Oh well, sorry to disappoint all you fig lovers out there, but this post is all about bananas. And ice-cream. And other goodies. Like booze. Lots of booze. But mostly about bananas.
Why then, you ask, does my title lend itself to believing that I am writing about figs?
An intelligent question, this. Highly so.
And the answer to this highly intelligent question is: the Antiguan word for banana is “fig.”
Now, I don’t really care for bananas. I don’t hate them (like my sister-in-law Su, who won’t live in the same house as a banana), but I don’t love them either. Especially when they’re overripe. Which is when they get all brown and spotty and squidgy. And then they scare me.
Don’t you just love the bit with the “but?”
“What?” you wonder, as your imagination runs wild, “comes next?” “What’s the marvellous twist in the tale?”
Well, my friends – it is this:
I had a Banana Split in Antigua last week. For the first time in my life. And – wait for this – I enjoyed it thoroughly.
There – I’ve said it.
I had it by circumstance, not by choice, I’ll have you know. You see, it was hot, I was hungry, we were killing time, waiting for the sunset, and well – it was there. And removed from its horrible spotty skin with the pointy edges cut off, it looked slightly more bearable. And it was topped with ice cream (three different flavours at that) and fresh strawberries and fresh pineapple. Yum. And booze. Very important, the booze. And so all this – especially the booze - sort of changed my mind about the banana. And, as I just said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I thought I’d try it myself, and well, have you all try it too, you know? Because (and I can't believe I'm saying this), it was really quite yummy.
“Fig”uratively speaking then, I give you: Banana Split.
Now, I have always maintained that for every memorable meal, context is crucial. It is hardly ever just the dish that one remembers. No - more often than not, it’s the context that makes you remember it and smile quietly to yourself. And so no matter who or what my inspiration is, in every post that I write, I try to recreate recipes that matter to me in some way. That connect me with a person, a place, a memory, an emotion. For it’s that connection between the taste and the thought – that context – that I remember, that I want to remember.
And so, for this one, the crucial, necessary and indispensable context, is Fig Tree Drive.
Fig Tree Drive, Antigua's most picturesque road, is named as such, because? Go on, you know this now!!
Yup, you got it - because it is lined with banana trees on both sides!
Anyhow, now close your eyes and imagine.
Imagine you’re on Fig Tree Drive. Well, I am. But for the moment, transport yourself into my head (which is not as scary as it seems, really) and imagine for a brief while that it’s you. So, you’re on Fig Tree Drive, this beautiful, undulating road that meanders from the low central plain of the island up into the tall volcanic hills of the Parish of Saint Mary, in the island's southwest corner.
You start on the coastline, at English Harbour where the sailboats sway to the breeze, and then you climb. You cross the town of Swetes, where Curtly Ambrose was born. It is a sleepy little town stuck in time: people dozing off in hammocks on their balconies, women chatting to each other on doorsteps, houses painted bright yellow or blue or peach, rainbow coloured kites flying gaily in the sky, and (very aptly) little Antiguan boys playing cricket in their whites.
Along the way are a number of old sugar mills and pleasant little churches. You’re in for a particular treat if you go on a Sunday when there is Mass going on. Because then, the church doors and windows are thrown open to let in the breeze, and if you stop and peek, you see rows of cheerful Antiguan women, dressed in their Sunday Best, clapping their hands and swaying their (ample) hips to the tune of “Who’s that Rising, John The Revelator…” Their voices – sweet, and strong, and steady, carry across the stone walls, towards the sea. Resonant. Emotive.
So, you’re driving along through Swetes, when quite suddenly, just after the last colourful little village house has passed, you find yourself surrounded by emerald green hills. They tower over you; you disappear into them. You drive through lush rainforest thick with banana (or fig!), mango, guava and coconut groves, before descending, once again, to sea level. And it is hard (even though you’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again) not to let your jaw drop when you get that first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea. You are overcome, time and time again, by the turquoise-blue splendour of it all. And as you come down that steep cliff, you see it, right there in front of you. Those white sandy beaches, the crystal blue water, a horizon that extends to infinity: that dramatic coastline.
It knows the effect it has on you. And it plays it up. It shows off. It toys with you.
It is at this moment that you spot the stand. There are a few of them along the way, local stands off the side of the road, selling a bunch of local produce – bananas and black pineapples and mangoes. But you don’t really stop because you want to get to the end of Fig Tree Drive in time for the sunset. But now that you’re almost there, and the sky is only starting to get tinged with colour, you realise you have time to spare. So you stop. And you get a Banana Split, to go. Antiguan style. While you wait for it.
The sunset in Antigua is an event. A sensational coming together of sun and sky and sand and sea.
So you wait for it.
You walk down to the beach, Banana Split in hand, and you stand there on the edge, where sea and sand meet, where the water, warm from the day’s sun, laps seductively at your toes.
And you watch.
And you take it in.
It is vivid. Sweeping streaks of orange and pink, above, mirrored on blushing sands, below.
And it makes your heart skip a little.
Here’s what you need:
- 1/2 cup scoop vanilla ice cream
- 1/2 cup scoop chocolate ice cream
- 1/2 cup scoop strawberry ice cream
- 1 large ripe banana
- 25g/1oz dark chocolate
- 2 tbsp milk
- 2 tablespoons dark rum. Yum. Rum
- 2 tablespoons fresh strawberries, sliced
- 2 tablespoons fresh pineapple, cut into teeny-tiny chunks
- 2 tablespoons walnuts
- Handful of fresh cherries
- 1 tbsp (or more!) brandy. Yum. Brandy.
Here’s how you do it:
Remove cherry stems, pit them, and soak them in the brandy for a few minutes.
Stir chocolate and milk in a medium saucepan over low heat until the chocolate is thick and melty. Add the rum to make a thick, smooth, boozy mixture.
Meanwhile, cut the banana in half lengthwise (hence the split) and lay it in a long dish (traditionally called a boat). Ours was a to-go container, so it must have been some majorly toughened cardboard to have been able to carry all that weight, but if you’re making it at home, just use a china bowl. Line up the scoops of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream between the split banana. Spoon the crushed pineapples over the vanilla ice cream, the boozy-hot-fudge sauce over the chocolate, and strawberries over the strawberry.
Now at precisely this moment – i.e. when your dessert looks as timelessly beautiful as the Antiguan sunset, you’re technically supposed to go and ruin everything by smothering it entirely with whipped cream and planting maraschino cherries on top.
No!! Please!! I beg you, no!
Because if there is anything worse than maraschino cherries – hard, sulphur-dioxide preserved, artificially coloured, scarily red balls of blackout-inducing sweetness – it’s whipped cream. Which tastes like shaving foam. Don’t ask how I know what shaving foam tastes like. Simply know that when I tell you that I’ve done some wild and wonderful things in my life, I am soooo not kidding.
Anyhow, my version of Banana Split contains neither whipped cream nor (gag) maraschino cherries. I believe in keeping beautiful objects beautiful.
So, please: garnish with walnuts. And sprinkle (liberally) with fresh brandied cherries.
Eat up. But before that, take a picture.
It’s only a banana, but it’s a rather beautiful banana.
Enough to make your heart skip a little. Figuratively speaking.