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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, Today, I invite you to a little sweetness: the fruits consumed in jam, marmalade, jelly … in the Caribbean at the time of Father Labat.
The book Histoire de l’alimentation reminds us that fruits « were appreciated by the social elite as early as the Middle Ages (…), and were even more so in the various countries of Europe during modern times » (p. 562). (p. 562) Served for dessert (in the French meal), they were found in all forms: raw or cooked, whole or in salad, in compote or marmalade, in liquid or dry jam.
What we call today « jam »[confiture] is a mixture of about half cut fruit and half sugar that is cooked over a long period of time to a more or less smooth paste that can be spread (this is of course only a suggestion for consumption…) on a warm, crisp, lightly buttered slice of bread; this form of jam took off in the 17th century, but is far from representing the word jam as Labat uses it. When Labat speaks of jam, he is referring more broadly to methods of « candy » or « preserve », in other words, putting a food in an element that preserves it. Thus, in the accounts of Father Labat, it is most often a question of soaking the fruits in whole or in pieces in a succession of more or less thick syrups made up of water and sugar. Depending on the case, the process is done with or without cooking. When Labat speaks to us about « jam », this one can be similar to fruits in syrup (like the jar of peaches or apricots in the painting of Roland de La Porte) or candied fruits, take a liquid or dry form, form a substance going from syrup to the fruit paste while passing by the jelly or the marmalade.
The sugar jam, a merchandise and a gift from the islands
In the 16th century, a whole literature developed around food recipes for the preparation of jams with honey or sugar, foods preserved in vinegar, spicy drinks… In the dietetic conceptions of the time, sweet dishes, even if their purely alimentary use was intensified, were associated with remedies; sugar was considered as favouring digestion, which is why jams were reserved for the end of the meal.
Although in Labat’s time, sugar flourished on the tables of the kingdom of France thanks to the agricultural exploitation of sugarcane in the colonial islands, it remained expensive for the common people; it is thus on the noble tables that it was mainly found. Therefore, it is not surprising that jam was part of the goods of the islands listed by Labat (T.1 p. 339/631) or that he often mentions it as a gift given to visitors.
Recalling a visit of the archbishop of Santo Domingo in 1698, Labat relates that « Our fathers of Guadeloupe made him a present similar to that which we had made to him in Martinique, to which they added a few loaves of Royal Sugar, & some barrels of the best jams of the country. » (T. 2 p. 30/48). Similarly, when Labat was visiting Barbados in 1700, he noted that « Our merchants & the minister had also made me presents of live fowls with two patez, & two cooked hams, jams, fruits, Madeira wine, beer & cider in quantity. » (T. 2 p. 139/167) Then, in 1705, when he was sent by the Superior General to France to settle business, Labat wrote: « I was given a bill of exchange for two thousand francs, & my friends again gave me presents, both in money and in sugar, chocolate, jams, & other local foodstuffs, so that I could make presents in France. » (T. 2 p. 511/563) He even had a visitor on a stopover in 1701 sent « some refined sugar loaves, chocolate, jams, & fruit. » (T. 2 p. 321/363)
While Labat was sailing in the Greater Antilles, jam was also present on the table aboard the Spanish ship where he was captured:
- « They brought jams, cookie, & wine, & then chocolate, which was very good. » (T. 2 p. 272/372)
- « The fruit was first served in five dishes. The middle one was of dry jams, very-beautiful, & among other things of some whole oranges, filled with an excellent marmalade, of brown color, composed of several fruits, with musk and amber. » (T. 2 p. 274/314)
- « We usually only have one meal, most only have jam and chocolate in the evening. » (T. 2 p. 275/315)
Jams in the Caribbean
The forgotten fruit: cassia jam
Labat gives four recipes: two for cocoa, one for sorrel and one for ginger; we will come back to this later. He also mentions the use of several jams in the islands. Among them, there was the cassia jam, the consumption of which does not seem to have lasted in time: « When the Jews were in the islands, they used to make a lot of these silique jams that they sent to Europe, for this purpose they picked them when they were still extremely tender, and when they were only two to three inches long; so that the silique and what it contained were eaten. This jam was very pleasant and gently purged, or at least it kept the stomach free. They also candied the flowers, and kept their color under the candy that covered them; it had the same effect as the siliques. This jam is no longer made since the departure of the Jews, either because they took the secret with them, or because they did not want to take the trouble to find it by making several experiments. » (T. 1 p. 71/103)
Fruits in marmalade and jelly: mammee apple [abricot-pays] and acerola [cerise-pays]
The mammee apple (also called mamet by the Spaniards) was appreciated in marmalade or paste, while the cherry-country was consumed in several forms.
« This fruit is used to make marmalade or pastes that keep for a long time, they are very pectoral and astringent, pleasant to the taste and of a very good smell. The Spaniards also use it in the composition of a marmalade, in which they mix ginger, spices and odors with which they fill oranges that they candy and that they dry. They use a lot of these kinds of oranges in the morning and after the meal, they claim that it supports them and helps them digest a lot. It is a very good jam. » (T. 1 p115/153)
« The taste of these cherries is quite similar to that of Morello cherries, but they must be well ripe, because when this quality is lacking, they are very acid.
