Burt Wolf's Table: Hamilton, Bermuda - #226

BURT WOLF:   Hamilton is the capital city of Bermuda and the cultural center of a group of islands just off the Atlantic coast of North America;  islands with a special climate made possible by the warm waters of the Gulfstream.  It's the place to scoot around and visit some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and to taste some top-class cooking.  So join me in Hamilton, Bermuda at Burt Wolf's Table. 

Hamilton has the island's major shopping streets, the world-famous Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, and about 2,000 residents, among whom is an old friend of mine, Charles Webb.  Charles being a typically hospitable Bermudian, has agreed to take us on a tour of Hamilton and some of his favorite spots on the island.  (SOUND OF MOTOR)

WOLF:    Historically, Bermuda has been opposed to the automobile and only allowed them onto the island after the Second World War.  As a result, the vehicle of choice for most locals and tourists is the motor scooter.  The maximum speed limit for everything on Bermuda is 20 miles per hour.  Bermuda's drivers are extremely polite, and everyone gets an introductory lesson and a helmet that must be worn.

CHARLES WEBB:    This is the Sessions House, which houses the Parliament and the Supreme Court.  It was built in around 1814.  The Gothic towers and the terra cotta colonnades were added later on.  But in this building you'll see robed judges with wigs, and lawyers with wigs.  So all the miscreants of the country end up in the lower floor of this house.

Upstairs, you have 40 members of Parliament, a leader of the government and the loyal opposition, all sort of umpired by the -- the Speaker Of The House, who wears what we call a full-bottomed wig.  Magisterial at its best.

This is the government tennis stadium, one of about 400 tennis courts throughout the island.  You may be interested to note that Bermuda actually introduced tennis to the United States.  What happened, we had a judge here who led a very dignified lifestyle.  And he had a tennis court on his property, which is just across the harbor.  And he decided that tennis was just a little too undignified for his lady, so we decided then, or at least he did, that he would just transport this very reckless game off to the United States.  And we sent it off to the Staten Island Tennis Club, where it still exists today.  Bermuda is well-known for tennis.  We have tennis courts that are lit at night, and we play tennis during the day.  You can play tennis at private clubs or public tennis courts.  It's all over the island.  Everywhere you go, you'll see a tennis court.

WEBB:    Burt, within these acres of landscaped gardens, the Botanical Gardens, it's officially called, houses an aviary, a fern collection, an arrowroot factory.  It even has a garden for the blind so the blind can actually walk through and smell the various species of flowers.

Now behind us is that beautiful Victorian residence, which the premier uses only for official entertaining.  He doesn't live there.  There are no bedrooms at all.  It's strictly for, only when he has local and out-of-town guests.  So, since it's close to tea time, I think we should stop in and have a cup of tea with him.

BURT WOLF:     That's fine with me.

WEBB:  Okay.

BURT WOLF:     When I was a kid, I saw a Marlon Brando movie called "The Wild One."  And it sent me into my biker period.  When I almost did myself in by skidding off an icy road in the Swiss Alps, I ended my biker period and entered my mall-walking period.  Ahh, but it feels good to be back, especially in a safe environment.

WEBB:   Burt, this Fort Hamilton is  probably the finest example of mid-Victorian polygonal fort.  And its job was to protect the Royal Navy Dockyard over that side, and still be able to cover the southern perimeters of the island.   It affords panoramic views of the island and, indeed, the City of Hamilton and every Thursday during what we call our November to March season, the skirling ceremony takes place here.  And these are the guys with the Scottish bagpipes and the kilts.  And they stand back, because if they stay too far over there, the wind comes and lifts up the skirts and you know what happens then. 

WOLF:    You find out what a Scotsman really -- (OVERLAPPING CONVERSATION)

WEBB:    -- really wears under his kilt, right.

WOLF:    Bermuda's South Shore has over 20 of the world's most beautiful beaches.  Now, you'd think that Mother Nature would have spread them around a bit more evenly.  But it appears that the unspoiled charm of the area just held her attention.

