The Spice Necklace Blog

Ann's Blog

November 8, 2009

Steel Pan, Pastelles, and Parang

In the Hi Lo supermarket yesterday, Steve posed a challenge: “I want you to walk down the housewares aisles and see if you can spot something different.” It took me barely a second: Since last week’s Hi Lo visit, one of the shelves had become loaded with heavy, hinged wooden contraptions. Pastelle presses, in Trinidad a sure sign that Christmas is around the corner.

Pastelles, cornmeal turnovers stuffed with spiced meat, are a holiday specialty here. Making them (especially in large quantities; and I’ve yet to meet a Trini who would dream of making just a few) is like carefully gift-wrapping dozens upon dozens of small, finicky Christmas packages; definitely a labor of love. First, you need to organize your “gift wrap”: steam green banana leaves until they are pliable, cut them into large squares, and oil one side. On the oiled side of each square, put a ball of cornmeal dough, and press it flat. (This is where the pastelle press comes in, though I’m told you can also use your fingers.) Then top the cornmeal dough with a few tablespoons of spicy filling (ground beef, say, seasoned with herbs, hot peppers, capers, olives, and raisins), fold the whole thing into a neat package, tie the banana leaf closed with kitchen string, and steam for 20 minutes or so.

Pastelles combine the roasted-corn flavor of polenta, which has been given a hint of sweetness from its banana-leaf wrapper, with a sweet-and-savory richness from the mixture of minced meat inside. After tasting two different homemade ones (prepared by Jean, one of the women we met a couple years ago in Paramin, a village renowned for its pastelle-makers; and by Sharon Rose James, a wonderful cook whose husband Jesse runs the maxi-taxi business we cruisers depend on to get around), we decided to feed our newly formed habit by buying commercially made pastelles from the freezer case at HiLo. Let me report that this was not a shortcut worth taking. What a disappointment.

Pastelles (also, sadly, not a patch on those made by Jean or Sharon Rose) were on the menu at the annual “Pan, Parang, and Pork” and “Clash of Steel” two-part event we attended last evening at the Queen’s Park Oval in downtown Port of Spain. The Oval is a famous cricket venue, while the parking area surrounding it is a famous party place, used for big outdoor fetes like this holiday  season kickoff dinner/show/fundraiser/ steelpan competition. Pork is another traditional Trinidadian Christmas dish, and Steve was in pig heaven at the Oval last night with dinner including a porcine quartet of geera pork, pig’s foot souse, sliced ham, and stewed pork. (Luckily, there was a chicken option for non-pork eaters like me.)

The entertainment started with a parang group, Los Paranderos de UWI (University of the West Indies). Parang is traditional folk music that tells the Christmas story in Spanish. It’s thought to have come to Trinidad with Venezuelan laborers who worked the cocoa estates in the 19th century, but Trinidad has made the artform its own, and it’s as common here as Christmas approaches as the crooning of Bing Crosby is back home.

But the highlight of the evening for us was the performance by the Silver Stars Steel  Orchestra. Each of the six bands in the “Clash of Steel” competition was allowed 40 minutes to show their stuff – using however many numbers and whatever sort of repertoire they wished – and the Silver Stars delivered an astonishing combo of music and moves: including a piece from Phantom of the Opera, conducted (but of course) by a caped and masked Phantom. The crowd went wild. I was sure Silver Stars were the winners hands down. But the judges heard (and saw) it differently, putting Invaders Steel Orchestra over Silver Stars by one point. (One of the organizers suggested it was the moving rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus that put Invaders on top.) I woke up this morning wishing I had a DVD of the two performances so I could listen and watch all over again.

The rum cocktails beforehand were sponsored by the House of Angostura. The first two on offer were color-challenged: one, a lurid turquoise and the other, an offputting chartreuse – both with a chemical-red maraschino cherry accent. The server couldn’t tell us exactly what was in the drinks to give them their, uh, rich color. I tried one, Steve tried the other, and neither inspired us to want a second.

Later on, however, the Angostura people switched to “Saga Boy Mojitos.” Saga Boy is Trini-speak for a stylish guy, and these were certainly stylin’ mojitos, pleasing in both look and taste: a combo of fresh mint, white rum, and the citrus zing of local portugal juice (portugals are similar to mandarin oranges), with a splash of soda on top. Definitely worth adding to one’s drink list at home.

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