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Quote caymanian Replybullet Topic: BC Dailey Column: Sorrel: The Caribbean's zesty Ch
    Posted: 30 Nov 2007 at 5:13am
Sorrel: The Caribbean's zesty Christmas Punch
Published on Friday, November 30, 2007

Last Sunday was Stir-Up Sunday, an important day on the culinary calendar. In “olden days” throughout the United Kingdom, the last Sunday before Advent marked the start of Fruitcake Season.

It was considered the last acceptable day to make traditional Christmas fruit cakes and puddings and give them time to age before being served. I wanted to share that bit of history as a reminder that Christmas is right around the corner, and here in Cayman, that means not only rich, dark delicious locally baked fruitcakes, but another often tipsy treat: sorrel drink.

Here’s an early yuletide cheer for the Market at the Grounds, where a few weeks ago I saw the first bags of our local red sorrel for sale and allowing some to enjoy an early taste of the holidays. There is nothing like a pot of Christmas sorrel brewing in the kitchen, infusing the air with hints of cinnamon and ginger, to put you in the holiday spirit.

If you’re new to Cayman, that enticing –and often intoxicating—deep rouge drink you may be offered during the Christmas season is neither spiked cranberry juice nor mulled wine. It’s a traditional spiced “tea” called sorrel drink.

But watch out: that innocent looking glass of rosy local punch often packs a wallop: from a generous measure of J. Wray & Nephew white overproof rum or Red Label Wine. If you’ve never tangled with white rum, proceed with caution or you might end up looking like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. Or worse, trying to imitate him on the road.

Here’s something many don’t know: this Caribbean Christmas tradition is actually an ancient plant and a global nomad that’s a long way from home. Not to be confused with the bitter green relative of rhubarb, Rumex scutatus, beloved in France, our West Indian sorrel is a variety of red hibiscus, Hibiscus sabdariffa. Native to a wide area that ranges from India to Malaysia, it was probably carried west to Egypt and East Africa by Arab traders during the Middle Ages, and then, and later, to West Africa.

From West Africa, 17th century Portuguese explorers carried it to Brazil and Central America where it became a favorite drink and herbal remedy in Panama, Guatemala and Mexico .By 1707 it was growing in Jamaica and spread throughout the Caribbean with the slave trade—and then north to Florida from Jamaica in 1887.

Known there as roselle, or Florida cranberry. Until just after World War II, it was a poplar home garden crop in southern and central Florida and often made into roselle jelly. By the early 20th century, roselle had traveled to Hawaii, the Philippines and Queensland, Australia .

Brewed drinks made from sorrel are another old idea. In The Africa Cookbook, author Jessica Harris suggest that centuries ago, Arabs may have introduced to East Africa a recipe that reached West Africa and is still popular today, especially in Senegal. Both cascade and karkadeeh in Egypt were old drinks made from roselle, the name for the same plant we call sorrel in the Caribbean.

In Cayman (and Jamaica and all the way to Trinidad) around September and October each stalk of this spindly shrub suddenly bursts into a single brilliant cream to pale yellow blossom with a maroon center—similar to the okra plant. The flower turns pink and withers by the end of a single day, and later turns into a deep red, rosebud shaped pod called a calyx.

This cuplike cluster of five sepals encloses the petals and seed pod. This is the part of sorrel plant that we gather in late November and early December. Before using, the calyces must be washed and cleaned by hand, removing the tough base containing the seed pod. Then they’re ready to use.
We know Christmas is only weeks away when sorrel appears in the produce sections of our local supermarkets—but supplies often don’t last long. If you’re lucky enough to have a surplus, you can freeze fresh cleaned sorrel in ziplock bags to use within six months.

Plan on buying a pound of cleaned sorrel for every gallon you want to make (that’s before adding rum.) To make sorrel drink, put the calyces in a large jar or pot with ginger, cloves, allspice and sometimes cinnamon and cover with boiling water.

Cover the mixture and let stand at room temperature to steep for a day or two. Then strain it and discard the solids and sweeten the deep red “tea” to taste with brown or white sugar (old recipes called for “wet,” or coarse, brown sugar.) Finally, adding J. Wray & Nephew’s white overproof rum is a popular Christmas tradition, but it’s also delicious as a non-alcoholic punch.

