Food critic Richard McComb books a table at Birmingham's underground Caribbean supper club.
Bob Marley is playing on the sound system, Monica Cudjoe is pouring me her ginger drink, spiced with Angostura bitters, and I’m making rapid progress through a dish of plantain chips with a sweet mint dip.
Next up is a late lunch: spirit-raising on-the-bone curry mutton, rice and peas and a slice of ginger cake with vanilla cream. It’s great, hearty Caribbean cooking, spun together from generations-old family recipes and delivered with love just a couple of minutes from Spaghetti Junction in north Birmingham.
Monica, 62, was looking for a new challenge after retiring as a midwife in Sandwell and thoughts returned to her childhood in the West Indies, where she found inspiration. It was in the 1950s and 60s on the tiny island of Carriacou, off Grenada, that Monica cemented a love affair with food; and it is through food that this wonderful home cook has forged a new career, with her daughter Lee Sylvester.
Monica and Lee, 36, a former senior designer at sportswear manufacturer Umbro, set up Tan Rosie Foods in 2010, producing jerk seasonings, sauces and Caribbean fudge in the kitchen of the family home in Erdington. They started selling their products at farmers markets and the business took off. The public’s appetite for West Indian flavours gave Lee a brainwave: if people liked the food so much, why not give them an authentic taste set against the backdrop of a parcel of transported Carriacou?
She came up with the idea of a secret dining club with Monica preparing the food in their kitchen and the front room doubling as a restaurant dining room. “I didn’t think Mum would want people in her house but she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” recalls Lee.
“The first time there were eight people and we got repeat bookings and people started ringing up. The supper club became a word of mouth thing. The maximum we can now do is 16. When you pay, you get the address. It’s a secret until then.”
Mystery over the location has prompted one of the more unusual comments you are likely to come across on a private dining website. Monica and Lee, who serves front of house, have written: “Don’t worry, we are not psychos (we hope you aren’t either!)”
For £25 a head, customers get a four-course Caribbean dinner based on the cuisine of a specific island, from Jamaica, Grenada or Trinidad to Cuba and beyond.
Forthcoming dinners include a Jerk BBQ Nite and a Caribbean Curry Nite, the latter showcasing Trini prawn curry, curry mutton and aubergine and chick pea curry. Customers take along their own wine or beer – or rum.
It was from the Caribbean’s largest island that Monica and Lee took inspiration for their monthly dinners. “Supper clubs started off in Cuba, where they are called paladares. Local housewives open up their homes for paying customers to eat their traditional home cooked meals,” says Monica.
But if the supper club idea has its roots in Cuba, the original Tan Rosie concept hails from Carriacou, known exotically as the Land of Reefs, which is a dependency of Grenada. Until she was 10, Monica was brought up by her grandmother, Priscilla Rosanna Cudjoe, who was known affectionately as Tan Rosie. Monica moved to the UK when she was 15, living in Huddersfield before the family settled in Birmingham in 1972. But she never forgot Tan Rosie, her cooking or the spectacle of family feasts in Carriacou.
The first supper club, last July, showcased dishes from Grenada, nicknamed The Spice Island due to its profusion of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. The island’s cuisine is shaped not only by African, Indian and native Caribbean traditions but takes influences from former French and British settlers. The climate means a lot of the fish and meat is corned or salted and the preserved foods are incorporated in typical Grenadian dishes such as saltfish and coo coo.
The Jamaican track and field team has been training in Birmingham before the London Olympics and the athletes would no doubt appreciate one of Tan Rosie’s recent Jamaican kitchen suppers, which featured curry goat with rice and peas, ackee and saltfish with friend dumplings and Jamaican rum and raisin ice cream.
In fact, Tan Rosie will be playing its own part in the celebration of the 2012 Games as Monica and Lee have been asked to be guest chefs at a 20-day Global Feast event in Stratford, where 80 guests will enjoy dishes from a different country every night.
Mother and daughter hope their supper club will help to dispel some of the myths surrounding Caribbean food, not least that it always has to be hot. The use of chillies, like Scotch bonnet pepper, means some dishes have a definite kick but there is subtlety, too. Tan Rosie may make an award-winning garlic and pepper hot sauce but there is also a mild sweet tamarind sauce to soothe less fiery palates.
And as good as Jamaican food can be, it does tend to dominate perceptions about Caribbean cooking. People assume Caribbean food = exclusively Jamaica. “We are trying to show people there is much more out there,” says Lee.
One of the reasons for the success of Tan Rosie has been the relatively low profile of Caribbean food in Birmingham. As a cuisine, it punches well below its weight when compared with the proliferation of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi cooking.
Lee says: “Everyone we meet complains about the lack of good Caribbean food. There are maybe five restaurants you can go to in Birmingham for a sit down meal.”
She believes the slow take-up of Caribbean restaurants in Birmingham may be down to a lack of role models in the UK food industry and a lack of confidence. The demand, she says, is unquestionably out there. Having eaten Monica’s curry mutton, I can attest to that.
* For more information about the Tan Rosie supper clubs, go to www.tanrosie.com.