Buccaneer Cooking: Sweet Potatoes and Pimentade

Another post on buccaneer cookery, with apologies for missing out two consecutive days due to illness. Sunday’s experimental sessions included a simple, but quite pleasing dish. It is based on a description in Alexandre Exquemelin’s Bucaniers of America. The English version of 1684 has this passage:

The second fruit, necessary unto humane life, which here they tryed, was Potatoes. These come not to perfection in lesser time, then four, or five months. On these they most commonly make their breakfasts, every morning. They dress them no otherwise, then boyling them in a kettle, with fair water. Afterwards they cover them with a cloath, for the space of half an hour, by which manner of dressing they become as soft as boyled Chestnuts.

Sweet potatoes, cooked in a small amount of water in a pot covered with a linen cloth.
Sweet potatoes, cooked in a small amount of water in a pot covered with a linen cloth.

The description found in the Dutch and German editions differs slightly, in that it speaks of a small amount of water and specifies that the kettle is covered with a cloth. It also includes a sentence omitted in the English version:

They eat them with butter and also make a sauce of lemon/lime juice (Limonien), pig fat and Spanish pepper.

Pimentade sauce after Exquemelin, pig fat mixed with dried chili, salt, and lemon juice. The resulting paste melts when applied to warm potatoes and is quite pleasant, though hot.

The ‘they’ mentioned here are the French settlers on Tortuga, home of the early buccaneering fleets operating under the fig leaf of French privateering commissions. Exquemelin is describing this environment based on his own experience, having lived on Tortuga and sailed with the buccaneers, but his account is not necessarily the most accurate. That is why we are grateful to have a description of a very similar condiment from another source, the work of Jean Baptiste Labat, a Dominican friar who was posted to the French Antilles in the 1680s:

They (the Native Americans) place the meat, the fish, or the crabs in the other dish with a bowl full of pimentade, that is to say the juice of manioc (cassava) that they caused to boil down and into which they ground a quantity of pepper with lemon juice. This is their favourite sauce and served with all manner of fish and meat, and they make it so strong that there are few (others) to whom it can be served.

This suggests that the sauce described by Exquemelin was both a borrowing from Native American cuisine and, as we often find in the foods of European settlers, adapted to European traditions. In this case, the addition of animal fat, a coveted status ingredient in seventeenth-century European cooking, transformed a relatively light, strongly flavoured condiment of the local tradition into a rich, unctuous European sauce that could now accompany a carbohydrate-rich main dish.

A different interpretation of pimentade with fresh chilis, more lemon juice and less lard, using cooked onion as a thickener. It was served last year and also successful.

It is hard to gauge the level of hotness that would be unacceptable to a seventeenth-century European palate. Labat, our principal witness, frequently complains about the disgusting predilection of local lower-class settlers for extremely hot foods. He may have been particularly sensitive. Earlier accounts of chili peppers do not share his dislike, but other European visitors do occasionally note that locals eat foods so spicy that recent arrivals cannot stomach them. Clearly, the macho culture around chili has deep roots in history.

The Bataten or Potatoes mentioned here are most likely sweet potatoes, not Andean potatoes which at this point were not yet established much outside of their area of origin. Certainly when Shakespeare refers to potatoes in the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 5, Scene 5), he means these. Sweet potatoes, especially if they are not too large (as most modern examples for sale are) can be cooked in a closed pot in relatively little water and become soft, but not mushy. That seems to be the consistency the settlers aimed for. I prepared a small amount as a side dish and therefore cut up one into small slices, but this is not necessary.

Now, compared to such delights as boucan de tortue or even salt pork with allspice, this is not a showy centerpiece, but it makes an attractive enough workaday dish that could be prepared with a minimum of fuss, which must have made it attractive in a society suffering from a dearth of both tools and labour.

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