Passing on the love: Vernicia Brooks

Passing on the love: Vernicia Brooks

Fete de la Cuisine, the island’s premier culinary festival and a bounty of local and international flavours, is underway – taking place November 7-12. A key feature of the gastronomical line-up is a competition of traditional foods and beverages, which is open to the public, taking place on November 12.

Reminiscent of Christmas, the contest is focusing on local drinks and desserts, such as guavaberry rum, sorrel drinks, lime- and other fruit-punches, potato and bread puddings and carrot cakes. Promoters are aiming to create excitement around these products and keep traditions alive, encouraging young and old alike to take part. Leading up to the festival, The Weekender is speaking to a few culinary connoisseurs. This week, we sat down with Vernicia Brooks.

Vernicia and her sisters grew up in Colombier with a mother who loved to bake breads and tarts, cook, and make punches of every variety. Vernicia fondly remembers sharing with loved ones the smells, tastes, excitement, sense of life and joy that food and drink brought to Christmas. Her mother Augustine Lewest was in fact featured in The Daily Herald’s 2010 “Christmas Special”, where she showed us how she made her high-in-demand tarts and punches. Vernicia carries on the traditions to this day, and is doing great work in passing on knowledge of how to make local foods, especially through her work with the Nature Valley Colombier Association.

Augustine is an all-rounder, and each daughter has inherited her special dishes that she enjoys making the most. For Vernicia, it’s all sorts of tarts and punches, along with potato pudding (when she can get hold of good ingredients). She also enjoys making coconut oil. An office manager, Nature Valley Colombier Association President, and Toastmaster by day, Vernicia’s evenings and nights are when she puts in all the hard work for the season. Last year, she was surprised at the demand for tarts, making around 100 of them.

As with many cooks of her generation, Augustine creates by memory and by feel. Vernicia, already having been familiar with the processes, would observe and write down recipes along with measurements – this preference would not just be beneficial for her own use, but is helping to make learning about traditional foods accessible to anyone who shows interest and joins workshops at the Association, which she runs together with six team members. 

The Association hosts workshops on making Johnny cakes and tarts. Always with a full group of participants, demand is as high as ever. What’s nice is that ingredients are already measured out, and tart fillings already cooked. This way, attendees can focus on the process and technique, successfully make the foods, and be able to replicate later with the recipes. Everyone goes home with their own tart, or with Johnny cakes and extra dough to fry up later.

A fun plus when it comes to tarts is that they each have to be decorated in some distinguishable way since they are all baked together in the same oven. Participants get creative with their designs – crimping, weaving, and using cookie cutters for a unique look.

The workshops are a hit, combining food, activity, culture and a nice environment. They attract people from all walks of life, from locals to part-time and long-time residents who already love the foods and want to be able to make it themselves, to visitors from other Caribbean islands and Europe.

“It’s important to continue the traditions,” Vernicia says, noting that there has been an uptick in interest in the workshops and in traditional foods in general. “Sometimes, you hear people say that St. Maarten doesn’t have its own culture, but I don’t believe in that. [And at the same time,] people will often get a Buche de Noel from the bakery... I think – come Christmas – coconut and other traditional tarts should be on every table.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The Daily Herald

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