As you come to the eastern edge of the area, you are confronted with Elbow Beach, which is the longest stretch of beach on the island, and clearly one of the most dramatic.  Elbow Beach is also the setting for one of Bermuda's most famous hotels.  It's called Wyndham's Elbow Beach Resort, which is a great help to me because it gives me two pieces of information at the same time:  the name and the location.   Now with all the detail that I'm trying to store in my aging brain, a small efficiency  like that is actually  appreciated.  The Elbow Beach Resort first opened in 1908 and has maintained an outstanding reputation ever since.  Its owners recently spent a considerable amount of money restoring the property. 

The entrance has the kind of stately elegance that reminds me of Tara, Scarlett O'Hara's magnificent estate in  "Gone With the Wind."  I half-expected Vivian Leigh to come popping out and welcome me home.  Well, she didn't, but so many other hospitable people did, that it still feels pretty good. 

And as I recall, Tara never looked like this.  It was clearly unable to offer a Olympic-size, climate-controlled swimming pool, or five tennis courts by the ocean, two of which are lit for night play;  a couple of excellent restaurants, a considerable assortment of water sports, or the Fritholme Mansion.

The Fritholme Mansion is one of Bermuda's historical estates.  And a while back, it was reconditioned to become a guest house for special guests.  It has a living room, four bedrooms,  a formal dining room, a breakfast room, a steam room and exercise room, a sun room, a room in which they keep a list of the other rooms, and a room that is particularly dear to my heart, the television room, which down-links my reports every day.  It's quite a place.  And it's right smack in the middle of the 50 acres that make up Wyndham's Elbow Beach Resort.

On the other hand, Tara did have Clark Gable.  But Elbow Beach has chef Norbert Stange.  And I think he could compete with Clark Gable for Scarlett's affection.  I base that opinion on the old adage, “kissing doesn't last, but cooking does.”  Today, Chef Norbert is preparing a classic Bermuda onion soup. 

First thing, two tablespoons of oil go into a hot saute pan, along with two tablespoons of butter.  As soon as the butter is melted, in go three cups of sliced Bermuda onion.  They cook for about a minute.  Then in goes a teaspoon of chopped garlic.  Three minutes of cooking and the onions and the garlic are transferred to a big saucepan.  Some thyme and a bay leaf go in.  Six cups of beef stock and an ounce of Outerbridge's sherry pepper sauce. 

Years ago, local sailors would make an all-purpose seasoning sauce by taking some chopped hot peppers and mixing them together with sherry, and letting them sit in a cask for a couple of days.  Then they'd pour that on all of their foods.  The Outerbridge's Original Sherry Pepper Sauce is the local favorite here in  Bermuda, and made from the Outerbridge family's secret recipe.  If you can't get it in your supermarket, a reasonable substitute would be some chopped hot peppers sitting together with either vinegar or sherry in a jar for about 48 hours.  You can use that.

All that comes to a boil and simmers for 30 minutes.  The finished soup is ladled into a heat-proof bowl, a slice of toast that has been rubbed with garlic goes on top.  Plus two thin slices of mozzarella cheese.  The cheese is melted under a broiler and the soup is ready to serve. 

There's an ancient legend about the first two steps that Satan took when he was cast out of heaven.  It says that the spot where he first placed his left foot produced garlic, and the spot where he first placed his right foot produced onions.  Gee, I wouldn't give credit to Satan for onions.  They have a wonderful way of adding flavor to a dish, and they have a long history of being healthy, especially for your heart.

Now I think anything that is heart-healthy is heavenly, and that's much more in keeping with what the ancient Egyptians felt about onions.  They thought the onion was an ideal offering to the gods, and very often you will see drawings and paintings of onions on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, which is a good reminder on storing onions.  Always keep them in a dark and dry place.

