LEGENDARY STATUS: Black cake takes centre stage at many social gatherings (Image: Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum)
DURING THE transatlantic slave trade, British colonisers of the Caribbean took aspects of their culture with them as they settled into the islands, changing people’s lives in a way that still resounds today.
Colonisers enslaved Africans to create the wealth they craved and enable them to maintain their traditions, including the food they were used to eating. With many ingredients not readily available in the West Indies, the enslaved had to adapt the colonisers recipes as best they could.
The enslaved were not empty vessels – culturally, creatively or intellectually – and they used their African culinary heritage as well as the information they were given to create new dishes in the countries they now had to call home.
The desserts they produced were given a makeover with the liberal use of local ingredients found in the Caribbean, such as spices, sugar and rum, and were a knock-out! The desserts have remained firm favourites down the centuries in the Caribbean and are now widely available in the UK, thanks to the arrival of the Windrush Generation, who brought the recipes – spiced up and full of flavour – back to England from 1948 onwards.
One of the recipes British colonisers took to the Caribbean was figgy pudding, a concoction made with bread and figs, enjoyed in the UK during the 1500s. By the 1600s figgy pudding had become known as plum pudding, because cooks added plums and other dried fruits like raisins and currants to the original recipe.
When the pudding arrived in the Caribbean, we turned it into a seriously moist cake crammed full of spices and dried fruits that had been soaked in rum and red wine for months.
No wonder the cake, commonly known in many Caribbean homes as black cake, now has legendary status.
TRADITIONS: Black cake recipes have evolved in different Caribbean countries
My mother always started soaking the fruits for this amazing cake the day after Christmas – in a large glass bottle, that when she came to England, she kept in a cupboard under the sink. Her thinking was that as none of her children liked washing the dishes, they were unlikely to go under there and disturb her treasured bottle of alcohol-soaked fruits!
Like many Caribbean cooks, she topped up the bottle with dried fruit and added liquor every month until November, when she baked the cakes ready for icing in December.
However, black cake isn’t just enjoyed at Christmas. It’s used to mark special events throughout the Caribbean calendar and celebrations such as christenings.
For my grandson’s third birthday he had requested a chocolate cake so one was ordered by my daughter.
However, I decided we would have a family tea the day before the party and ordered a small Jamaican black cake from Olive, my go-to cake maker in the local Caribbean community.
The family tea was a success and Cooper to our surprise had two slices of what he called “Grandma’s chocolate cake”.
I could see why a three-year-old thought it was a chocolate cake, the ground fruits and the browning used to create it had given it a rich, dark colour.
The next day at his birthday party when everyone was given slices of his official cake, he bit into his slice and asked after if he could have some of Grandma’s chocolate cake instead.
There was naturally a great sense of pride that a three-year-old third generation descendant of the Windrush was announcing to the world he had a Caribbean palate.
He was a discerning child – black cake was unbeatable, a triumph of a Caribbean dessert.
Like its 16th century predecessor, the Caribbean black cake is part pudding, part cake, and recipes have evolved in different Caribbean countries.
Some of these recipes include the use of gravy browning and the alcohol-soaked fruits being ground before being added to the mixture.
To many of us, it’s simply Caribbean rum cake – with a recipe to ensure it’s dark, dense and boozy.
SPICED UP: Black cake has its origins in Figgy Pudding, a concoction made with bread and figs, enjoyed in Britain during the 1500s (Image: Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum)
My father emigrated to England from St Kitts in 1957 to find work and secure accommodation for our family. We arrived in 1958 and one of the delights of this country was that houses had stairs and landings, great places for imaginative play for my siblings and I.
Later, when my parents started organising house parties, the stairs and landings were great for spying on the comings and goings of the many people who visited our home on a Saturday night. My parents explained the parties were a way of helping our community socialise Caribbean-style with food, music, and to “tell jokes”.
Many, in the company of other Caribbeans regardless of the island they were from, used the occasion to sound off about the problems they were facing.
A house party helped many get a change of scenery from living in rooms and shared housing and the chance to enjoy a full Caribbean meal, which wasn’t always possible because of the long hours of shift working.
Saturdays were spent helping my mother bake at least six cakes to provide for the visitors and rearranging the furniture in the front room, ready for the night’s dancing and drinking. Our family home became for many, their home from home.
I enjoyed watching the partying before I got discovered but was always furious when I found out the next day that there had been so many guests they had eaten the cake prepared for Sunday tea!
Another recipe introduced by British colonisers was the hot cross bun, transformed in the Caribbean into the famous treat many call Jamaican bun.
Darker and firmer than the hot cross bun and minus the flour paste cross on the top, Jamaican bun is eaten all year round in Caribbean households, not just at Easter.
The Caribbean tradition of eating bun with cheese, often American-style processed cheese that tastes nicer than it sounds, comes from Yorkshire-born British colonisers, who liked eating fruit cake with either cheese or butter, probably because it balanced out the sweetness. I’ve learned recently that some Caribbeans also eat bun with fried fish.
So the next time you tuck into a slice of your favourite Caribbean dessert, think of the bittersweet history that took it from England to the Caribbean and back again and feel proud of your ancestral links and the Windrush Generation who have popularised these food favourites over the last 70 years.
Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum, is keen to hear from anyone who has a recipe or cooking story to tell. Your contribution will be added to our collection and form part of a new exhibition we’re planning, so it’s a great way to contribute to Caribbean heritage in the UK.
Catherine Ross is the founder and director of Museumand, The National Caribbean Heritage Museum
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