All I was really after were some limes, but sometimes a simple errand can turn into an extended encounter and a glimpse into local ways. I was in Port Antonio, a small city at the foot of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains where a tangle of lush green vegetation tumbles down to the perfectly protected harbor. One of the draws of the place (other than the excellent marina and incredible natural beauty) was the opportunity to provision before setting off for Panama’s San Blas islands. I was a woman on a mission, just breezing through – until friendly locals slowed me down.
Stopping at a tiny fruit stand, I met Sophia, who made her living from just a smattering of goods: a little citrus, a few spices: enough to fill a large basket, no more. Squeezed in with quiet Sophia were two friends, outgoing Evette and kindly Andrea, twenty-something-year-old girlfriends chatting away. To my surprise and delight, they immediately pulled me into their conversation. When my eye fell on the ginger – lovely fresh ginger, so different from the wizened old knobs found at the supermarket back home – the young women mentioned sorrel drink, the traditional Christmas brew of Jamaica.
Seeing that I had no concept whatsoever about this fabulous concoction, the three launched into the recipe, each repeating it in her own words so it might penetrate my thick foreign head. It took me about ten iterations to understand the word sorrel, the way it rolled off their Jamaican tongues and traveled into my uncomprehending American ear. Cereal? Sonnel? Sorrel! Finally I understood! Sorrel is a type of hibiscus (hibiscus sabdariffa). Where might I find some? Sophia glanced sideways at Evette, who turned to Andrea. “I’ll get some!” Andrea cried and disappeared into the market.
Eventually, Andrea reported there was no sorrel to be found in the market – but a friend of a friend was collecting some for me as we spoke. Ah, the wonder of the cell phone! That afternoon, just as promised, Sophia presented me with a gallon-sized bag of wine-red sorrel, at the bargain price of US$1.00. That evening, I cooked up my first batch of Christmas drink, my ears ringing with instructions in melodic Jamaican voices while the scent of brewing ginger and sorrel filled the galley. My husband sipped and heartily approved. In the end, we made several different batches until we had a recipe that worked as both a refreshing ice tea and as a cocktail. With Christmas right around the corner, I had gained not only a lovely memory of Jamaica, but the perfect drink for a tropical holiday celebration, thanks to my new friends in Port Antonio.
While boiling one liter of water, wash and drain the sorrel. Take the boiling water off heat and add the sorrel and ginger, letting them brew and cool. Then strain the sorrel and ginger from the liquid. The juice will keep for several days unrefrigerated. Add sugar and rum to taste. The amount of each ingredient can be varied according to personal taste: less ginger for a milder taste (as little as a tiny sliver), more sorrel for intensity of flavor, and as much sugar and rum as you like. For fun, try to develop your own signature blend, bringing a taste of Jamaican festivity to your own galley or home.
This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Cruising World magaine. The photo shows Sophia and Evette (Andrea was too busy finding the sorrel to catch on film!)