After all: a festive story with a touch of tropical spice
In his traditional Yuletide tale, our columnist travels through space and time: from Moscow to the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis, where he meets the ‘engineer of spices’.
It's Christmas again and time for my traditional Yuletide travel tale. Whereas my two previous Christmas stories were set in Germany and Iceland respectively and featured early cars, geothermal energy and the technologies of ice-cream making, this year's tale will take us across the globe - from drab Soviet-time Moscow to a sun-drenched Caribbean island - and will deal primarily with spices. Not the traditional British Christmas spices, like cinnamon, peppermint and ginger (albeit ginger can be found in the Caribbean too), but some seriously hot chili peppers, high on the Scoville pungency scale and capable of warming you up from inside out during a freezing European winter.
Our tale starts in early-1980s Moscow, when as a tyro Soviet interpreter I was assigned to work with the Minister of Culture of Guyana, a small Caribbean state, known for its socialist leanings, its rum and its steel bands. It was the latter that brought the Minister to Moscow as he was trying to negotiate the first-ever tour of the USSR by a steel band. The negotiations were tough, the main point of discord being the musicians' instruments, i.e. empty oil barrels, which the Guyanese side - understandably - did not want to carry with them hoping to acquire some in Moscow. The Soviet team, led by a high-ranking ruddy-faced official (let's call him Comrade Nietov, from 'niet' meaning 'no'), claimed bluntly that there were no ('niet!') available empty barrels in the USSR, to which the Minister objected by saying that he had spotted hundreds of them scattered along the track when on train from Leningrad to Moscow.
I've digressed. On the night before the Minister's departure, the tiny Guyanese embassy in Moscow threw a party in his honour, to which I was invited. It was one of the most memorable moments of my Soviet youth: tables sagging under exotic Caribbean foods (quite a shock in the semi-starving Moscow), fiery music and a bunch of flower-like Guyanese female students, who were all willing to dance with me. I was having the time of my life when suddenly Comrade Nietov arrived with a handful of equally dull and baggy-suited junior officials in tow. For me, it signified the end of fun.
Having downed a full glass of rum, Nietov dashed to the colourful buffet for a chaser and scooped up a large spoonful of a thick dark-red liquid from a tiny bowl, his Soviet rationale being that the best things should come in the smallest of parcels. What followed was disgraceful. Nietov's ruddy face turned brick red, then claret-coloured, then brown, after which he – literally – imploded (I'll spare you the details) and had to be carried out of the building by his factotums. My evening was saved by the mysterious Caribbean spice, the true identity of which the hosts – probably out of embarrassment – refused to reveal.
For all the years that lapsed, I had been trying to find out what spice brought the ideologically unyielding Nietov to his knees. It was only last month, during my first-ever visit to the Caribbean, that I was finally able to crack the puzzle.
In a gift shop of the splendid Nisbet Plantation Resort on the island of Nevis, I saw a row of small bottles of locally produced “Llewellyn's Hot Pepper Sauce”. The colour and texture of their contents were similar to those of 'Nietov's Nightmare' (as I branded the fateful liquid he had ingested). I tried the sauce with my main course of Seared Grouper Fillet with Mango Pineapple Salsa that very evening at the Resort's exquisite Great House restaurant. Remembering Nietov's convulsions, I was careful and only added one little drop to the dish. It was enough to take my breath away for a moment. When my breathing was restored, my mouth was full of pungent tropical flavours that lingered in it for hours. The sauce was very hot, yes, but it was also richly aromatic. When I discovered that its maker, Llewellyn Clarke – a local celebrity - lived and worked nearby in the Nevisian village of Rawlins I decided to pay him a visit.
The chirping of tropical birds from the nearby rainforest could be heard inside his spotless workshop-cum-kitchen. Llewellyn disappointed me at first by saying that Nietov's undoing could not have been of his making. Of Nevisian origins, yet born and bred in Manchester, he first came to the island in 1999. A qualified chef, he worked for local restaurants and set himself the task of creating a sauce with “heat and a little sweet”. He experimented with plentiful local ingredients until he came up with the winning combination of Caribbean thyme, brown sugar, vinegar and scotch bonnet peppers. The technology was simple: cooling the peppers, blending them with salt and sugar, adding flavours and leaving the mix to mature. The equipment was pretty basic too: Vitamix 7500 Blender, Excalibur Food Dehydrator and Uline H915 heat gun for bottling.
“My sauces mature like wine, so it's important to know exactly when to stop the maturation process,” he told me. It is here that intuition kicks in: Llewellyn normally wakes up several times per night to check how the process is progressing.
He started with offering his product to the patrons of the restaurant where he worked. Everybody liked it. Real fame kicked in when Llewellyn was “found” by international courier firm FedEx, which featured him in a TV commercial a couple of years ago. Since then, he has been a true engineer of spices, making 6,000 bottles of the sauce a year and selling them all over the globe. “Llewellyn's Hot Pepper Sauce” and its varieties had become the island's most recognisable export.
What is it about Caribbean spices that makes them special, I wondered?
“They can be used in all kinds of ways", Llewellyn explained, "for seasoning, baking, roasting. Most importantly, they make you feel better and help spice up your life.”
“Used in moderation,” I wanted to add, remembering Comrade Nietov's spectacular misadventure, caused – and here lies the morale of my Yuletide tale - not by any of Llewellyn's sauce's enigmatic precursors, the name of which I will probably never know, but by Nietov's own stupidity and greed.
Let me wish you all a spicy Christmas and a richly flavoured New Year!