“MARIE ACCOUCHE!! Agathe yelled to everyone a few minutes before midnight, as she acted out the giving of birth. At midnight on December 25th is when Mary gave birth to Jesus and specific songs from the cantique be sung just before, exactly at, and directly after midnight. We were hurried to the terrace to sing.
I’ve now spent two Christmases in Martinique, and both times have had very different experiences. My supervisor at the middle school, Sabrina, had invited Tom and me to her aunt’s Chanté Nwel cum family reunion. I was certainly looking forward to this traditional family Christmas celebration. I had eagerly purchased my cantique, a collection of Christmas carols in French, a week prior and looked up some of the songs on YouTube that my students said I should practice.
Upon arriving at a house in the countryside of Gros-Morne, an agricultural town, we were immediately welcomed, introduced, and led over to the liqueur table to pick our poison. After a drink and some talking, three of Sabrina’s cousins beckoned everyone to stand up and start singing. People grabbed their cantiques, men picked up the tambours, the ti-bwa, and a cha-cha (a maraca made of a calabash) that sat in the corner of the terrace, while a couple children played improvised maracas made of rice inside water bottles.
Despite being unfamiliar with the tune of the carols, I followed the book and sang loudly in my accented French. I often lost my place or couldn’t say the words quickly enough in French. I became hopelessly lost when not only could I not find the lyrics on the page, but the words they sang became incomprehensible to me. I scrunched my face in confusion and Sabrina said to me, “It’s a ritournelle, it’s not written.” The ritournelle is a refrain sung in Creole, not published in the cantique, and can even differ depending on parts of the island people come from.
We ate all of the classic Christmas foods and a family member made me a Christmas ti-punch, dark rum with hibiscus flower syrup and lime (yum!). We ate dessert, bûche de Noël, as well as the cheesecake my partner and I had baked, which literally disappeared in the time it took us to eat a small piece. People kept coming over asking for the cheesecake—we’re thinking of starting a business…
Anyways, at around 3AM, full and exhausted from singing, talking, and laughing, we were served traditional pain au beurre, a large braided bread with chocolat de Communion, a spiced hot chocolate. They sent us home with some mandarins, plentiful at Christmas, from their tree and a promise to see each other soon.
Alyssa and Tom’s Improvised Cheesecake
When baking and/or cooking in Martinique, sometimes it’s difficult to find the exact ingredients you need. Not to mention, a cake with cheese in it is practically unspeakable to the French. With baking especially, one change can upset the balance and the desert might not turn out exactly as it should. On the other hand, easy and inexpensive access to fresh ingredients can take something simple and give it that extra je ne sais quoi.
For the biscuit:
3 cups of digestive or graham crackers
¼ cup of melted butter
For the filling:
450g fromage à tartiner (no Philadelphia here, and though fluffier, it is the best alternative) [Edit: You can get Philadephia at La Galeria in Le Lamentin)
¼ cup of milk
½ cup of sugar
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 vanilla pod
- Take the fromage à tartiner out of the fridge and let it warm to room temperature.
- Crush the crackers into a rough powder. We put the crackers in a bag and dropped it against the table, followed by some punching and rolling a jar on it. I was a little overzealous, I must say.
- Melt the butter and mix with the crackers. Place the mixture on the bottom of your baking dish and then let it set in the fridge for at least an hour.
- Heat the oven to gas 3-4.
- Place the fromage à tartiner into a bowl with the milk, eggs, and sugar and mix well. Cut open the vanilla pod and scrape out the beans. Make sure you get the beans to separate.
- Add the lime juice and stir the mixture. The batter will be quite smooth and slightly runny. I was nervous about that since my mom’s is normally much thicker, but it will be fine! Pour into the baking dish.
Bake for about 35-40 minutes. Remove and let it cool.