This is a bit bizarre. I’m walking with a close friend for the first time. And we’re in a bit of a ‘wow’ place. Writer, Monique Roffey – has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction with her sensually evocative, second novel, White Woman On A Green Bicycle, which is based on her family who moved to Trinidad in 1956 just before it became independent, and as she says ‘it’s big deal, I didn’t get reviewed nationally, and now this’ – has recently moved from Harlesden to Kensal Rise. There may less than a mile between them, but – from the noise, the mishmash of cultures, the sheer vibrancy to the quiet, middle-class and leafy – in reality, it’s a million miles away.
Monique is also my first co-walker to have planned her own walk! She’s taking me on a Jamaican and Trinidadian food tour. I disrupt her plans temporarily by suggesting we rescue some guerrilla planting that I noticed on my walk with Vince. The guerrilla gardeners – people who take digging action onto public wasteland – have planted cowslips and pansies in an area of urban deadland on Manor Park Rd. Unfortunately, they haven’t planned how they will survive and I noticed they were wilting badly. I decide we need to water them.
The staff at the Misty Moon are bemused that anyone cares enough to ask for water for this purpose. But the barman mentions he’s seen yet more recently planted spring flowers under a tree nearby. They provide a jug of water. Monique gives those thirsty pansies and cowslips temporary relief.
Our first stop is the Jam Down bakery, which I’ve never visited before. For 28 years, it’s been a traditional Jamaican bakery and takeaway. Mon used to be a regular. “If I couldn’t be bothered to cook on a Sunday,” she says, “I’d pop round for their jerk chicken and rice n’peas. It was the perfect solution. The food here is so well-cooked.”
We’ve ordered a mutton meatloaf. It’s lamb encased in bread. And it’s very tasty and very meaty. It is a sexy mixture despite there not being a vegetable in sight. And the bread is sweet. It’s delicious and very filling. “I would often come and get one, and give half to Mr Campbell who begs every day outside the HSBC bank,” she says. “I’m rather fond of him.”
The shop is pure Jamaican kitsch. Lots of biblical scenes in frames and a clock surrounded by red plastic flowers. There’s also a handwritten notice promoting their Mannish Water. What is Mannish Water, I wonder? “Do you remember that Rolling Stones album called Goat’s Head Soup,” says Madame Caribbean Expert, “they’d just visited Jamaica and obviously had some Mannish Water, it’s great soup which is made of goat tripe.”
“And good for your daughter,” adds in the gentleman behind the counter evidently alluding to the fertility aspects to this soup.
Mon is then tempted by the callaloo. “It’s a soup made from dasheen bush, dasheen is a root vegetable with green bush, and you add okra to it,” she says referring to the Trinidadian dish, but when it appears Jamaican-style, it’s actually not soup, but the green leaves fried with salt fish. Very salty, very tasty. “In Trinidad,” she says, “we have callaloo, but it’s not like this. This isn’t dasheen either, our soup is slimy with okra, pork knuckle and cream of coconut. It’s like drinking a swamp. We also do a stewed chicken with brown sugar, you will have tasted that at my house.”
Next we’re outside the Afghan-run Bilah Hilal butchers shop and she’s feeling the avocadoes. “These are Pollack avocadoes, they’re so big. My mother wouldn’t accept anything else,” she says. “We used to have them in our garden.”
And these yams and cassavas? “In Trinidad, we call all those roots, blue food or provisions,” she says, “it’s complicated but the Africans who came to Trinidad came as slaves and they adapted their food to what was available there. But the plantains, they’re always better, the blacker they are. That means they’re ripe.”
Mon’s picked up a fresh bunch of thyme and she’s pointing out the bottles of Green Seasoning as well as all the tins of condensed milk. “Thyme and Green Seasoning are the basis of Caribbean food,” she says, “and condensed milk appears all over the place. I have a theory about cow’s milk and humans not being supposed to drink it. Why should we? Many people in Africa are lactose intolerant and I am as well.”
Whoops, I hear the voice of Mr Campbell. “Have you got a pound?” he says in the insistent tone I’ve heard so often. Which is why he is known locally as ‘Poundman’. A year or so ago, he was asking for two pounds, but as a result of the global financial collapse, Mr Campbell seems to have reduced his expectations.
Mon starts to ask him questions about his life. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years, “ he says, “I come down from Wembley on the number 18 bus. But I used to live here at Stonebridge Park,” he says. We don’t get much of the story before his ‘pounding’ starts again.
