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Father Labat, a religious chronicler, gourmet and gourmand, even glutton
Among the well-known figures in the history of French colonization, Father Jean-Baptiste Labat is a name that cannot be ignored. He provides a wealth of information from his experience in the islands between 1694 and 1705. What struck me in Father Labat’s accounts was his immoderate interest in food. Not only does he describe the plants and animals, but he is also interested in the different ways of preparing fruits, vegetables and meats in the islands. He tastes everything, even the fried worms of the palm trees. He is a fan of smoked turtle meat. He raves about the « so good » preparations based on sweet fruits, he is obviously familiar with recipes for fermented drinks… The man is a gourmet and a gourmand, not to say a glutton or a greedy person! He is a true culinary critic who delivers « ways of cooking », in other words, recipes that do not yet bear the name and that contribute to our gastronomic heritage. So I decided to start a long series to talk about gourmandize, grub, chow, festing, cooking, eating and feeding in the Caribbean from his prolix writings!
To learn more about this Dominican missionary and his book Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amérique, I invite you to read the first post in the series on food and fasting (with a recipe for roasted devil). Today, I propose you to see the pimentade, whose heir is a classic of our seasonings in the French Caribbean, today called sauce-chien [dog-sauce].
When Labat mentions pimentade for the first time in his work, it is not for its food use, but for its « medicinal » use. In his time, the mixture was indeed used to avoid infection and rotting of the flesh; Labat thus relates its use on a enslaved man who was whipped in spite of the pain which resulted from the effect of capsaicin. « I had the sorcerer put in irons after having him washed with a pimentade, that is to say brine in which one crushed chili pepper & small lemons. This causes horrible pain to those who have been flayed by the whip, but it is an assured remedy against the gangrene which would not fail to come to the wounds. » (T. 1 p166/210)
Even today, those who handle chili do so with caution (unless the chili is a vegetarian one) avoiding direct contact with the skin to appreciate the pleasure of the spiciness only in the mouth!
The pimentade, a sauce made with chilli and lemon juice inherited from the Kalinagos
Like any good recipe, the pimentade has many variations, but we will remember that its base is composed of a heated liquid that is poured over chopped chili and lemon juice. Labat reports the manner of making of the kalinagos, from which we inherited this recipe: « pimentade, that is to say of manioc juice which they made boil, & in which they crushed quantity of pepper with lemon juice. This is their favorite and universal sauce for all kinds of meat and fish; and they make it so strong that only they can use it. » (T. 1 p. 15/233) He takes up the recipe a little further: « For their pimentade it is boiled manioc juice, with lemon juice in which they crush such a large quantity of chili pepper, that it is impossible for anyone but them to use it. I have already said that this is their favorite & universal sauce. » (T. 1 p 31/253)
Labat is not the first to evoke the consumption of this sauce. Guillaume Coppier, a sailor adventurer who sailed the waters of the Caribbean in the early days of French colonization, also mentions it in his account: « Piment, (… ) is used in the above-mentioned islands for all the sauces, salmigondis, and stews, which are called Pimentades, in Sauvage, for which, (…) one simply puts fresh water, and Piment broken with salt, there being no stronger, corrosive, warming spice in the world, nor one more aperitive, and of better taste. I must say, as our Cassavâ, with these Pimentades, were there our most frequent dishes. »
On the one hand, Labat reports that the Amerindians did not consume salt in their food and used a « juice of manioc » instead of water. On the other hand, Coppier describes a pimentade without lemon juice. All this leads me to believe that the Kalinagos used this sauce before the European colonial conquest; but the latter led to the introduction of citrus fruits (from Asia) in America and probably caused an evolution of the recipe to add lemon juice. The European adaptation of pimentade to better suit the tastes of the colonists is also present in Labat’s writings: « one makes a pimentade with lemon juice, salt & crushed chili. » (T. 1 p 107/343)
The pimentade is quickly imposed for many dishes and at all the tables of the population living in the colonies of the time. Referring to the consumption of sweet potatoes, Labat writes: « When everything is cooked, the skin of the potatoes is easily removed, and they are eaten like bread with meat, without forgetting the pimentade, which is the favorite sauce of many people. » (T. 1 p 108/344) He also refers to the use of pimentade to accompany conch (T. 2 p 486/538), fish (T. 1 p. 15/233), meat (T. 1 p. 15/233) including pig (T. 2 p. 257/295), and crab by adding for the latter the taumalin (T.1 p. 49/279)
Pimentade, a fish recipe in 19th century French Guyana
A century after Labat, we find again mention of pimentade consumed in French Guyana; it then became a recipe still consumed today, similar to the court-bouillon of the French Antilles. General Freytag, who lived in Guiana for a few years from 1792, wrote: « We call pimentade fish cut into sections, boiled with salt and melted bacon. In this broth, which is made very long, one puts couaque or cassave, of which we have given a description above; this stew is called pimentade, because of the large quantity of chili pepper that is added. It is the favorite dish of the Creoles of Cayenne. It is healthy, refreshing and tonic. »
Brumauld de Beauregard, a religious who was deported during the revolutionary period and who knew French Guyana at the same time as Freytag, also evokes this consumption of pimentade, which became a recipe for a dish and not only a sauce for accompanying it. « The great treat, especially in the evening, was pimentade. This stew is made with fish. The pimentade is a dish common to all the inhabitants of Guyana, from the big ones to the negroes. As the fish is very common, it is washed, cut into pieces, then put a little butter in the pot, put the pieces of fish and drown the whole in a large amount of water. We throw some hot peppers in this broth, we close the pot and we make him give six minutes of broth. The cooking is thrown into a dish and a few sections of fish and large tablespoons of this juice, not innocent, for it burns, but without merit, are served in deep plates. »
From pimentade to sauce-chien
Arthur Delteil in his travel memories (made in 1865) gives another description of the French Guyanese recipe, comparing it to the Marseilles bouillabaisse. « The national dish par excellence, the one that held the first place at lunchtime and which any good black, mulatto or white Creole would never have done without: it is the Pimentade (…) The pimentade holds the middle between the Provençal bouillabaisse and the West Indies court-bouillon. It is prepared with fish of a particular species with fatty and firm flesh. One of the best and most sought-after is, without a doubt, the gillbacker sea catfish, a large fish (…). A pimentade of gillbacker sea catfish is as famous in Cayenne as a bouillabaisse made in Marseille by the skilled hands of the famous Roubion. Besides the fish, which is the main part of the pimentade, there are tomatoes, lemon, garlic, onion and finally chili pepper, the proportion of which is measured according to the taste of each person. » (p. 240) We can see that tomato, garlic and onion have come to enrich the chilli and lemon forming the basis of the sauce until then.