The first onion seeds to arrive in  Bermuda came from England in 1616.  They may have been the forefathers and mothers of the famous Bermuda onion, or that honor may belong to an onion variety that came to Bermuda with the Portuguese, who started to arrive here during the 1840s.  No one knows for sure, but what we do know is that somewhere along the way, a particular variety of onion seed began to grow extremely well in Bermuda soil.  The seeds, the soil, and the climate combined to produce a very special onion, with a wonderfully sweet taste. 

Shortly thereafter, Bermuda began to devote more and more of its farmland to the cultivation of onions.  It grew to a rather large size for an onion, and their mildness made them very popular throughout Europe, South America, and the United States.  The exporting of onions became such a big business, that Bermuda sailors became known as “onions” and Bermuda itself as “the onion patch.”

Bermuda onions became extremely popular along the east coast of the United States.  Old advertisements that announced what was for sale from various cargo ships showed that thousands of tons of Bermuda onions came into  American markets each year. 

This story may not be true, but I have heard it so many times that I thought I would pass it on, but only the heading of “unsubstantiated folklore.”  People around here say that at one point in time, the Bermuda onion became so popular, that a bunch of Texas farmers came here to make a deal so they could grow the Bermuda onion in Texas and sell it under the Bermuda Onion name.  Well, these were the days before Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and Mickey Mouse, and the people of Bermuda didn't understand the concept of a licensing deal.  They actually thought that if an onion was called a Bermuda onion, it should be grown in Bermuda  by Bermudians.  Can you imagine that?  So they turned down the Texas farmers.  Ahh, but that didn't stop Texans.  They went back home, changed the name of their town to Bermuda, Texas, got a copyright on the Bermuda onion name from Washington, and helped pass a law that made it hard to import Bermuda onions to the United States.  Well, if that story is true, then on behalf of U.S. onion lovers, I'd like to apologize.

About 70 million years ago, a three-mile high volcanic cone of rock came shooting up out of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.  The water was warm and attracted millions of tiny sea animals, whose skeletons eventually compressed together to form what is now the Island of Bermuda.  Being an island, well out in the Atlantic Ocean, it's a great place to cook up some fish, which is precisely what Chef Norbert is going to prepare for his next recipe.

A little vegetable oil and a little butter are heated together in a saute pan.  The butter is used because of its rich flavor, but butter can easily burn at low temperatures.  The oil has a much higher burning point, so by mixing the two together, you get a rich flavor plus the ability to cook at a higher temperature.  As soon as the butter melts, in goes a sliced onion, some sliced ginger, a touch of white wine.  All that cooks together for a minute.  A filet of red snapper gets a light dusting of paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt.  A little oil is heated in a pan and the fish is cooked for two minutes on each side.  At that point it goes onto the onions.  Slices of green, yellow, and red bell peppers are sauteed and placed on top of the fish.  The pan goes into a 350 degree oven for two minutes.  The finished fish goes onto a serving plate, and it's ready to go.

The early colonists to arrive in Bermuda were English, and they left their mark culturally, militarily, and of course linguistically.  As Great Britain moved through its various fashions and fancies, so did Bermuda. 

WOLF:    One of the strongest social influences to pass through the British Empire during the last few centuries was Victorianism.  Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901, setting the standards for behavior in all things, including gastronomy.  Victorian ladies made a public display of being very delicate.  And that was particularly true in things that had to do with cooking.  They even developed these little covers to put on the legs of roasted meat and poultry, because they thought it was offensive for a lady to see legs in any situation.   Well, excuuuuse me.

They even began to use arrowroot instead of flour, as a thickening agent in sauces.  Arrowroot will give you a sauce that's clearer, cleaner, more delicate and therefore thought to be more lady-like. During the 1800s, Bermuda became the source for the world's best arrowroot. Arrowroot is a fine white powder that is made from a South American plant.  The plant is ground into a dust and refined through a process that mixes the dust with water and then strains and dries it.  Arrowroot is 80 per cent starch.

