Jamaica is the only place I can eat jerk. Not for reasons of culinary purity or national pride—if it were possible I’d eat jerk wherever it chose to greet me. It is simply impossible. Contrary to a good Caribbean upbringing, I can’t eat pepper. A real and actual allergy. Capsaicin is my natural enemy.
Jerk, famous for its ferocious fieriness, is Jamaican. But here, in its birthplace, you discover that Scotch bonnet peppers are not its main ingredient. Jerk does not have to strip the tissue from the back of your throat. With most meats, you can get the heat on the side as a sauce. Here, in its natural habitat, the true identity of jerk reveals itself: pimento wood.
It’s possible you’ve been misled: jerk is a process, not a flavor. Or at least not only a flavor. First and foremost, jerk is a method of preparing and preserving meat. Africans fleeing slavery found the treacherous landscape of the Cockpit Country perfect for the safety and settlement of what would become Maroon communities. Still, they had to find ways of cooking that didn’t draw attention.
Fires, smoke, burning smells—you see how this might end badly. They dug deep pits, filled them with logs from pimento trees, added the heat and the meat and covered over the whole affair. Trapped underground on a low heat and wrapped in sweet smoke for nine, 10, 15 hours, the emergent meat was flavorful and moist. Why is secrecy the recurring theme in the best recipes?
The pimento tree is flora royalty. Its identification, closely followed by a deep appreciation, sets us in the year 1509. Spain is at that very moment trying to set up a capital in Jamaica. Good for them to have made time for trees. Pimento, also known as allspice, should be the stuff both dreams and perfumes are made of. The name “allspice” comes from the eau de cinnamon, clove, and bay leaves you get from the wood.
But I digress, this really is all about me and my devotion to anything calling itself a sausage. For reasons best known to the great chefs of Boston Bay, spiritual home of jerk, the thing that keeps me safe in the company of chicken, pork and fish—the idea that the flavor is in the flesh—simply does not apply to the sausage. The jerk sausage tastes like a Scotch bonnet pepper wrapped in some meat.
The one at Boston Bay is stuffed with pig bits, seasonings, and the fires of Beelzebub. It is all the things a sausage should be: smoky, settled, dense, and complex. It is sweet, moist, decadent. Moreish. I don’t know why they can’t keep the pepper out of this incarnation, but they don’t. And I can’t stop eating.
There’s hell to pay for this exquisite pain and I have a full wallet.
Things you’ll need:
Sausage stuffing implement
(makes 20-25 sausages)
3 lbs pork: shoulder = good; tenderloin = heaven
2 lbs pork belly
(It’s an interpretive dance of flavors. The amounts are suggested starting points. Adjust as you go.)
2 tablespoons allspice, ground or powdered
4 to 6 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
6 blades of spring onion
1 fistful fresh thyme
5 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
3 tablespoons brown sugar
splash of vinegar
1 square inch fresh ginger or 2 tablespoon powder
1 tablespoon nutmeg
6 to 8 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Scotch bonnet peppers (Habaneros seem to be the widely accepted substitute. If you can’t get that, look for a pepper that does not have too distinguishing a flavor because you don’t want the sausage to taste like not-jerk.) Start with one. You know yourself, work your way from there.
- Grind the meat. Both kinds at once if possible for a nice, even mix.
- Look at the meat. Look into your heart. Consider your taste preferences. It’s all freestyle from here. Imagine the sausage you desire. Start with the ground or powdered allspice. Sniff. Keep that in mind as you start to add the other ingredients.
- With ingredients adjusted and mixed into the meat, and your hands in good nick because you used those gloves, run the lot through the grinder again. (You can use a food processor, but you will not be thrilled.)
- Get the mix into the casings. If you don’t have the attachment, consider a fluting bag, but be firm with it.
- Set that in the fridge to rest for a day. Or overnight.
- Get out your preferred heating device, be it barbecue pit or counter-top grill. Cook.
- About the sauce: buy one.