The addition of tomato, garlic and onion mentioned in the French Guyanese recipe is not unlike one of today’s versions of what is now called sauce-chien [dog-sauce], in reference to the eponymous brand of kitchen knife that was sold in the French Carribean in the late 19th or early 20th century and is still very popular today.
It was only in the 1930s that I found the expression « sauce-chien » in archives. Henriette Célarié uses it in her story: « we used to roast a suckling pig or a wild boar in the open air, in front of a bright fire, we ate it with « sauce-chien ». » There is no recipe that specifies its composition, but we find one for Guyana at the same period in Emmanuel Salomon’s book: « At 1 o’clock, we were back in a Dieu vat, where we were served, with a thousand good things, delicious dachines with dog-sauce. Recipe for the dog-sauce: hot water, salt and chili; lemon optional. » Thus, although it has undergone adjustments and variations and changed names, pimentade has endured through the centuries.
If you are a fan of French Caribbean cuisine, you will be familiar with the sauce-chien, which is traditionally served with grilled fish and is a perfect accompaniment to many other dishes. Like the pimentade, the sauce-chien is made with a hot liquid, which ensures the diffusion of flavors, it includes lemon juice, but also Welsh onion (oignon-pays or cive), parsley, garlic, a little oil and more or less chili pepper according to the taste of each. Tatie Maryse, a reference for French Creole cuisine, shares on her blog her best West Indian recipes and suggests you to make her recipe of sauce-chien without or with tomatoes.
Did you know that sauce-chien originates from the pimentade inherited from the Kalinago culture? Do you use a Dog knife to make it? Do you use other variations of these recipes? For those who are surprised by the fire of the chili, I remind you that the most effective is a little milk to use as a mouthwash, because capsaicin is not soluble in water.
Note: contrary to what my photos might suggest, I did not use the hot pepper, but vegetarian pepper in the sauce . The hot pepper will be carefully cut up later and dabbed with a fork on the meal!
- Demougin, L. (2018). Arriver dans la colonie : distance et littérature. Variations autour d’un motif sous la Troisième République, du journal au livre. Mémoires du livre / Studies in Book Culture, 10(1). (sur Arthur Delteil)
- Dutertre, Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amérique 1724, Tome 1 et Tome 2
- Coppier, Guillaume, Histoire et voyage des Indes occidentales, et de plusieurs autres régions maritimes, & esloignées : divisé en deux livres, Lyon : Chez Jean Huguetan, 1645.
- Freytag, Jean-David, Mémoires du général J. D. Freytag, ancien commandant de Sinnamary et de Conamama, dans la Guyane française… Tome 2, Paris : Nepveu, 1824.
- Brumauld de Beauregard, Jean, Mémoires – Monseigneur Brumauld de Beauregard, précédés de sa vie, écrite sur des notes et des documents authentiques – Tome 2, 1842.
- Delteil, Arthur, Souvenirs de voyage dans Annales, par Société académique de Nantes et du département de la Loire-Inférieure, 1888.
- Célarié, Henriette, Le paradis sur terre : Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane, Paris : Librairie Hachette, 1930. (précédemment publié dans Revue des deux mondes, 1929, p. 431)
- Salomon, Emmanuel, En Guyane française : chez les gens des bois, Paris : [s.n.] : 1933.
- Base de donnée Manioc PLANCHE I. Portrait inédit du R.P, Labat. Collection Petitot, Paris. Extrait de : Voyages aux Isles de l’Amérique (Antilles) 1693-1705. Tome 1.
- Base de données Manioc Piment annuel et Piment Caraïbe Descourtilz, Michel Etienne et Jean Théodore, Pérée, Amédée, Extrait de Flore médicale des Antilles, ou traité des plantes usuelles des colonies françaises, anglaises, espagnoles et portugaises… Tome 6, 1828.
- BIU Santé (Paris) via Gallica Piment Capsicum Annuum M.J. Vesque, XXe siècle.
- Wikipédia Pimentade d’Atipas.