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Pastelle with “Chutney Daddy” sorrel chutney from SproutsT&T.

When life gives you lemons, make lemon zest for your ponche de crème! At least, that is what some people in T&T are doing today as they celebrate “Christmas in July”. Based on social media comments, this year, many people have been making the most of the mid-year observance, welcoming it as a much-needed reprieve from 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since July 1, some have been cleaning, painting and transforming their homes with Christmas décor while enjoying the sweet strains of parang and Christmas oldies or binging on Christmas movies. Christmas lovers have been busily preparing pastelles–both meat and vegan–ham, turkey, sorrel, ginger beer, ponche de crème, wines and other Christmas fare, while others are buying some of their food ready-made or are having it all catered.

It has been stated that the very first Christmas in July was celebrated at Keystone Camp in Brevard, North Carolina. The all-girls summer camp held a Christmas in July weekend celebration, during the summer of 1933, complete with carollers, a Christmas tree, fake snow, a gift exchange, and even a surprise visit from Santa Claus himself. The camp, it was explained, continued the tradition each year and slowly the tradition began to take off in the South—and eventually spread around the country.

According to other explanations, Christmas in July has become popular in the Southern hemisphere where warm and cold seasons are the opposite to countries in the North. People wanted to experience a winter feel for Christmas and started celebrating in July, in the peak of their winter. It has been gaining popularity locally with various events and sales having been held in pre-COVID times.

Also keeping the celebration alive in 2021 is the Green Market Santa Cruz. They will host their “Christmas in July” theme next Saturday, July 31, from 6 am. “We’re motivated by a lot of Trinis who come home during the summer holidays when their children are out of school and they express how they miss all the seasonal treats that are not available at this time. So that’s what we’re hoping to offer with Christmas in July; a taste of all those treats–the sorrel, black cake, ponche de crème– and we’re bringing out Christmas decorations and trying to create a really festive atmosphere to make it an enjoyable experience,” the market’s digital content lead, Rhonda Chan Soo, told Sunday Guardian.

At its home, Upper Saddle Road, Santa Cruz, the Green Market has brought together local farmers, growers, food vendors, artisans and consumers for almost a decade, promoting positive attitudes towards locally-produced goods and services and supporting sustainable livelihoods. Prior to the pandemic, the open-air community atmosphere had been a magnet for families on Saturdays. The market’s special themes like “Easter Eggstravaganza” and “Honey Festival” throughout the year provided an extra treat, with sellers tweaking their ingredients or entire product to match the particular occasion.

Sellers are always innovating and building relationships with customers; a process which continued during the recent lockdown as the market opened from 6 am to 1 pm on Saturdays at reduced capacity, with farmers, garden growers and vendors carrying pre-packaged products, Chan Soo said.

Indicating that food would be the main attraction at their event on Saturday due to pandemic restrictions, she said only takeaway would be offered and strict COVID guidelines would be followed.

‘The month of July has come to be associated with food’

The Green Market has also featured Christmas pastelle competitions. Jezue Correia of Correia’s Catering Ltd won the competition in 2018 and 2020 with his family’s recipe for beef and pork pastelles, and came in second in 2019. Speaking with Sunday Guardian, he said that the month of July has come to be associated with food, especially Christmas favourites.

“The best flavours come around Christmas time, so why not have that more than once a year,” he said. Tracing the experience of his grandmother and mother, Correia said his family’s business boasts over 40 years in catering and more than ten years in pastelle making. Their beef, pork and beef, chicken, fish, and lentils and spinach pastelles are also carried at premium supermarkets, he said.

Vegan pastelles have stood out in recent years, Chan Soo informed. Bethany-Kay Da Silva and her family of SproutsT&T will participate for a second time in Christmas in July at the market. They entered the pastelle-making competition last year and decided to create a vegan pastelle to set themselves apart from the traditional meat pastelle makers. Made with lentils, mushrooms which they sell at the market and their organic home-grown beansprouts, according to Da Silva, the pastelle has all the flavours of a classic beef pastelle, as well as a similar texture, and was well-received at the competition. They do orders for vegan pastelles at present which pair nicely with their “Chutney Daddy” brand sorrel chutney, another product they will be bringing to the market on Saturday.

“(The sorrel chutney) started as a family tradition for Christmas and my grandmother asked if my father would make a batch to sell during Christmas in July.”

Since then, sales of the savoury, slightly sweet and spicy chunky relish have taken off, Da Silva said, adding that they were looking forward to the festivities, though different this year.

“We really enjoy the fanfare and festivities, dressing for the occasion, decorating our products and keeping our table lively and spirited,” she said.

Meanwhile, Patricia Neptune, plagued by persistent digestive issues years ago while vacationing in Florida, her host recommended kombucha, a fermented tea said to have health benefits, and she found relief. Come Saturday, Neptune, of International Beauty and Wellness, will be bringing her stocks of sorrel kombucha to patrons at the market. Operating out of her store at Arouca and at pop up markets, she has made organic kombucha for 18 years and her products are also carried by pharmacies.

