Père Labat Recipes # 4 Drinking With And Without Alcohol In The Caribbean

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Father Labat, a religious chronicler, gourmet and gourmand, even glutton

Portrait en médaillon du Père Labat
Portrait en médaillon du Père Labat

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 to look at drinking with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages consumed in the Caribbean at the time of Father Labat.

(The absence of) Tests in the kitchen

I might as well tell you that I was motivated to do some tests in the kitchen, because I have fond memories of a Hypocras tasting-test (eternal gratitude Cathie for this glorious moment) and that many recipes given by Father Labat include wine with spices maceration; but then, my visits to wine shops to find a Madeira or Canary Island wine locally proved unsuccessful and then, I don’t know, well, I do know, I got caught up in the rest of my life, and I found myself writing this article, without a bottle of red wine at home and without the time to undertake 48-hour macerations. As a result, I’m giving you some very promising recipes (well, not all of them according to my tastes, nor according to Labat’s, we’ll come back to that!), but I haven’t tested them. Maybe I’ll update the article later or post in comments what I hope to do one day anyway!

Drinking alcohol in the 17th century in the Caribbean

In the writings of Father Labat, alcoholic drinks are very present. There are beers and especially wines imported from Europe and the Americas. Among the spirits distilled locally, there is tafia (sugar cane alcohol). There are also various liquors (based on fruits) and ouicou (fermentation based on manioc) which can be compared to beer… Whether for daily hydration during a meal (T.1 p. 8/32), for the pleasure of occasional tasting (T.1 p. 134/176), for moments of socialization (T.2 p. 499/551) or to give oneself a boost during battles (T.1 p. 20/46), taking alcohol is the rule. In the case of the tafia, he even uses it in friction for a care (T.2 p. 34/52).

Thus, Labat, who got lost in the forest with some others during a hunt, writes: « We drank some water from the Heliconia, and then a shot of liquor, and after praying to God and adjusting our guns, we fell asleep under the watchful eye of my dog » and specifies that Captain Daniel, who came in search of them and found them, « had brought some cookie, wine, and liquor. » (T.2 p. 490/542) While on board a Spanish ship, Labat specifies that « the wine that we drank was very good. There was some from Perou, Spain, & Canaries » (T.2 274/314) When he was in Saint-Martin, he wrote: « When we left the Church we visited the Dutch Commander, (…) he spoke little, because he drank a lot & often; he made us serve beer, Madeira wine, ponche, & gingerbread. » (T.2 p. 499/551) Later, when the ship on which he was sailing attacked another, he notes: « our Captain cried out, he is ours, he is a merchant, let’s go, Father, he said to me, let’s pray quickly and drink three shots: as soon as I said, as soon as I did, I said the prayer, the Confiteor was said, I gave absolution with a word of exhortation, they brought wine and liquor, and everyone, belly down, let Monsieur l’Anglois shoot ». (T.2 p. 502/554)

Part of this alcohol came from imports, notably from the kingdom of France, but also from far beyond. Labat thus lists the diversity of places from which the liquors and wines drunk in the Caribbean originate. « One cannot believe the consumption of wine that is done in the Islands. I dare not report what the farmers of the King’s estate told me, lest I be suspected of exaggeration. It is very certain, and all those who know the country agree, that whatever quantity the fleets bring, if two or three months go by without any ships coming in, we are almost entirely reduced to water.
The wines of Bordeaux, Cahors, and others of these coasts, are not the only ones that are brought to the islands. They carry wines from Provence, Languedoc, Italy, Spain, Madeira, Canary Islands and Portugal. I drank wines from the Rhine, Necre, Moselle, & wines from Burgundy & Champagne, which were brought in bottles. This is the surest way to preserve the latter two.
With regard to brandies, and all kinds of liquors, both from France and from foreign countries, the consumption that is made of them is beyond imagination. Everyone wants to drink them, the price is the last thing one inquires about. It is enough that all these drinks are good to have a quick and advantageous flow. Good liquors come from Nantes, Cognac, Hendaye, Orleans, and La Rochelle. There is a large quantity of liquors and wines, liquors from Provence and Languedoc, wax for candles, dried fruits, olive oil, soap, capers, olives, pistachios from the Levant, Roquefort, Parmesan and Auvergne cheeses, and an infinite number of other foodstuffs, both for necessities and for pleasure. » (T.1 p. 366/648)

Labat, always quick to point out his sobriety in alcohol consumption even though he knew its effects and taste, noted that « the English consume a lot of it, & are not more delicate than the Spaniards, they have invented two or three strong liquors, the use & abuse of which are passed on to our French, always very-ardent imitators of what they see bad in our neighbors » (T.1 p135/179). Imported wine, for example, was not accessible to the lower classes for daily consumption in Labat’s time: « although the Negroes, the indentured, the servants & the workers do not drink it at their meals, there are enough other people who make a very large consumption of it » (T1. p.118/156)

Sang-gris, Lemonade, Salibott: English drinks made from spirits imported to the islands

It seems that it was common for those who consumed wine to add spices either for the virtues granted to spices or to counterbalance a wine with questionable gustatory qualities according to the readings that I could have; in my opinion, probably for both, but also for the pleasure of the association of the flavors. Thus, the English recipes that Labat offers us all contain spices.