They are candied like European cherries, and made into jelly, raw or cooked, they are always very good and healthy » (T. 1 p. 66-67/298-299)
Fruits that we don’t eat otherwise: shaddock [chadec] jam and date jam
Because of their particular flavor, some fruits do not seem to be eaten raw as they are today, such as shaddock (then also called « Barbados orange ») and dates.
« The taste of these lumps is mixed with a bland sweetness with something sour; so that the goodness of these oranges does not correspond to their beauty, nor does it come close to that of the Chinese oranges; so they are never used except in jam. People who want to take the trouble to do so, make them candied whole, in the same way that limes are candied. » (T. 1 p. 203/453)
For the dates, he writes:
« It is constant that they always preserve a certain harshness which makes known that they still miss some degrees of maturity (…) This defect is cause that one does not eat them raw; one uses them in jam which is excellent for the chest, which helps with digestion, which consumes the crudenesses of the stomach, but of which it is necessary to use with moderation, because it heats much. » (T. 1 p. 210/472)
The versatile fruit: tamarind jam
In his book, Labat also mentions the long-fruited tamarind ((Tamarindus indica), not to be confused with what in Martinique is improperly called tamarind of India (Vangueria madagascariensis) which gives round fruits. Depending on whether it was green or ripe, the tamarind was candied using a different technique.
« We candy these fruits or all of them with their siliques, well before they are ripe, or stripped of their siliques, when they are ripe, but before they are dry. In whatever manner they are made to be candied, they are very agreeable, loosen the stomach, & strengthen the chest at the same time. » (T. 2 p. 192/226)
The star fruit that crosses the oceans: pineapple jam
The essential candied fruit of the caribbean was the pineapple, probably because its original shape made it beautiful in the compositions as evidenced by its presence in the paintings. And this, even though Labat confesses that it lost its flavor in the process.
« This makes a very nice effect to finish a pyramid of dry jams, but its taste and smell remain in America, because as the one and the other is in its juice, this juice cannot be altered by fire and by sugar without dissipating and being lost almost entirely. I brought some to France that I had made in Martinique with all possible care, but which seemed to me to be nothing more than sweetened filth, compared to what they were before they were candied. » (T. 1 p. 135/179)
Four recipes for jams and preserves
Let’s move on to the recipes. Among the uses of the chocolate, there is obviously that to drink it or « to take the chocolate » according to the expression that Labat prefers to him; the author also reports that « One uses the choolate to make small tablets, dragees, pastilles which one calls diablotins, & a kind of marmalade on which one puts candied pinions. » (T. 2 p. 378/422) However, the transformation of cocoa can take place even before the roasting of the beans used to produce chocolate. Thus Labat gives two recipes: one for candying the seeds still coated with their white pulp and the other for candying the whole pod!
To candy the cocoa seeds
The opinion that Labat gives is most tempting: « Between the jams that one served with the dessert, there were candied cacaos, which I believe to be the most delicious jam which can be imagined, & which surpasses in my opinion the best which are in Europe. » (T. 1 p. 61/91) Here is the recipe he gives and it requires patience!
« I asked Mademoiselle Marie-Anne, after we had left the table, to tell me how she made this jam. She had no difficulty in doing so, and in order to make me understand it better, she took me into the pantry, where there were some that were not yet finished, and she explained the way they were made as follows.
The cocoa that one wants to preserve, must be picked some time before it is ripe. We know the maturity of this fruit when the pods which contain them begin to yellow in their middle; we must therefore pick the pods a few days before they are in a state of yellowing.
Cocoa kernels are picked in this state and are white, tender and delicate. They are soaked in fresh, clear water and changed night and morning for five or six days, after which they are larded in five or six places with small strips of lemon peel and very thin cinnamon. We make a syrup of the best sugar, but very clear, that is to say where there is little sugar, we put them to soak for twenty-four hours, as soon as it is out of the fire, where we have purified and clarified it. They are removed from this syrup after twenty-four hours, and while they are draining, another syrup similar to the first is made, but a little stronger in sugar, where they are left for another twenty-four hours. This is done for six days, increasing the quantity of sugar each time, without ever putting them on the fire or giving them any other cooking than that which they acquire in these different syrups. At the end we make a syrup of consistency in which we put a little essence of amber, musk, or other odors where we keep them to be used if necessary. When we want to dry them, we remove them from their syrup, and after having let them drain, we plunge them into a basin full of a well clarified syrup with a lot of sugar, and immediately we put them in a steamer where they become candied.
This jam, as you can see, requires a lot of care, and consumes a lot of sugar. The jam makers of the Isles make it very-rarely, & at less than an ecu per pound, they cannot undertake it, or make it as it should be. » (T. 1 p. 62/92)
Candy the cocoa pod
The second method is not to candy the seeds alone, but to candy the whole pod when it is still young.