Because the individual grains of starch are so small, it's easily digested and often used for puddings that are going to be given to adults or children on a restricted diet.    It does its job at low temperatures, lower than flour or cornstarch, and therefore, it's ideal for egg dishes or custards or any recipe where you don't want to bring the food to a boil.   It has no taste and it does its job with twice the effectiveness of standard wheat flour. 

The general rule of thumb is to use one tablespoon of arrowroot where you would usually use two tablespoons of flour.  One tablespoon of arrowroot will thicken slightly more than a cup of liquid.  To use arrowroot to make a sauce, just add it to a little water.  Make sure it's fully dissolved and stir it into the pan drippings.  Then add broth to develop the sauce.  The result will be a sauce with a very delicate texture. 

One of the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of Bermuda is that everyone is dedicated to preserving their history.  Through a number of organizations, including the Bermuda National  Trust, citizens of Bermuda have been able to hold onto an enormous number of objects and properties that bring their history to life.   One of the most fascinating is Verdmont, a private home that was built in 1710, and has remained virtually unchanged for almost 300 years.  The south side was the original front.  The placement was made in order to give the building this splendid outlook over the south shore of the island.  The sash windows, 12 over 12, follow a style that was extremely fashionable in England during the early 1700s.  The two large reception rooms downstairs were used as a formal drawing room and a parlor. 

The double doors between the two rooms were left open for large parties.  Hey, even in the 1700s, they were party animals.  The white planking on the walls is made of Georgia pine and was thought to have been installed as a backing for wallpaper.  This portrait is of the Honorable Thomas Smith, who was a ship owner and the collector of customs.  The other paintings are of his four daughters and their families:  Elizabeth, Honore, Catherine, and Mary. 

These portraits were painted by Mary's husband, John Green.  He had been a judge and a portrait painter in Philadelphia, but his political loyalties lay with the King of England.  When the War of Independence got started, he moved to Bermuda and married Mary Smith. 

The house also has some great furniture.  Many of the pieces are made of Bermuda cedar and show the skills of the local craftsmen.  The sides of this desk are made of a single plank of wood.  This tallboy has all its legs put on facing into the room.  Bermuda cabinet makers originated the form and called them “marching legs.”  The design allows the tallboy to fit flushly against the wall. 

The nursery has a collection of children's objects that give you a look at what it was like to be a kid in the old days.  The dining room has a collection of Chinese export porcelain that ranges from 1680 to 1820.  The bathrooms were just that, bath rooms.  The toilet facilities were outside.  But with Bermuda's wonderful climate, that was less of a burden than it was in, say, Boston. 

The kitchen was also in a second building, and there were two reasons for that.  First of all, there was an enormous fear of fire.  True, there were fireplaces in the main building, but the idea of a working fireplace, the kind you'd find in a kitchen, was just too scary.  Second of all, they wanted to keep the heat of the kitchen out of the main building.

Because the island of Bermuda is warmed by an ocean current, it has a mild climate, and that's great for growing fruits and vegetables which are usually associated with the tropics.  A perfect example of that are the many fields filled with banana plants.  The banana, by the way, is neither a fruit or a vegetable.  The banana is, in fact, an herb; actually it's the world's largest herb.

Chef Norbert is using bananas to make a banana bread.  He starts by taking a large electric mixer, which is a good idea because he's making a large amount of batter.  Four cups of sugar are creamed together with 16 ounces of butter.  Twelve ripe bananas are added in.  Eight eggs are beaten in one at a time.  Two teaspoons of baking powder, plus a teaspoon of sugar and a little cinnamon are mixed together and added.  Add eight cups of flour, and two cups of chopped walnuts.   The batter gets divided into rectangular baking pans and popped into a 300 degree oven for two hours, at which time you have Bermuda banana breads.

