My first food memory is sitting at the kitchen table at home in the basement of our little house in Gertrude Street, World's End, now a smart and shiny London enclave, then a somewhat bohemian Chelsea back-water beneath the sooty chimneys of St Stephen's hospital. My sister and I would stir the strawberry jam into our Ambrosia Creamed Rice while sing-chanting "Lily the Pink, the pink, the pinker…" as we watched it change from creamy white to pale rose. There was an optimum time to eat it, when the colour was still streaky and the jam still separate enough, but singing the song was so fun I would keep stirring until it was uniform pink, and the rice was too cold to love.
Jamaican cooking, a little like English, is best home-made. Restaurants rarely do it justice; it is family food, celebration food. My father, Evan Jones, is from Portland, Jamaica, and when I was a child we spent several summers on the island. In about 1974 my parents built a house in Portland so that he would always have a home there. Small and modern, Capricorn was at the top of a hill overlooking the sea. You drove up a steep, winding unmade road overhung with vines and thick branches that made it dark, and the first sight of the house was a blank white wall and plain front door. As you entered, there was a small courtyard filled with palms and visited by humming birds, and then an open-plan living room. The sudden, wide view of the Caribbean and the bright coast, like a treasure map, appeared in front of you unexpectedly, as if the whole house was only there to celebrate it.
After staying at a hotel nearby or with my uncle, we moved in as the builders moved out. My sister and I played in the empty pool, and when the water-truck came up the hill we jumped under the huge jets that pushed us down into the deep end over and over, grazing our bottoms, laughing.
The small, steep hills and the mountains make that part of Jamaica the rainiest and most beautiful, with blazing sun one moment and hot rain the next, but on the day of the house-warming party we had what they called an all-day rain. The road up to our house was flooded; sluices of water poured down it. There was no telephone and we very often had power cuts, so there was a feeling that a predictable day of controlled enjoyment had been hijacked by nature to turn into something magical. You couldn’t see the sky, the view, the sea or anything much at all for the sheets of warm rain. The adults crowded together inside for shelter. People abandoned their cars to walk up the pot-holed hill and some of them couldn’t make it at all—which meant there was extra food. The huge pot of curry goat was moved under the table to make space for rum and Red Stripe, and I sat on the tiled floor and ate.
A good Jamaican curry goat is a thing of beauty. The sauce is thin but not watery, spicy but not fresh-chilli hot, and the meat melting and shreddy, leaving small, hard, naked bones, like lamb bones, that you can suck and—if you’re seven years old—drop back in. I remember people occasionally looking under the table and laughing because I had been there so long, eating so much. As it turned out, Capricorn had to be sold just a few years later, but at that party we thought it would always be there.
Fast-forward to the summer of 1990. I was living with my cousin Ximena in Paris, sleeping on the floor of her tiny chambre de bonne on Avenue du President Wilson in the 16th, and looking for work. She was an au pair for a wealthy family in an apartment below us. The 16th was a chi-chi, soulless area, but every Sunday there was a food market and the wide boulevard below us was transformed: vegetable, meat and fish stalls beneath the plane trees, the pavements as packed and noisy as any country market.
One weekend when the family went away, Ximena and I left our staff quarters. We bought a brown trout and cooked ourselves lunch downstairs in their apartment. Carried away by our own sophistication, we grilled the trout and ate it with new potatoes and a green salad, lemon juice and fresh bread. We drank white wine and listened to "Madame Butterfly" on her employer’s stereo. We were 22 years old. It was the first brown trout I had ever eaten and I remember so clearly the subtle river-fresh taste of it, and how happy we were.
Pictured The author tucks in in the late 1960s, with her big sister hovering