Food & Drink

The Rich Taste of Jamaican Culture

Ahead of Notting Hill Carnival this weekend, Natalie Hammond talks to first generation Jamaican immigrant Mildred Mcintosh about her country’s colourful cuisine, and its impact on post-war Britain

Braised lamb with spiced garlic lentils. Courtesy of Cottons, Islington.

Jamaican food was like the mystic rhythms of steel bands in 1966 – the year they first reverberated down Notting Hill’s streets – fantastical in its exoticism and thus intimidating to British taste buds. While dishes from the Caribbean oeuvre, like rice and peas, curry goat and jerk chicken, are today in bountiful supply at the annual Carnival, they were met by this hybrid of curiosity and trepidation when they arrived with waves of Jamaican immigrants in the 1950s.

Someone who recalls this reaction is Mildred Mcintosh, 82, a first generation immigrant who left Jamaica in 1954 to join her aunt in Kilburn, North-West London, and work in the rag trade. It was several years after she married and was cooking at a care home in Kent that she slowly educated the stubborn English palate. “There were two cooks and we used to take it in turns. Old people can lose their sense of taste so when I cooked, I added my special seasoning. They would always ask, ‘Who’s working today? Is it Mildred?’ They liked my food more than hers you see. She would say to me, ‘What have you done?’ All I added was parsley, thyme, a little salt and a little pepper, but mix it into the meat and you get a nice flavour.” Mcintosh’s first few months in London were marked by a distinct absence of flavour. The country was still subject to food rations, despite the end of World War II nine years earlier, which made putting meals on the table a daily struggle. “You got a bit of cheese, half a dozen eggs, a small piece of beef, a pound of sugar and a quarter pound of tea. That served you for the week,” says Mcintosh. The only seasoning available was black pepper and salt, but she acclimatised by rustling up Jamaican comfort food in its most rudimentary form. “You could buy rice and chicken in the shops so we would cook that for our Sunday meal.”

Mcintosh was taught to cook by her mother and remembers painstakingly chopping herbs under her father’s supervision as a little girl. “Your parents taught you how to keep a house so when you got married you could look after your husband,” she explains of her upbringing. It made sense that for Mcintosh, nourishing her family with home-cooked food became synonymous with preserving her Jamaican heritage. All her parents’ recipes have been passed down to her three sons, one of whom owns two Caribbean restaurants in London which feature Mcintosh’s ackee and saltfish (a tropical fruit the colour of margarine fried with salt cod), curry goat and spiced chicken soup on their menus.

“Everything is much fresher in Jamaica, like green bananas, breadfruit and ackee…”

Shrimp with rice, peas and courgettes. Courtesy of Cottons, Islington

While Caribbean customs have changed somewhat over the last sixty years, Mcintosh’s grandchildren likewise want to bring up their young on the food of their ancestors. “My eldest granddaughter got married six months ago and wants me to teach her how to cook. She had the chance to learn when she was younger, but didn’t. Now she has kids and wants them to have the taste of Jamaican food.” As well as teaching her seven grandchildren how to balance the scotch bonnet pepper with allspice in a jerk dry rub and get their goat (or mutton) meat to that melt-in-the-mouth state of softness, Mcintosh as the matriarch of her family still does most of the cooking when the three generations convene around the dining table.

Having lived in Britain for three quarters of her life, does she ever miss eating Jamaican food in her homeland? “Everything is much fresher in Jamaica, like green bananas, breadfruit and ackee,” she admits. “You can get ackee in a tin over here, but it’s not the same as picking the fruit off the tree.” This is one privilege denied to her family in Britain, but Jamaican values are nonetheless thriving in their midst – and Mcintosh’s food is to thank for that.

Notting Hill Carnival takes place Sunday 24 – Monday 25 August. Click for details