Cecille Snaithe-Simmons was born in Bermuda and by profession is a registered nurse.   Her husband, Lionel Simmons, was  for many years a member of Parliament.  She's the author of "The Bermuda Cook Book," which contains recipes passed down from both her family and that of her husband.  She's been kind enough to stop by the kitchen of the Bermuda Hotel School and demonstrate her recipe for Spanish rice.

A Spanish recipe makes perfectly good sense in Bermuda.  The Spanish knew about Bermuda before the English.  As a matter of fact, the name Bermuda comes from the Spanish explorer, Juan des Bermudez, who stopped in here in 1511, a hundred years before the English.

Cecille's recipe starts with two strips of bacon that are cooked until they are crisp.  Then they are removed from the pan and crumbled.  Chopped onion goes in.  A chopped green pepper.  A minute of cooking, then two cups of chopped tomato are added, a quarter cup of tomato paste.  The bacon returns, plus a cup of water, two cups of medium-grain rice.  Everything comes to a boil and then into a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes.  That's it.  A rice dish like this is easy and convenient, and tastes so good because rice has a natural ability to carry the flavors of the the other ingredients. 

Long-grain rice is best for this dish, because it's extra fluffy and each individual grain tends to stay separate and hold its shape.

Princess Louise was the daughter of England's Queen Victoria.  But because she was married to the Governor General of Canada, she lived in North America. 

“North” is the operative word here.  Canadian winters can be quite cold and quickly turn your mind to thoughts of warm winter vacation.  The problem was that those were the days before air travel, and the amount of time you could spend on a vacation was severely limited by the amount of time that you were willing to spend on a boat. 

Florida and the Caribbean were warm, but they were pretty far away.   Bermuda was warm and only 600 miles off the Carolina coast.    Bermuda is a three-hour flight from Toronto, less than two hours from New York, and only two and a half hours from Atlanta. 

Princess Louise must have had a similar view of the geography, because she was the original discoverer of Bermuda as a vacation destination.  Her first trip here had an enormous amount of coverage in the press, and lots of public attention.  It transformed Bermuda into the ideal spot for a holiday.

Part of most vacations is the vacation postcard, which has really become an art form. While I was doing my research for this report, I discovered a wonderful collection of old Bermuda postcards at the Bermuda archives.  Karla Heywood is the curator of the photographic collection, and she's brought out some of the best examples.

KARLA HEYWOOD:     Nicholas Lusher was really the first photographer in Bermuda to develop or have his stock shots turned into postcard format.  When postcards were first developed, Lusher really got on the bandwagon quite quickly.

This is a postcard that's dated, I believe, 1905.  But you can see that this is exactly the same view that was taken of the lily field at Bellevue in the 1880s or '90s.  So obviously Lusher is sending his prints over to Germany or Austria and having them published and tinted, because you can see the color in this.  

Here's another example of a very early postcard. This is, again, October 29th, 1905.  The early postcards are actually -- you can't -- you can't write on the address side, so there's only one little area that you can write on, and that's at the bottom here, and they've sent a little message home. 

WOLF:     Interesting. So the whole back side is your address.

HEYWOOD:    That's right. 

WOLF:    It says, this side for address only, and you get this tiny little area for your message.

HEYWOOD:    Yup.  And here's the same view, a postcard from after World War I, although I can't--

WOLF:    Then they start dividing it.

HEYWOOD:    Absolutely.  So there's-- there's a view of Gibbs Hole Lighthouse.  What's missing are the shots of the-- of the beaches and the water at the south shore, which is, of course, why our visitors come here today.  But 19th Century and early 20th Century visitors came in the winter and they weren't interested in-- in bathing and sunbathing so much as we are today.  They were more interested in seeing sort of phenomena like rock formations, aquarium, public gardens.

WOLF:    And just being out of the cold. 

HEYWOOD:    That's right. 

WOLF:    Interesting.  We certainly do change.

That's it from Hamilton, Bermuda.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I'm Burt Wolf.