Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Freetown chaos and banana bread

This place really makes me laugh sometimes. Sometimes it also makes me cry… but that’s another story.

I just came back from having lunch with my friend Dina (who is an amazing cook). She has just had her living room painted – nothing funny about that, except that the painters painted around the furniture. Didn’t move it. Just painted right around it – so when she wanted to rearrange her furniture there were big ugly sections of the old paint in the shape of bookshelves and arm chairs. Very African.

Driving in Freetown is quite the experience. When I first got behind the wheel here I was petrified; literally shaking. There are no rules and if there are – nobody knows them. I had to keep pushing myself to drive and I knew that each day would get easier – and it did – but initially I really had to force myself to do it. These days I’m a natural – I drive like the Sierra Leoneans, who, just between you and me, are the worst drivers in the world.

Most of the cars on the road are taxis - which in Freetown are denoted by a thick yellow stripe on the side of a car. Any car. That’s it. No meters, no signage. The taxi system is somewhat different here. You don’t just get a taxi to yourself – you get one seat. So there are several people sharing the taxi with you. You also don’t get just the one taxi to where you want to go. Depending on your destination you may need to catch several. Taxis generally run a particular route, so they could go from the beginning of one road to the end of it – you would then need to get another taxi for the next section of your trip and so on.

As part of the disarmament and reintegration process after the war, many ex-combatants were provided with grants and training to start their own businesses and many of them went into the taxi business. While many of the taxis are safe – you have to be careful as there are all sorts of characters driving them.

My favorite thing on the road (not) is when the cars just stop in front of you, no indicators, no warning, no pulling over to one side, just stop, in the middle of the road. This may be to pick someone up, drop someone off, because they’ve broken down, got a flat tire, have a chat, need to buy some food, get a drink of water, pee, whatever. Doesn’t matter that there are a hundred cars behind them all blasting their horns like maniacs and screaming. They just take their time, oblivious to everything and everyone around them.

Other times, whole roads will be cordoned off by the police because someone important is coming through. This could mean being stuck at a standstill in traffic for a couple of hours, with no way of getting out.

The other favorite (again, I’m being facetious) is getting stuck behind a big truck (these tend to be circa 1960), which is going at about 10 kilometers per hour pumping out black plumes of smoke – and there is no getting away from it – bumper to bumper traffic behind and in the opposite lane. The only thing to do is take short, little, shallow breaths. And a shower when you get home. Even worse to be stuck behind a garbage truck.

A quick recipe before heading off from Freetown chaos to Cairo and Marrakech on Friday morning (at 3am - eek!) for two weeks (!!!) Very, very excited, especially about the food.

This is a great recipe for banana bread. I'm making it right now to take to Nicoletta's farewell tomorrow night. She is going home to Italy to have a baby!

It's really worth the extra effort of baking the bananas and soaking the raisins – but would be really delicious anyway if you couldn’t be bothered to do this. It’s adapted ever so slightly from the roast banana-pumpkin breakfast bread recipe from 101 Cookbooks:

You will need:
  • 3/4 cup raisins (I also add some dried apricots chopped into raisin size pieces)
  • 1/2 cup of rum, brandy or whisky
  • 2 large bananas, or 4 small ones, unpeeled
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla exract
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Pour the alcohol over the raisins and bring to boil in a small saucepan. Let stand for 1 hour or so. Discard liquid (I'm sure you can find a good use for it)
  3. Bake the bananas in the oven for around 10 minutes. Let cool.
  4. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  5. In a separate bowl (if you have a stand mixer - use this - I don't - but I want one) cream the butter and sugar for around 3 minutes using an electric mixer (although of course you could do this by hand). Add one egg and mix until completely incorporated. Add second egg. Mix until completely incorporated.
  6. Meanwhile, squeeze the flesh of the bananas out of the skins and into yet another mixing bowl. Add the coconut milk and vanilla and mash up together.
  7. Add half of this banana mixture to the butter, sugar and egg mixture and mix (using the electric mixer - or not if you don't have one) until completely blended. Add half of the flour mixture to this mixture and mix until combined. Add the remaining banana mixture and blend thoroughly. And you guessed it - now add the remaining flour mixture and mix until all are blended together.
  8. Fold the raisins (and apricots if using) into the mixture.
  9. Pour into greased loaf pan (or whatever you are using).
  10. Bake in the oven for around 1 hour - or until a toothpick or match (or whatever you use to check if things are ready) inserted into the center comes out clean.
  11. Cool on a rack. Slice. Eat.

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