We pop into Ali Baba, that serves part Arab and part Indian food, it’s another Monique favourite. “I’d come in and have a lamb kofte kebab and watch Al Jazeera,” she admits, “I’d catch what ex Channel 4 news reporter, Ragi Omagh was up to.” The owner has apparently gone to see his family in Iraq for a holiday. What about the club over the road above Iceland? “ I’ve seen several people slumped in the doorway having been shot,” says the manager here, “we don’t really encourage those clubbers to come here.”
Norman’s, the hairdressers, was also a frequent haunt. “I’d get a cut for £10,” says Monique, “I have frizzy hair and it is tricky. There is always the danger of getting a frizz ball, which is like having a huge hairy dog on your head,” she says, always drawn to the drama of hyperbole. “You have to have a grooming routine. I plait my hair when I’ve washed it but it’s also down to hair products. I’m wearing it out today because I’ve found some good products. It’s interesting because black women probably look at my hair and wonder what the fuss is about. White women with frizzy hair are pretty much left on their own to deal with it.”
Incredibly, Mon has two close friends who have frizzy hair. They bond over hair care. In fact, I’ve never really talked to her about it because I’ve got straight hair. I’m not a part of her curly society.
Now we’re walking down Nicholl Road past the 1930s Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden. And Mon is talking about her Harlesden experiences. “At first, it was really exciting,” she says, “and my two flat mates and I totally embraced it. We’d have shopping expeditions to the International Supermarket in the High Street. It definitely has the best olive and feta counter in London. They also have a brilliant selection of juices too from cactus to coconut water. Matthew once went out for a pint of milk and didn’t come back for two hours. He was lost in food choice over there.” Interestingly, she says ‘at first’ here, because what she means is that at the end of three years in Wendover Road, which attracts a constant stream of street drinkers and drug-takers, she was understandably ready to move to a quieter area.
Mon also had an infamous – as in it has appeared in many Harlesden tales around the table – altercation with be-suited, militant members of the Nation of Islam who are wont to gather at the Jubilee Clock on Saturdays. “They wouldn’t sell me one of their newspapers,” she says, “they said it wasn’t for people like me. I replied: ‘You mean white? Or a woman? How do you know I’m not black?’ We had a row. But the one who was in charge must have had a word with this particular guy, because they next time I passed, they offered me one. But it was too late.” One of her flamboyant characteristics, is that she is not afraid of conflict or defending vociferously what she thinks is right and proper.
Now we’ve arrived at our final destination – the Trinidad Roti Shop. I have to confess that I’ve never had a roti. Despite the fact, that I lived around Portobello Road for 12 years. As it happens, Mon has never made it to this shop. The Jam Down Bakery was too near to her former flat, she couldn’t quite find the motivation to make the trek up here to her homeland food shop. However, she is now getting excited at the prospect of a roti. “Boneless chicken, pumpkin, and spinach, chana, and no pepper,” she orders. “And a grape solo. In Trini, we ask for sweet drinks not soft drinks.”
She’s laughing about nature of Trini food, in that it’s often high in sugar and fat. Not to mention fried. “I only have to look at a roti,” she erupts, “and I pile on the pounds.” The roti arrives and it’s that rich mixture of chicken and vegetables wrapped in a roti skin which is like Indian nan bread. “Forty five percent of the indentured work force in Trinidad were Indian,” she explains, “while the other forty five percent were African, so that’s why we have a mixture of their cuisine. Rice n’peas is African, nan is Indian.”
In the meantime, Mon has noticed that there’s something called doubles on the menu. “Oh, we have to have one of those,” she exclaims. “When you come to Trinidad, that’s what you will have for breakfast.” What is it? It’s a fried piece of dough containing ‘chana’ or chickpeas in a curry sauce. It’s good but it is very fried and it doesn’t taste like afternoon food to me. Oh little English woman, that I am.
And there’s always the pepper question with Caribbean food. Plenty pepper or small pepper? In other words, do you want hot chilli pepper sauce with it? And Mon doesn’t. “I struggle with spicy food,” she says surprisingly.
Pig foot souse and goat curry, they’re all on there. But where do they get the goats, I wonder out loud? “From farms in Ireland,” says the gentleman behind the counter who informs us that he is actually from Grenada, “but they taste different to the ones at home. Those goats live on the rocks and don’t eat anything that grows on the ground. That makes all the difference.”
Tucking into her roti, Mon is impressed. “That’s what I know to be a roti,” she says nodding her head. “You should see the ones they serve at Notting Hill carnival, they’re tiny. I grew up on this food. The best food in Trinidad is from St James.”
The shopkeeper concurs. But where is St James? “It’s a red light district in the Port of Spain with a very lively street culture. In White Woman On A Green Bicycle, George goes to pick up a prostitute there. They have the best rotis in Trinidad.”
So at least I’ll know where to go for rotis as well as the redlight district.