« The first is called Sang-gris; it is composed of Madeira wine that is put in a crystal or fayance bowl with sugar, lemon juice, a little cinnamon & clove powder, a lot of nutmeg & a roasted bread crust, & even a little burned. When it is judged that the liqueur has taken on the taste of the things we put in it, we strain it through a fine cloth. Nothing is more pleasant, the taste of lemon makes it seem refreshing. » (T.1 p. 135/179)

« The second is the English Lemonade [Limonade à l’Angloise]. It is made with Canary wine, in which we put sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove & a little essence of amber. This drink is as delicious as it is dangerous. »  (T.1 p. 135/179)

English drink called Salibott: « in speaking of the drinks of the English in my first part, I forgot one which is rather singular: they fill half a bowl of Madeira wine in which they put sugar, cinnamon, & powdered clove, & they finish filling the vessel by drawing on the milk of a cow. This milk makes all the other liquor foam like whipped cream; they drink it hot, and to hear them tell it, nothing is more pleasant, more healthy, more pectoral. Whoever wants to try it, it is enough for me to have given the recipe. » (T.2 p. 372/416)

Labat also gives some elements on the beer coming from England which can be mixed with water and sugar and describes the mechanism of closing of the bottles which one finds today on the ciders and champagnes. « The beer that comes from Europe or New England, especially this strong beer, which is called Momme, is contained in similar bottles corked in the same way, but as this liquor has an extraordinary strength, & that it would blow all the corks of the world, we cross a wire of brass on the cork, & we attach it by twisting it below the bead of the neck of the bottle. Their European and New England cider is sealed in the same way. (…)
When one wants to drink it more gently, and to prevent it from giving the head as furiously as it is accustomed to give, one mixes as much water as beer, with a little sugar to soften it, and one beats it in two vases, to mix the two liquors well, and to make them foam. This increases its quantity, & makes it more pleasant. » (T.2 p. 192/226)

The Ponche : a drink based on liquor

Labat gives a recipe based on liquor without specifying whether it is imported at his time or whether it already corresponds to the tafia produced locally. However, he specifies that « the liquor that is made in the islands with the scum and sugar syrups, is not one of the least used drinks, it is called Kill Devil (Guildive) or Taffia. The Indians, the Negros, the small inhabitants & the tradesmen do not look for any other. » (T.1 p. 135/179) Also, it is allowed to think that those who made the recipe of Ponche often used it.

« The third drink of the English is Ponche, their favorite drink; it is composed of two parts of liquor to one of water. The same ingredients as in Sang-gris are put into it, except for the lemon, instead of which they put egg yolks which make it thick like a brouet. They claim that it is excellent for the chest and very nourishing. Often instead of water, milk is used, and this is the most appreciated. As it is not allowed to judge tastes, each one will be able to make such judgment as he will want of this hodgepodge. » (T.1 p.135/179) Like Labat, I am reluctant to test this last recipe, which seems to me to be quite undigestible; but if there are adventurous readers among you, do not hesitate to share your results and opinions.

I did not have the time to trace the evolution of this recipe over time; in any case, it is probably the origin of our current French Ti punches and Planteurs.

Ouicou, a beer made from cassava and potatoes inherited from the Kalinagos

Among the drink recipes shared by Labat, there is one that we inherit from the Kalinagos; it is ouicou, a kind of beer obtained essentially from the fermentation of cassava and sweet potato. This drink was consumed during gatherings (to which it gives its name) for collective decision-making. At the time of Labat, it seems that it was consumed daily by those who did not drink wine.

« Ouycou is the most common drink used by those who have no wine. The Europeans have learned from the Indians how to make it. They use large grey earthenware vessels that are made in the country. The Indians, and in their imitation the Europeans call them Canaris (…) There are some which contain from one pint to sixty and eighty pots*. We use these large ones to make Ouycou, we fill them with water to within five or ten inches of the edge, we throw in two of these large broken cassavas, with a dozen certain potatoes, called [sweet] potatoes, cut into quarters, three or four jars of large cane syrups, or when we are short of them, a dozen ripe canes cut into pieces and crushed. (…) all this mixture being made, one closes well the opening of the canaris, and one lets it ferment during two or three days, at the end of which one lifts the pomace which came to the top & which formed a crust, one uses for that a skimmer ». (T.1 p. 133/175)
*The pot is 2 pints, the pint in Paris is 0.931 liters, so we are talking about a container of 148.96 liters.

