The Spice Necklace Blog

Ann's Blog

Jolly Harbour, Antigua:
April 28, 2011
Learning to cook at Nicole’s Table

Nicole Arthurton lives on a hilltop ridge north of St. John’s, Antigua, with her husband and their two daughters. Her airy, high-ceilinged house has a knockout view, papaya trees that produce soccer-ball-sized fruits, and Scotch bonnet pepper plants whose yield gets turned into hot sauce. Late last Wednesday morning, four eager students, including me, clustered around her kitchen island, drinking her excellent rum punch and learning to cook Antiguan food.

For the last two years, Nicole has been offering small, hands-on cooking classes followed by lunch or dinner featuring the dishes the class prepares. “Cooking school” is way too formal a term to describe her relaxed, entertaining, low-key approach.

Queen of tarts, and a whole
lot more: In just a few hours,
Nicole taught us seven
West Indian recipes
She calls her business “Nicole’s Table,” and that’s precisely what it is: Hanging out with friends around the table of an excellent cook who’s willing to share her secrets, watching and helping over drinks, and then enjoying the fruits of your labours afterwards.

The theme of our class was Saltfish and Fungi. “When we signed up, we thought we’d be cooking ocean fish and mushrooms,” one of my classmates says. But Antigua’s national dish is something else entirely: Fungi (pronounced “foon-jee”) is a cooked cornmeal paste, like polenta or coo-coo. It goes with saltfish (salted and dried fish, such as cod) “the way chips go with fish in England,” Nicole says. We’ll be turning the saltfish into buljol, preparing it the way her mom does: sautéing onions, sweet peppers, and seasoning peppers, then mixing in the soaked (to remove the salt), drained, and flaked fish and chopped fresh tomatoes, and simmering briefly. Although buljol can be eaten any time of day, it’s particularly popular for Sunday breakfast.

Party apps: Showing off the
plantains wrapped in bacon,
and roasted plain
with olive oil and salt
Also on the day’s menu/lesson plan were a simple appetizer of plantains wrapped in bacon, Jamaican-style red beans and rice, cucumber souse (cucumbers marinated with salt, lime juice, and hot pepper), and duckuna, a popular Antiguan side dish. It’s a sweet steamed dumpling made with grated sweet potatoes, coconut and cornmeal. When she was growing up on Montserrat, Nicole explains, her family often had duckuna with saltifsh instead of fungi – which she confesses she’s not really fond of. (After a stretch in the U.S., Nicole followed her parents to Antigua when they relocated after the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted and buried the southern half of Montserrat in ash.) Dessert will be a coconut custard tart, “just because I love it,” she says.

She wastes no time setting us to work, and as we follow her lead and chop, grate, and stir, she dishes little tricks, shortcuts, and tidbits about West Indian cooking. As a timesaver, buy boneless, skinless saltfish, she says. And when using fresh thyme, do as the West Indians do and add it to the pot stalks and all. If the buljol is too salty when you taste it, add some fresh lime juice. Make your own vanilla extract by putting a few vanilla beans in a bottle with a cup or so of dark rum. When making fungi, if you “wet” the cornmeal with cold water before adding it to the pot, it will help keep it from clumping. She shows us how the shape the cooked cornmeal into individual balls by shaking and swirling a dollop of it in a small bowl – a brave move with novices, if you’re hoping to keep your kichen counter and floors clean. (I have an advantage here, as I learned this technique making coo-coo balls in Carriacou, and tell the tale in The Spice Necklace.)

Lunch is outdoors on her broad porch. After tasting, which of the recipes would I make again? All of them. That said, we each have our favourite dishes. The fungi, however, is on everyone’s list (even Nicole likes it).

Easy indulgence: A quick press-in crust and storebought
dessicated coconut in the custard help make these tarts simple
It’s almost four when I leave Nicole’s house – with my sheaf of recipes, a monster papaya, a jar of her homemade pepper sauce, and one of the coconut custard tarts for Steve to try. (Click here for the recipe.) There’s an ulterior motive: I’m hoping after he tries it, he’ll agree that returning sometime for a dinner class at Nicole’s Table – both of us – with a group of friends, is an excellent idea. Especially when I tell him she offers one called “Cooking with Rum.”

Note: The reason there’s been a delay in posting this blog is that we were anchored off Barbuda’s isolated south coast, where there are more wild donkeys onshore than people. No stores, no cellphone signals, no wifi, no Internet cafés. So no blogging.

Back to top

Sign up to be notified by email when I post a new blog

One comment on “Jolly Harbour, Antigua:
April 28, 2011
Learning to cook at Nicole’s Table

  1. Terahbarrios on said:

    Hi Ann! Looks like we might have passed you when we were in Antigua! I can’t believe I missed Nicoles Table, that would have been such a great experience as I am a culinary student. What fun that would have been! I am enjoying your book as we speak, oh my goodness I can RELATE to many of your thoughts and feelings hahaha!
    Thanks for a great read!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

HTML tags are not allowed.