The Famous St Helena Pumpkins
This week has gone so fast I can hardly believe its Saturday again. This is actually my last Saturday before heading back, first to Cape Town and then to England and my family who I am really looking forward to seeing again. The week flew by probably because I was having such a great time. The majority of the week has been spent cooking with my bunch of lively students.
The first training course of the week was basic Patisserie which is a bit of a understatement to say the least! How on earth can one learn basic patisserie in three hours? Well we had a go. I concentrated on a number of key techniques including rough puff pastry, choux pastry, pastry cream, caramel and Buttercream using boiling sugar syrup. It went very well with most of us finishing the class feeling decidedly sick after trying the multitude of pastries. I ended up with a large blister on the end of one of my fingers because I stuck it in some boiling caramel which was a decidedly stupid thing to do
Alsace Onion Tart St Helena Style
Vegetarian cookery followed the next day and the final course, which was in fact the favourite of all who attended, was breads and doughs. I had been looking forward to this course as its one of my favourite subjects and something I can talk about endlessly. We cooked a variety of breads and doughs including Foccaccia, rolls, crumpets, yeasted tart dough, cornbread and a slow rise sourdough recipe which was kindly emailed to me by Andrew Whitley of Village Bakery fame.
Andrew if you are reading this there are now 5 ladies on St Helena who have taken the leaven to their houses and who are going to continue using your slow rise recipe, thank you!
The RMS St Helena from my bedroom window at 6.30am Saturday
This morning I opened my bedroom curtains to see a ship on the horizon, now in St Helena this is a big thing as NOTHING comes by here by accident. I have NOT heard one aircraft overhead since I got here , (apparently one does go overhead every Sunday lunchtime from Namibia to Brazil but Ive never seen or heard it). The ship was the RMS ST Helena back from her trip up to Portland in Dorset. She arrived at 7.00am and was carrying amongst others, the new Governor, Mark Capes and his wife.
The Swearing in ceremony was planned for 2.00pm and right on time, the band started up and anyone on the island in uniform (guides, scouts, police etc) marched down the street to the tune of land of hope and glory and the like. All the local dignitaries were out in their finery, hats included, for the occasion.
Unlike the UK there was silence during the speeches. It was hoped that the Governor’s acceptance speech would confirm the signing off of the airport contract for the island but it didn’t. It did however mention the airport and the fact that every effort was being made by the British Government to get this going. The Bishop of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha was on hand with prayers and then the music started up for the marching to begin again.
Next week, being my last one, is going to be packed with loose ends to tie up and packing! I have to get my belongings ready for the ship on Friday although I don’t sail until Saturday which is going to create a multitude of dilemmas. On Friday I am taking part in the St Helena Food Festival which will entail running a food stall for the day so I may have to board the ship wearing chef’s whites. I hope not!
How NOT to make Caramel!
Sunday 23rd October
Will catering on St Helena ever be the same I ask? Practical training sessions kicked off this week with Desserts as the first topic.
Attendees included local outside caterers, guest house and restaurant owners, take away businesses and some who may start a catering business soon. The practical training sessions only last three hours in order to fit in with business needs so it’s quite a challenge to pack in as much content as possible in that time.
The Desserts course was so well subscribed that three sessions had been planned. We covered a number of basics including, making caramel, ice cream, meringue, custard, jellies and a few traditional such as sticky toffee pudding and rice pudding. Students were split into teams and given three recipes to complete before the end of the session. My challenge was to be “there” for each team at the critical points of each recipe. This wasn’t always easy, especially when three different pans of caramel were just starting to give off noxious fumes!
Success with a caramelized fruit tart!
The keenness to learn and excitement to try new ideas has been overwhelming from all who have attended and I am keenly anticipating this week’s courses on patisserie, vegetarian food and breads.
An invitation to assist with a fine dining dinner at Plantation House (The Governor’s Mansion) was accepted a few weeks ago. The occasion was a fundraiser on behalf of the local league of friends and the acting Governor had generously offered the dining room at Plantation House for the venue.
Gay Lee and Me ready for action
As black tie events are fairly rare on St Helena, the event was quickly sold out with 24 diners expecting a gourmet experience par excellence!
