask someone,” I state, sadly. We are now 45 minutes late, pushing the boundaries of CST, even. And more importantly, we are oh-so-hungry.
We pull into the nearest Texaco and notice, immediately, a rocking chair on the side by the entrance, and perched upon it, a benevolent looking gentleman with a grey beard, eating his dinner. He looks somewhat like Morgan Freeman, but more importantly, he looks local. And we are so hopelessly lost at the moment that local is good. In fact, local could not be better. He is our man. The Caribbean Santa Claus for lost tourists. And from that moment on, he is forever etched in our memories as “the old timer” from Antigua.
We pull up next to him. The first thing I notice is that whatever he is eating – something in a white take-out carton – smells amazing. I’m trying to look at his face and not his food as I ask politely – “Excuse me, can you please tell us how to get to Jolly Harbor?”
He stops eating. Clears his throat. His voice is deep, resonant. I imagine he is a great baritone. - “Ya wanna ga to Jaally Aaber?”
We nod, yes. I hand him the amoeba-shaped piece of geography with which to direct us, which he politely glances at and then promptly proceeds to dismiss.
“Aarite,” he says. “I can tell ya by traffic lights. Ya see that first light, ya take a left. Then ya see a flashing neon sign – that’s Leroy’s car wash. Ya take a right at the next light, then ya count two lights. And ya take a left. Then ya don’t go right and ya don’t go left – ya just go straightees.”
I am trying hard not to laugh - “straightees?”
But I am also hoping that Sid has been paying attention to the directions because I’ve been focusing all my attention on the contents of the old-timer’s white take-out box. Chicken in some wonderful sticky Barbeque sauce and rice & peas (which in Caribbean lingo is yellow rice and kidney beans.) The steam is still coming off the rice, the chicken looks hot and freshly grilled, and the barbeque marinade is giving off the rich, smoky aroma of molasses. Really quite tormenting given that my stomach is about to eat itself.
We pull out of the Texaco and Sid and I are in both in splits of laughter - we’ve just been directed to our destination by counting traffic lights! Imagine that happening in London? As we drive off obediently towards the first light, Sid slowly sneaks it in: “Dude, his food smelled sooo good!”
“I know!!!” I agree. “I kept staring at it. In fact I hope you counted the lights, because I was looking at his dinner. I think it was Barbeque Chicken.”
“Should we skip Sheer and just go ask the old timer where he got it?”
For a moment, we are tempted. Terribly so. Because we’re ravenous and because I truthfully couldn’t tell you when I’ve smelled anything better.
We stop the car, stare at each other. Then I cave – “We can’t go back and say, sorry we don’t want to go to Jolly Harbour after all, but excuse me, where did you get your food from? I mean, I have no shame when it comes to food, but that kinda looks pretty bad. Plus, he’ll probably say his mother made it.”
After a few minutes of deep thought, Sid sensibly agrees. After all, the old timer did take the trouble of stopping mid-bite and counting lights for us. We owe it to him to go.
So, we count our lights, and go straightees, to Jaally Aaber.
And boy, are we glad we do!
Sheer is magnificently situated.  It sits on the western most point of the bluff, directly on top of the ocean. The seating area consists of stylishly designed, very private, tiered wooded decks, separated by white-gauze curtains that dance sensuously to the evening breeze. When you look down, you see the waves crash against the cliff; further out, the sea is illuminated by the moon, sparkling silver. It is stunning and utterly romantic.
And then – drum roll please – the food arrives.
There are times when words just cannot describe situations adequately. This is one of those times.  Let’s just put it this way:  If I went into labour while I was at this table, I would wait to finish my plate, in full, before I gathered my skirts and waddled to the hospital. It was that good. Maybe better.
But, regrettably perhaps, this post does not re-create our meal that night. Chef Nigel Marten of Sheer (now at the Non Such Bay restaurant), is of the Masterchef variety – gourmet, plus, plus. His food is simply exquisite. So I am not even going to attempt to go there.
Instead, I dedicate this post to the old timer, without whose perfect directions – by traffic light – we wouldn’t have found our way.
And although, his dinner was less fancy than ours, I am sure it was equally good. To the old timer, then – this is Barbeque Chicken and Rice & Peas:
Rice & Peas:

- 1 medium sized can red kidney beans (Caribbean for Peas!)
- 1 can coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups of long-grain rice
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1/4 tspn dried thyme
- 1 tbsp oil
- Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion until translucent. Drain the liquid from the tin of beans into a large saucepan, and add the coconut milk and water.  To the mixture, add the onion, thyme, and garlic to the saucepan with the beans and bring to a boil, stirring to mix well.  Add the rice and salt and stir until it comes back to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the rice is cooked.

Barbeque Chicken:

While Barbeque connoisseurs are entitled to feel quite passionately about the “right” way to make the perfect marinade, there are many, many variations of Barbeque sauce – different flavours and different styles, originating from different parts of the American continent; from Kansas City to Memphis, from St Louis to Jamaica. Here’s my method for a sauce has a touch of heat, a touch of smoke, and, I like to think - a lot of flavour:

- 2 cups ketchup
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup minced onion
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp water
- 3 cloves garlic crushed
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tspn dry mustard
- 1/2 tspn cayenne pepper
- Fresh ground pepper, to taste
- 8 chicken drumsticks

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan on medium, and sauté onions and garlic until lightly browned. Now, add the rest of the marinade ingredients, reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, make 2 or 3 deep cuts in the meaty part of the drumsticks with a sharp knife - this helps them absorb lots of flavour from the sauce. Coat the chicken with the marinade, turning it around so all sides are well coated. Leave in the fridge to marinate for 3-4 hours.
When you are ready to cook the chicken, heat the oven to 200 C. Place the marinated chicken into a large roasting tin and space the drumsticks apart. Cook for 20 minutes or until golden brown. When the time is up, remove the chicken from the oven, brush it with the sticky glaze in the roasting tin, then return to the oven for 15 minutes more.
Enjoy, Island style, with a heaped serving of Rice & Peas.

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