ALL CARIBBEAN ISLANDS smell of food -- of wild herbs in the countryside, of sizzling curries and roasting pigs in the city streets. The spices of Africa, France, Spain and India have swirled and melded over the centuries and baked in the island sun to an olfactory patina that is Creole. Indian food in the Caribbean tastes Creole Indian; the food in Chinese restaurants has a Creole accent; French food has an earthy and spicy lilt to it.
Nowhere in the islands is the mix richer than in Guadeloupe. It smells of chickens dripping their fat into charcoal fires, of acid star apples and dark, mysteriously spiced blood sausages.
Why does a crab cross the road? Because it is in Guadeloupe, where goats and cows are tethered along every roadside, where the fields are littered with the shells of cars and the shells of coconuts, where dozens of front porches and parlors have been turned into makeshift restaurants.
Guadeloupe is an island of cooks, a hundred or so of them -- nearly all the restaurateurs -- women who have turned their home talents professional and parade their glory in a day-long festival of woman chefs each summer. As Washington keeps tabs on the resolutions in Congress, the people of Guadeloupe discuss the creations and amendments of Violette or Lydie. These local heroines play to packed houses, even in the summer when the tourists are few.
The food, like the language, bears a family resemblance to French, but is heavily resemblance to French, but is heavily accented and intermingled with other influences. The boudin would taste pretty exotic to a Parisian, and the crab farcie would send him for an Evian to quench the fire. Garlic is not just a flavor but almost the main course. And chili peppers get into heated arguments with lime juice over an innocently grilled fish.
Whenever something is not sauced with lime, garlic and hot pepper it is immersed in golden curry sauce and called a colombo. It could be chicken, lamb or seafood but more than likely goat. And whatever else there might be on the menu, there certainly will be colombo.
Chez Lydie, on a roadside in a tiny town called St. Felix, is typical of these homes-turned-restaurants, with its two front rooms open to the warm air and the Christmas decorations up at least through summer.
The tables are covered with plastic cloths over plaid, and even on a weeknight they don't begin to fill until late in the evening.
Dinner starts with punch, local rum flavored with sugar and lime juice, with coconut milk or with whatever fruits might have been left macerating. The menu is standard. You can whet your appetite with accras -- fritters of salt cod or vegetable -- or tiny local clams that have an oddly spongy texture, steamed with lime, garlic and peppers, either fiery red or fiery yellow or both. There might be crab shells stuffed with a bread paste similar to turkey stuffing but with pepper enough for a 20-pound bird. Or christophene -- a pale green pear-shaped squash known elsewhere as chayote -- might be similarly stuffed.
Main dishes are, besides the colombos, grilled local fish or lobster with the same seasonings as the clams -- lots of lime and garlic -- a tomato-spiked fish stew called court bouillon, or a fish poached with more lime and garlic and given the name blaff for the sound supposedly made when the fish is added to the boiling water.
The entertainment consists of picking tiny bones out of the fish or larger ones out of the goat colombo, and the filler is provided by rice mixed with red beans -- distant relatives of the New Orleans staple -- or maybe boiled dasheen, a tuber known elsewhere as taro, which looks like wet gray rocks. That is followed by the island's famous homemade ice creams, which could not have been made famous by anyone who had already tasted American or European ice creams.
In the city of Point-a-Pitre the pull of Europe is stronger.French-style fast-food restaurants display self-service puff-pastry pizzas with anchovies and olives, quiches that lost their flavor crossing the ocean to be interpreted island-style, or tarts of cabbage and ham. Along with the familiar French pastries are the chewy and irresistible coconut tarts called, rightfully, torment d'amour. And there are city-slick restaurants such as La Canne a Sucre, where a young French-trained local chef has created a background of lace curtains and linen cloths, and the dishes on them might be cross-cultural octopus with mushrooms and bacon or conch ground with mushrooms and stuffed back in its beautiful spiky shell. Revival of the Fittest
Two of the most interesting culinary endeavors, however, are revivals, both by women who worked in France but not as restaurateurs. Clara LeSueur returned home three years ago to take over Chez Clara from her mother in the tiny town of Ste. Bose. Clara was born in the house, and now presides over it in a glitter of gold-twined hair, four gold rings, six gold bracelets, three gold necklaces and one-way sunglasses.