Cashew wine and pineapple wine: drinks made from local fruits

In his writings, Labat distinguishes between everyday drinks and those served more occasionally for the pleasure of tasting. « The Ouycou and the Maby are the most ordinary drinks, & which the majority of the inhabitants use in the meals. Those of which I am going to speak are only for pleasure & not very often. » (T.1 p. 134/176) In addition to ouicou, he refers to mabi, a non-alcoholic drink obtained from the bark of the colubrina elliptica tree but which can be slightly fermented. He describes two « wines », i.e. two drinks obtained from the fermentation of their main ingredient.

« The cashew apples are crushed and the juice is boiled for two days in a clean earthenware or fayance vessel. It clears and becomes a small clear wine, pleasant and pungent, which gives furiously to the head.
The juice of the pineapple, when well fermented for a couple of days, produces a very pleasant wine. The color is beautiful, it has an admirable smell, a delicious taste. » (T.1 p. 134/176)

The habit of drinking pure water as we usually consume it today is finally quite recent and is democratized with the evolution of the processes that guarantee the treatment to avoid any risk of disease. In some Caribbean islands, water was sometimes even a rare commodity. Thus Labat notes about Barbados: « there are no rivers (…), & water is sometimes rarer & more expensive than beer & wine. » (T.2 p.136/164) For a long time, water was therefore mixed with alcohol or low-titrated alcohols were substituted such as beer, cider and wine (often of lesser strength than what we drink nowadays). However, Labat also mentions some non-alcoholic drinks.

tanlistwa, extrait d'une estampe intitulé "Negro-Lant"
Extrait d’une estampe intitulé « Negro-Lant »

Grappe, diluted banana paste, Atolle: alcohol-free drinks

Labat underlines that the slaves on the sugar houses made a hot drink from cane juice (having undergone a first cooking and cleared of its impurities) to which they added lemon: « The Negroes of the sugar houses make a drink which they call Grappe; it is vesoul or cane juice which they take from the second boiler where it has been passed through the cloth, or at least well skimmed; they put in the juice of two or three lemons, & drink it hot. » (T.1 p. 134/176)

Among the Kalinogos, he observes another custom, that of diluting a banana paste with water. « When the Indians want to make a trip outside their islands, they stock up on banana paste, which in times of need serves as food and drink. For this purpose, they take ripe bananas which they crush and make into a paste, which they pass through a fine hebichet [a sieve], much as the apothecary pass the cassia, after which they make small loaves which they dry in the sun or in hot ashes, after having wrapped them in heliconia leaves. When they want to use this paste, they dilute it in water, which is done very easily. It thickens the water, and gives it a pleasant hint of sourness that delights, that quenches the thirst, and that nourishes at the same time. » (T.1 p. 136/180)

Finally, among the non-alcoholic beverages described by Labat, « L’atolle is a kind of milk, made with the grains of mahis [corn] or India wheat, when they are still so tender that they melt into milk when pressed. » (T.2 p. 370/414) I had also mentioned it in Père Labat Recipes #2 Taking Chocolate, as Labat relates that atole was used by the Spaniards and by the free people of color in Saint-Domingue.

The drink recipes brought back by Labat reflect colonial history. They testify to the circulation and mixing of knowledge. One can see elements inherited from the Kalinagos culture, and sometimes taken up and adapted by the Europeans. It also includes the uses that the colonists imported with them from Europe and adapted to local products. It also shows the creativity of the Africans and their enslaved descendants in using what was available to them despite the limits imposed by their situation.
Passed on over time, the compositions of the drinks have of course evolved, not to mention the inevitable variants imagined and then the production techniques have also changed a lot and allowed to improve the quality of the compositions. Today, in addition to the unavoidable agricultural rums, arranged rums and derived liqueurs, we can find beers or wines made from local products and reconnect with the flavors of our land. You can thus by looking a little to taste beers of manioc, a softness of pineapple or a dry wine of golden apple [prune de Cythère]…

French Bibliography

  • Flandrin, Jean et Montanari, Massimo, Histoire de l’alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996.
  • Gillet, Philippe, Par mets et par vins : voyages et gastronomie en Europe, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles suivi d’une série de recettes anciennes, Paris, Payot, 1985.
  • Lecoutre, Matthieu, Le goût de l’ivresse : boire en France depuis le Moyen Âge, Ve-XXIe-siècle, Paris, Belin, 2017.
  • Benoît Bérard, Gérard Lafleur. Français et Indiens dans la Caraïbe, XVIe-XVIIIe siècles. Havard G. et M. Augeron. Un continent en partage. Cinq siècles de rencontres entre Amérindiens et Français, Les Indes Savantes-Rivages des Xantons, pp.53-64, 2013


  • Dutertre, Nouveau Voyage aux isles de l’Amérique 1724, Tome 1 et Tome 2


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