Little did I realise that the girls organising the service aspect of the dinner wanted me to be the head waitress! Gay, Lee and Phyllis made up the team, none of whom had done this type of thing before although once in the swing of it you would never have guessed! The evening was great fun starting with cocktails in the library and ending with port, coffee and an auction. The chefs were two expatriates who had volunteered to produce the feast of lobster bisque, local pork loin with red wine sauce and spotted dick! Around £500 has been raised which is great to hear.
As I am writing this the morning after the event I am reminded why catering is such a rewarding occupation. Although I woke up with aching legs and a mild headache from the end of evening wine, my foremost memories of the evening are of happy diners, hysterical laughter and great camaraderie with people who I have only know for a few weeks.
Celebrating the end of one of my classes
Quality and consistency have been my mantra this week. Training sessions with the local caterers have been well received which is a credit to all those who attended. I always feel humbled when speaking to a anyone who is using their own money to run a catering business, knowing the hours they are putting in, the trials they face and what little free time they get.
My sessions this week drew much of the content from my years as a Chef Proprietor and the highs and lows of being the proprietor of my own business. The audience encompassed the full spectrum of catering styles from take away burger van and local supermarket cooks, to the head chef of the town’s hotel and seasoned guest house caterers. I even had a couple of the crew from the RMS St Helena. All were keen to hear from the “food lady” as I have been nicknamed. Everyone on St Helena has a nickname and is known by it rather than their real name. All I can say is thank goodness they picked something flattering!
Visits to the caterers in their premises have been part of the project which has given me a great insight into the talent and keenness to grow business over here. The internet has enabled many to keep up with trends from afar but the main stumbling block for any growth is the lack of customers owning to the irregularity of the RMS St Helena schedule and the small numbers she can carry. The local market is the only market on this little island of 4000 or less folk. This of course is set to change once the airport contracts are signed and the first spade (or JCB) hits the dirt. The only difficulty here is that the locals have been hearing about this new airport for the past 10 years or so and so far no airport! There is reluctance to invest in new fixtures and fittings etc until there is solid evidence that this airport is going to happen. I appreciate this and would be doing the same thing, however when the business takes an upturn it’s going to be almost overnight. Subsequently many of my conversations with proprietors have been about planning for the event. We should know for sure by the end of November which is a shame as I will be back in the UK by then.
My food adventures continued with one of my “students” bringing me a bag of granadillas, these are part of the passion fruit family and are absolutely delicious, although the flesh is not as pretty (its grey) as the common purple passion fruit we seen in the UK the flavour is just as zingy and full. They grow on a vine and can take over a garden if uncontrolled. I wish some of our invasive plants in the UK could produce such lovely fruit; I suppose blackberries could qualify although granadillas win as they fruit almost all year! Breadfruit was also brought for me to take a look at although not in season at the moment.........perhaps next visit!
The wealth of fruit and vegetables on the island is amazing, although it’s found in people’s gardens rather than in shops. Travellers have brought back specimens and nurtured them over the years. This means that you ask someone whether there are any pomegranates, limes or lemongrass on the island, they will tell you who has the plants! Avocado and mango trees are pretty common but alas not in season for another four to six months! Chiles grow wild and can even be found in the castle gardens. It will be hard to go back to UK shopping habits for sure!
Jamestown high street Saturday afternoon!
My week started rather well with an invitation to Plantation house which is home to the Governor of the island.
The Governor is the Queen’s representative and so carries quite a high status to say the least. St Helena is without Governor at the moment but his number two arrived in St Helena on the ship that I arrived on. Its common practice here (and I suppose all British Territories) to welcome new dignitaries on an official level and for them to meet with the islanders. So 6.30 on Monday evening I was in a line of 100 or so people waiting to meet and shake hands with Owen O Sullivan the new Chief Secretary to St Helena. Drinks were flowing and a variety of very tasty canapés handed out. The noise level in the room indicated that a good time was being had by all and although I had a few thoughts about “taxpayer’s money”, it was a great way to meet some very interesting people and to get a feel for colonial life!