« If you want to candy the whole Cocoa, that is to say, the pod and the almonds together, you must pick them when they are still very young, and only about three inches long; you boil them with a lot of water for an hour, after which you make three or four small incisions along their ribs, and you put them to soak in fresh water that you change night and morning, for six days; then they are larded with candied orange peel, lemon, a little ginger & cinnamon, & they are put like almonds in different syrups for six days, at the end of which they are put in a syrup of consistency. This jam is good and delicate, and when it is drawn dry, it makes a very nice finishing touch to a piramide of other dried fruits, or to a pineapple, or some other large fruit.
It seems to me that it would not be more difficult to candy Cacao, when it approaches its maturity, & when it has all the size it can have, than limes of five & six inches in diameter, & of these large oranges of Barbados which are called Chadeques, since the thickness of the peels of these fruits does not prevent one from candying them all whole. » (T. 2 p. 380/424)
As today, the chalice of the hisbiscus flowers was used to prepare jelly, syrup, as well as drinks for the greatest happiness of the amateurs of its acidulous flavor.
« We use it only for jam, for this purpose, we cut the bottom of the flower with the bud that we throw away as useless, the rest of the leaves or red flowers are boiled in water for a miserere (*), after which we pull them, and when they are drained, we boil them in sugar with a few cloves and a little cinnamon.
When one wants to make jelly, one boils these leaves with only as much water as it takes to cover them in the basin, and one gives them a complete cooking, then one presses them strongly in a large cloth to express all the juice of it; that one puts in the clarified sugar where one makes it boil some moment. It is an excellent jelly, one uses it to drink by beating it in water like the redcurrant jelly, of which it has the color and the taste. it is very refreshing, one gives some to the sick, to whom the ordinary tea gives disgust, it rejoices them, quenches their thirst and refreshes them in no danger and with pleasure. » (T. 1 p. 123/161)
Candy the ginger
Finally, if you like candied ginger, you should know that already in Labat’s time, we used to prepare these small golden cubes which often awaken the taste buds by the explosion of spiciness after the first sweet notes.
« When one wants to preserve it in a way that it can be presented to honest people, one picks it long before it is ripe, and when it is still so tender that the fibers are hardly distinguishable from the rest of the flesh, neither by their hardness nor by their color, which is always stronger than the rest, one scrapes it carefully to remove all the skin, and one cuts it by slices, without getting as close as possible to the large veins, which one can easily feel when cutting. It is soaked for three or four days in sea water, which is changed twice a day in fresh water that is also changed twice in twenty-four hours… After that, it is boiled in plenty of water for a good hour, and then put back into fresh water for a day. After it is drawn and drained, it is put into a weak syrup, but well clarified and hot, without boiling it, where it is left for twenty-four hours. At the end of this time, it is removed from the syrup, drained and put into another syrup stronger than the first one, which is done three days in a row. All these syrups are discarded as useless, because they have contracted all the rest of the pungency and the too pungent taste of the fruit: finally, it is put in a syrup of a well clarified consistency, where it is left if one wants to keep it liquid, and from which it is drawn when one wants to dry it, as I explained in another place, speaking of lemons and other fruits of the country.
It is constant that ginger candied in this way loses its bitter taste and does not lose its heat and other good qualities.
The one that jam makers make to sell, or the common people for their use, is brown, the syrup blackish & the fruit so strong, so bitter & so biting, that it is almost impossible to hold it on the tongue, unless one is accustomed to it like those kinds of people, who eat the chili pepper as one eats a pear or an apple. » (T. 1 p. 143/393)
So, on my side, there was no test in the kitchen, because all this is way too ambitious for me. My great works are limited to making sometimes red sorrel syrup when it’s in season (Christmas is still far away!). I like to eat candied ginger, but from there to prepare it myself… As for candying cocoa beans, let’s not even think about it; I would have nibbled all the pulp long before finishing the long process proposed! On your side, if you try any of the four proposed recipes, don’t hesitate to share your experience.
(*) Miserere : it’s another word for the psalm 50 of the bible composed of 21 verses. Conversion into cooking time? No idea, if we take into account only the text, let’s say 1 minute to 1 minute 30 for the elocution; go up to 5 minutes for a sung interpretation.
- Flandrin, Jean et Montanari, Massimo, Histoire de l’alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996.
- Base de données 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 Joconde
Henri Horace de La Porte, Nature morte à la vieille, 1756, 000PE020393.
Jean Siméon Chardin, La table d’office ; Les apprêts d’un déjeuner, XVIIIe siècle, 04400000593.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Ananas dans un pot, 1733, 000PE013098.
Jan van OS, Fleurs et fruits, 1771, 10200005380
- BNF : planche tirée de François Massialot, Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs, les fruits… Paris 1692 (réd. 1715), p. 476