A similar drink has been made in West African countries for centuries—in Senegal, the punch is called bissap rouge. Oddly enough, in Guatemala, fruit punch made with roselle is a popular hangover remedy. In Mexico, the drink made from “Flores de Jamaica,” is a refreshing summer cooler and is also made into a gelatin dessert.

There are other uses for sorrel, including sorrel jelly and stewed sorrel for pies and desserts. Fresh, cleaned raw sorrel is delicious when chopped and added to salads or cole slaw. It has actually does have a flavor similar to a cranberry. Many have discovered the delights of nibbling on raw cleaned sorrel, savoring the tart buzz it gives the tongue.

If you’re health conscious this holiday season, drink your sorrel without rum—or munch on it raw. Sorrel’s beauty is more than sepal deep.

The plant is rich in vitamin C, calcium and other healthy minerals including antioxidants. The plant’s medicinal value has been respected for centuries in Africa and Mexico, where teas made from the calyces are traditional folk medicine treatments of a variety of ailments including high blood pressure.

Some claim it also helps fight the flu and cures fevers. Even more important, the plant’s cancer fighting potential and benefits to the immune system are now being studied by doctors in the USA and Europe. So leave out the rum and you may have an ideal health drink!

To prepare sorrel: wash the buds and cut around the tough base of the red calyx below the bracts to free and remove it from the seed capsule. The calyxes are ready to use.

Cayman Sorrel Drink
In appearance, you could easily mistake this old time Caymanian Christmas drink for cranberry juice—that is, until that first taste awakens the palate with a fusion of floral and spice flavors—and the jolt of white overproof rum!

When and where the drink originated isn’t clear: many other Caribbean countries enjoy this magic red “tea” around the holidays. In Cayman, many like to enjoy sorrel year round and make enough to keep bottles tucked away for special occasions.

It is a delicious drink with or without rum. Some prefer to add wine, such as Red Label instead of rum. This is a basic recipe—you can sweeten or add more ginger and play with the spices to suit your taste.

8 cups cleaned fresh or frozen sorrel sepals
1 thumb (about an inch) fresh ginger, peeled and crushed or grated
1 large cinnamon stick, broken in to small pieces
1 gallon water
1- 2 cups brown sugar (some prefer white sugar) —or to taste

To taste: J. Wray & Nephew white overproof rum or Red Label Wine
Combine the sorrel and desired spices in a large pot. Bring water to a rolling boil and pour over the sorrel mix and stir well. Cover and let steep for 24 -48 hours. Strain the liquid through fine sieve or cheesecloth and discard the solids into a clean pot. Add sugar to taste, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. (Traditionally, the coarse wet brown sugar was used in this recipe—-you can also use honey if you prefer).

This is where recipes differ. Some let the sweetened sorrel sit, covered, for two days longer at room temperature to “age.” Others decant it immediately into bottles and store in the refrigerator.

When to add the white rum is also a matter of opinion—some add directly it to the sorrel drink; others, in consideration of guests’ individual preferences, offer it when serving.

Either way, sorrel should be served well chilled. (In Jamaica, 3 or 4 fresh allspice (pimento) leaves and cinnamon leaves are often added to make a spicy drink similar to old English mulled wine.)

Edna Platts’ Sorrel Drink (Cayman Brac)
My friends Wallace and Edna Platts of Cayman Brac have grown their own sorrel for years. I owe them a long overdue thanks for this recipe, the first one for sorrel anyone ever shared with me. It’s a robust, spicy and delicious drink, with or without a shot of white overproof rum.

3 cups cleaned sorrel sepals
6 whole cloves
Thumb size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
6 cups boiling water
1-3/4 cups white sugar

Wash the sorrel and place in a large jar or bowl with cloves and ginger. Pour the boiling water over and stir well. Let stand at room temperature for at least 24 hours. Strain, then sweeten with sugar to taste.
Pour into bottles and store in refrigerator for best flavor. Serve with ice or soda water if you wish. In Jamaica we added white overproof rum and it really complements the sorrel flavor, but many enjoy it without liquor.

I'm alive, it's a good day.Cel
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