The Governor himself arrives on the next ship at the end of this month. Sadly I won’t be around to enjoy more hospitality courtesy of Her Majesty’s Government as I will be travelling home. When he arrives there will be a ceremony on the parade ground in town where he will be welcomed in style. The bunting will be out and hats will be worn, it should be quite a show. Earlier this week I heard an unusual sound outside my office window, the sound of marching! On further investigation I could see 15 or so fully uniformed police being drilled by their chief to march in time down the main street of Jamestown.
A couple of thought s came to me:
1) There must be more police here in St Helena with its population of 4000 than in my home town of Yeovil population 40000!
2) Perhaps if the UK police marched through town once in a while there may be more order on the streets!
On the work front I have been looking at what resources could be useful to the Tourist Office and the proprietors over here. There are a number of stumbling blocks which prevent things like online bookings of accommodation. One major one is that there are no credit card facilities anywhere on St Helena. No one takes credit cards because the Bank of St Helena doesn’t process them. If you book accommodation with someone here you have to send a money transfer to the bank or pay cash when you arrive. This is going to have to change pretty quickly owing to the pace at which bookings will come and go once the airport is a reality.
I am really looking forward to this week as I am starting my “Chef Patron” part of the project. It’s designed for anyone working in catering, whether restaurant or snack bar. We are going to be tackling menu planning, ingredient quality, consistency and food costings. Local produce and seasonal items which perhaps get forgotten are going to be part of the programme, some of which I have never worked with before such as Cactus fruit or Tungi as its known here!
Last weekend I missed the boat at the butchers and fish people. I went to buy something and by the time I had got there they had sold out. The lady in the butchers suggested I order something to be put by next week. I had heard that beef prices were very good so asked about fillet steak....”£7.80 a kilo”, I was told. Sounds good to me so I ordered 500g or thereabouts.
Don’t worry I didn’t starve last week; I made a giant pan full of homemade soup and also a load of homemade bread. This week I was ready for action! I got to the fish people at 10.00am to choose one of 30 or 40 prime cuts of tuna. At £3.17 a Kilo I got plenty of fish for £1.50! Then to the butchers where the lady had saved me not only a piece of fillet but the Chateaubriand cut...i.e. the best bit! At £6.60 for the piece I was feeling VERY pleased with myself. The first meal was going to be a beef teriyaki type stir fry with loads of broccoli and rice. All went well until I opened the rice packet.........there sitting on the top looking like it should have been in one of those survival programmes was a giant cockroach! So in true Bear Grylls (one of the men on one of those survival programmes) style I took the packet outside chucked the cockroach out of the packet and stood on it! Probably Bear Grylls would have just calmly added it to his dinner but that was a bridge too far for me. I did nevertheless cook the rice and eat it with the thought that any nasties Mr Cockroach had left would be rendered harmless by boiling in salted water.....any scientists out there please say yes! There are cockroaches on the island as in many warm damp parts of the world, I have seen about 6 or so in and around the house, usually in the back of cupboards or on the floor and one I found in my bathroom sink. They don’t bother me too much although would hope I never find one in my bed!
The only other “little critter” I have to deal with is the white ants. These are tiny tiny little ants about the size of the UK thunder bugs. They will take over anything which has sugar or protein in it as I found to my peril on the first day. I had cut up some bread for toasting and left the chopping board in the sink with crumbs etc on it not washed. When I returned that evening from work the board and sink was covered with these tiny ants. Now I do what all St Helena folk do and clean up everything once I’ve finished cooking and eating. This is probably one reason why in my accommodation inspections the standard of cleanliness in all is excellent! They really put some UK accommodation providers to shame.
My assessment visits have been going well although the clock is ticking and we may not get to see all properties this time. Some of the places I’ve visited are shown on my photos. The standards are very good in the context of cleanliness, friendliness and service to the customer: all proprietors on the island meet their customer off the ship, take them to their accommodation, provide a free welcome pack of goodies in the case of self catering and ensure they have car hire etc organised. As mentioned in one of my previous ramblings, much of the accommodation on the island is pretty new so maintenance is pretty good all-round. At the time of writing I have only found one five foot bed on my travels. Most of the beds here are 4’ 6” which I think is something people visiting from afar may find unexpected as most of us are used to at least 5’ beds now.