“The relief I felt in such a short time drove me to embrace the opportunity to accept a training programme. On my return, I decided that since we have such exotic local fruits, why not use them to enhance the original formula. The feedback from customers suggests that’s what sets our kombucha apart,” she said.

Her regular flavours are mint, mauby, ginger, original and she produces sorrel, mango, berry and soursop seasonally.

Patrons of the market have also been snapping up refrigerator and oven handle covers by Jillian Anthony of Ibukun designs. Anthony typically designed jewelry for women and men using natural and recyclable materials, but started making handle covers after a friend gifted her some for her fridge and commented that she should try doing them.

Anthony recalled asking neighbours and friends to measure their fridge, oven and microwave handles, so she could do different sizes and she has garnered favourable responses at a number of craft markets in which she participates. The covers go on and come off easily as they have velcro snaps and Anthony has also made reversible ones.

People have been lapping them up because they are practical for keeping fingerprints, watermarks and even rust caused by hands which may have salt or other corrosive substances off appliances, especially ones made of stainless steel. And they also make excellent gifts, she said.

“I worked at a company for 22 years and they didn’t make me permanent, so I decided I would just leave and follow my passion; craft,” she said.

Anthony who said it has been tough not being able to see her two sons who left to live abroad in 2019, said she welcomed Christmas in July as a time to commemorate the season she adores most. She said Trinidadians, in general, love Christmas and the ambience at the market during the Christmas in July event kindles the spirit of the larger festive December season for one and all.

Vendors become inventive

A curious delicacy first created by Candace Chow of Yu Wan Mai Gourmet at Christmas has been catching on at the Green Market Santa Cruz.

“The reaction to it when people eat it is always the same. They just stop in their tracks and either close their eyes or moan,” she laughed

“Many customers liken it to a Chinese doubles. I’ve had people, before COVID, stand up right in front me, burst it open and eat it and I see the delight in their faces.”

Inspired by the Taiwanese gua bao, Chow makes baos (which roughly mean bread or buns), a flour casing that is steamed like pow and turns out like a soft, fluffy cloud. Unlike pows, baos are open-faced and filled with meat and condiments based on the customer’s requests after the dough is cooked. Chow fuses Asian ingredients like five spice, Chinese cooking wine and sweet and savoury Hoisin sauce with local seasonings like chadon beni in her pork, chicken and vegan versions. She serves up her baos with sauces and condiments including home-made chow chow, sorrel relish and Chinese pickles. For the Christmas in July event, she will do a herbed mushroom stuffing for her vegan baos.

“I myself am a fusion. My father is from Hong Kong and my mother is a Trini–Chinese–Spanish–callaloo. I grew up in a household with two cultures.”

She said her father who came to Trinidad around 1973 when he was 13, did not like Trini food initially. Overtime he started adapting and ended up falling in love with local cuisine. He began doing his own spin on local dishes “…and that is where I got it from.”

“In the 80s there was a Chinese (TV) show called Chin Chow’s Kitchen, so he would have had the first Chinese cooking show in Trinidad. My both parents are actually really good chefs and I learned to cook from my grandmother.”

Chow launched her Asian fusion baos in 2018 at a Christmas fair at NAPA, offering ham baos with chow chow slaw and turkey baos with a sorrel relish.

The passionate home-cook who is proud that her food is made with meat from local farmers has since built up a following on social media, as well as regular customers at the Green Market as people are always telling friends about her baos. She said she often finds herself having to explain what they are to new customers.

Chow said she loves Christmas, traditional Christmas carols and classic local Christmas music and celebrates Christmas in July by listening to Sweet 100 which promotes the theme while making her products for the market.

“What it means to me is a nice break from the monotony of the year to just be cheerful and child-like. That innocence…it just takes you back to that time. While I’m preparing the food, I play the music, so it’s almost as if the food gets infused with the Christmas vibes.

“At the Green Market it’s fun to see what the vendors come up with in terms of the Christmas flavours and how inventive they get. I also challenge myself as to how I am going to use the traditional Trini flavours and add a twist. It’s fun.”

Other Asian fusion dishes like Hoisin BBQ wings, and seasonal fruity iced teas are part of Chow’s menu when she appears at other pop-up markets and food fairs.

The pandemic gave her the impetus to produce more consistently. A friend kept encouraging her to go along and she has missed only a couple Saturdays at the Green Market, she said. She admitted that it has been scary to take the full leap and start up a business and there have been challenges.

Supplying fresh food at the market means prepping at least two days in advance and getting up at 2 am every Saturday.

“So it’s a labour of love, but the customers have been supporting and the journey has been satisfying.

“The older I get, I realise you have to do what you love. Of course you have to make money. You have to be smart in what you do, but when you do something you love it doesn’t feel like work,” the 40-year-old said.

She said while she is still observing how the re-opening of food places and increasing prices of ingredients will affect her sales, she has her loyal customers and is open to catering and other opportunities.

“It’s a very volatile time. Nothing is predictable anymore. You go and see what the day brings and every day it’s something new…you just have to keep pivoting.”