I was raised in the Caribbean – in Jamaica and in Cayman and latterly Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
My earliest childhood memory is from Kingston at the house we lived in up at Papine on University Crescent off Old Hope Road. I remember going to school at Hopefield Preparatory School on Hillcrest Avenue and then on to St. Peter and Paul just down the road at Liguanea. It’s here I have to give thanks to Mary Jane Feanny for teaching me how to tie my shoe laces and to remember Troy Brennon for being in his gang! School after that was Priory on Hope Road. It was here that I enlisted into the 64th St Andrew’s Cub Scout pack and became an accomplished player at the serious business of playing marbles in between collecting soda bottles to get patties at the tuck shop for their return. The McGill House meetings were always a noisy imitation of a BITU (Bustamante Industrial Trade Union) gathering with the hellfire invective of Uncle Joe preaching to the masses about airline schedules for the middle class and the benefits of the plundering of the inherited.
We then moved to upper St. Andrew to Stony Hill and a house on Diamond Road. The cool of the mountains was a relief from the stifling heat in Kingston I remember.
My first memory of rum cake was actually in Cayman when we lived there for a while in the late Sixties. We lived in a wooden hut right by the sea on what is now the Seven Mile Beach not far from where the Beach Club is presently located. At that time there was no paradise style sandy beach as seen in the brochures of today – it was swamp, iron shore and bush! We simply lived in a clearing down a dirt track. But for us as youngsters, it was the coolest place ever! I remember the mosquitos, sand flies and land crabs the size of a cat – like creatures from an HG Wells fantasy come to life! How things have now changed in Cayman these days. No more mosquitos, sand flies and giant crabs anymore. School was at Triple C Preparatory and its memory contributes to a recollection of un-taxing halcyon days on the island.
We were there for just under 2 years and had one Christmas on the Island. My Old Man was involved in the banking business and had gone there from Jamaica to start one of the first financial operations on the offshore banking industry. My mother was a deft hand in the kitchen with baking Rum Cakes and I remember thinking I was so very grown up having something with rum in it.
As my Mom became recognised as the chief Rum Cake maker in the family, and more appreciated for this as we got older, she would make the cake in early October for Christmas and then soak it, or rather drown it – in rum. Every few weeks or so, she would add more rum to top it up. I remember one memorable incident where she used all the remaining rum in the house and then we had a power cut – an almost daily occurrence in Jamaica back then. In those days it was cheaper to use over proof rum to burn the hurricane lamps than it was to use kerosene. My father went mad when he discovered there was no more rum in the house to burn the hurricane lamps with. An abiding memory of the kitchen in our old house at Manor Park in Kingston was a cupboard full up with Wray & Nephew Overproof as the fuel for the hurricane lamps!
One amusing anecdote from that period was one time driving (speeding) back to Kingston on a Sunday afternoon along the Palisadoes having spent a day at Lime Cay and then being stopped by the police. Some of us in the car had been drinking all day on the island, and to try and fool the police into thinking that the smell of alcohol in the car was nothing more than Momma’s hooch filled old-time home-made rum cakes, we poured what little remaining Myers Gold Label Light Trelawny Mellow rum on to some surplus Hostess Cup Cakes. With this desperate act we hoped we could fool the Mr Policeman into thinking that any suspected nefarious activity was entirely an innocent oversight with as yet uneaten rum cakes. When he enquired, we humbly proffered him a magnificent sample of Hostesses’ finest, swearing on our mother’s lives that it was fact the heat in the car was causing this nauseous stench, and that we had coincidentally been discussing and complaining about this very unsatisfactory state of affairs just prior to his visit with us.
Slowly, he took it, a little suspicious at first – looking over it as if he’d just been handed a bag full of Ganja (it seemed to me) – took a lingering whiff – then casting his gaze back at us as he gently took a bite, smiled broadly and said, “Ya Man”, whilst still chomping at the crumbling pastry, “H’ev’ry ‘ting alright Man – G’wan!”
I was determined after that close scrape to find a way of avoiding having to unnecessarily disturb the local constabulary from their more pressing duties of catching a Duppy or a Gunman. As it so happily was the case, a lot of the kids I hung around with (latterly) were ones whose fathers were in the diplomatic service. This meant they had access to diplomatic cars. In Jamaica, a foreign diplomat’s car had a small reddish coloured oval shaped plate with the letters CD displayed on it – with the Jamaican Coat of Arms between the letters – bolted onto the rear of the vehicle. The kids had access to these. Now this had major advantages for the young “Port Royal” drivers of Kingston. It meant complete immunity to all necessary misdemeanours in vehicular rite of passage escapades needed by St Andrew’s alpha males! Boy did we have some fun with those!
So, when I arrived in England 35 years ago as a delayed part of Uncle Joe’s 5 Flights-a-Day invitation, and resigned my role as the most productive Crash Program Worker in Kingston along with relinquishing my position as a casual interpreter between those speaking Cuban Spanish and those speaking Patois, I found a place deprived of Caribbean food I was familiar with. I had grown up with D&G’s Cream Soda & Ting, ginnips, Cheese Trix, Banana Chips, Hardo Bread, Rice and Peas, Patties and my Mother’s Rum Cake.
Starting in 2008, I began the process of developing the recipe for Rum Cake to show off really to friends at dinner another Caribbean dish on the table. These sessions always trigger the Great Rice & Peas Debate – about whether the coconut used is better if it is freshly grated, or whether using a coconut block is entirely acceptable. And also, whether the Kidney Beans can be from a tin or whether it’s better to use them fresh from a bag and soaked overnight. I know what my mother would have said! To avoid the confusion, I just call it “Dat”, as did Rasta Jeremiah – from down the street!
As a result of the harsh conditions with heat & temperature during the baking process, I mix a combination of rums to get the right flavour and taste. Thus hence, The Gourmet Rumelier.
Trying to decide a name for the Rum Cakes was the next challenge. It needed to be something that reflected the Caribbean but which also had a personal association. I wanted to stay away from sopsey names like Pirates or Blackbeard’s or indeed any names which have very closely associated antiquated reptilian derivatives. I decided on Caymanas because one very fond memory of childhood was the Saturday ritual of driving with my father to Harriman’s Toy Store and Tastee’s Pattie shop at Manor Park Plaza on a Saturday afternoon with RJR radio on in the car. The drive always seemed to be timed with the live racing commentary from Caymanas Park and my brothers and I would try to imitate the bugle call that always heralded the start of the racing. That is how the name for our Rum Cakes came to be. And then of course on the way back home we would stop by the Creamy Corner ice cream kiosk for the best ice cream in Kingston!