Dark & Stormy
A Halloween piece … Winter, spicy gingerbread, slavery and marriage to an insanely jealous man … another exercise from WOOA, sparked off by not having got around to submitting anything on the Dark & Stormy theme to Liars’ League, and for once I didn’t come up with a story.
I keep dark Muscavado sugar in a supposedly airtight jar. I bought that jar in the mid seventies from the Reject Shop in Tottenham Court Road. The jar is square and has a Victorian engraving of ladies in a teashop on one side, which is what attracted me to it, in a very seventies-Laura-Ashley sort of way, but practical- air-tight unbreakable. On the other side of the jar the picture is of child slaves cutting sugar cane.
I often think about throwing that jar away, I’m not comfortable with that image, and I’m not comfortable with my fourteen-year-old self who bought it. It isn’t that airtight either; when the weather is humid the sugar melds itself into a brick. But it stays on the shelf with equally disturbing coffee and tea caddies and every time I reach it down I am reminded of the true price of sugar.
Every time I make this kind of cake – not often these days, but still, when I do – I think of Demerara and Barbados and plantations, especially if the recipe requires rum.
And while I am trying to hack the gritty dark brown brick into manageable weighable pieces, for some reason I think of pale slender ships scudding across dark green waters, threatened by storm clouds the size of continents. Breaking the sugar-brick requires a heavy knife (though not as heavy as the machete the child-slave wields), a clean cloth, and a rolling pin. The knife is laid edge-to-sugar the cloth goes over, to prevent flying shards ricocheting about the kitchen, and the rolling pin is used to hit the back of the blade.
It makes me think:
Breaking rocks in the hot sun (and sometimes I sing it)
Oscar Wilde in Reading jail
a story from One Thousand and One Nights… in which a jealous sultan believes (wrongly) that his wife is unfaithful, and plans to murder her in her bed. She gets wind of his intentions and when he comes to cut off her head in the night, raising his scimitar and bringing it down on what he believes to be her neck, there is a crack and his mouth is suddenly filled with sweetness. He falls to his knees sobbing in repentance, and she steps from behind a curtain and reveals that the headless body in the bed is a sugar effigy.
I am usually melting sugar and butter and rum and ginger together at this point, and as I stir this thick warm liquid, that looks like tar and smells like Christmas and late summer in the same breath, I think about that woman, watching her husband trying to kill her.
How can she forgive him, how can she trust him? How can he bear to even look at her when she reveals the truth? I wonder if they ate the rest of that sugar wife.
I only make this cake between late September and Twelfth Night. It is a cake for Halloween and inky afternoons where the sky turns from cobalt through Prussian blue and only the blackbirds sing; a cake for eating with the lights on, and the fire lit; and whether the curtains are drawn or not, for rain against the window.
Cakes like this, they take time and thought.
They weigh heavy: occasionally on the stomach, but mostly in the mind. Dark and stormy: the smells of nutmeg and cardamom, cinnamon and mace, cloves and ginger, raise ghosts; but the first bite of still warm crumbling richness is the taste of distance and long journeys, of security, and of home.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2010