In the slightly ramshackle front-porch restaurant she serves dishes sophisticated in their simplicity to contrast with her golden dazzle. Her lobster is simply grilled with lime, parsley, oil and garlic, and it is one of the few viable competitors of plain boiled Maine lobster. Her crab farcie uses, unlike most, all the innards, which gives it a distinctive taste and texture. Her fricasseed chicken or colombo couldn't be simpler -- or better for it. The pace of the restaurant is deceptively lackadiaisical, until after lunch Clara dashes off to join a bicycle race.
But most interesting of the prodigal daughters is Felicite Doloir, a former chemical engineer who has researched forgotten recipes and determined to update and refine them for her fresh and airy, tiled and colorful Barbaroc restaurant. It is in the smallest imaginable town, Petit Canal, but would be at home in Manhattan; and from it Doloir conducts tours of the area following luncheons that, demonstrate her culinary revival.
A whole-day "gastrohistory" tour might include poetry readings and slides, games with local food as prizes, and certainly demonstrations of drink-making and consumption of such results as bavaroise a la papaye, which, being liquid and alcoholic, is nothing a Frenchman would recognize as a bavaroise. Doloir's igname (yam) is prepared as a souffle, her guava as a flan, her crab as a rissole. Her accras are not only of salt cod but also malanga, a vegetable related to taro. But this is tough and hearty food with strong tastes and odd textures that imply unnamed strange sea creatures lurking therein.
Crayfish is teamed with dumplings and chorizo, a surprising forgotten combination rather than a rew dish, though undoubtedly updated. Only the plastic orange shell for the passion fruit sherbet rings less than true. Doloir's other modernizations are more subtle; local diners, she found, did not like crudites as appetizers, and she considers the typical boudin too heavy a start for a meal, so she arranges concentric circles of crudites with slices of boudin as a lighter appetizer platter. Taking the Tour
After the meal her gastrohistory tour shows dinner's origins -- the coconut and breadfruit trees, the holes crabs dig in the earth, the mangrove trees and fishing grounds. Conch shells are gathered by the armful by tourists, and Doloir hacks the tops off green coconuts so that their delicate milk might cure any tourist ailments.
The following recipes from Chez Clara and Barbaroc are not intended to cure any ailments other than northern winter doldrums. BARBAROC BAVAROISE A LA PAPAYA (2 servings)
Unlike the French bavarian, this is a drink. The original recipe, an ancient one, called for goat's milk, and in preblender days the papaya was pulverized by hand. 1/2 cup diced papaya 1/3 cup unsweetened evaporated milk 3 or 4 drops almond extract 3 tablespoons lime juice 4 tablespoons sugar 3 tablespoons rum Peel papaya with a knife. Halve lengthwise and remove the black seeds. Chop the flesh. Put the papaya pieces, milk, almond extract, lime juice, sugar and rum in a blender with about 8 ice cubes. Blend 30 seconds, until the papaya is pureed. Pour into two large, very cold glasses and serve.
This drink can also be made with apricots or plums. BARBAROC ACCRAS DE MORUE (Salt cod fritters) (Makes about 30) 1/2 pound salt cod 1 teaspoon fresh or dried chives 1 clove garlic, minced 1 tablespoon chopped hot green chilies, or to taste 1/4 teaspoon thyme 1 1/2 cups flour 2 pinches baking soda 3/4 cup water 1 whole egg Oil for deep frying
Soak the salt cod in water to cover for 5 hours, changing the water three times. Finely mince the cod and mix well with the chives, garlic, chilies and thyme; set aside. Combine flour, baking soda and water. Combine salt cod with egg and add to flour mixture, mixing well. Correct the seasoning if necessary and let sit for 20 minutes.
Heat oil for deep-frying to 375 degrees. Drop salt cod batter by spoonfuls into the oil and fry until golden. Drain and serve hot. BARBAROC COCONUT CUSTARD (8 servings) 2/3 cup sugar 1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup water 1 coconut (about 1 1/2 pounds), grated 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk 4 eggs 1 tablespoon aged rum 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make caramel, in a small saucepan combine 2/3 cup sugar with 1/2 cup water and stir over low heat until dissolved.Let boil without stirring until it turns a rich, dark caramel color. Be careful not to let it burn. Remove from heat. Wrap your hand in a tea towel to avoid the steam, and with a wooden spoon stir in 1/3 cup water. Keep stirring until caramel dissolves, returning to the stove if necessary. Pour into lightly greased 9-inch metal pie pan or mold and set aside.
Combine coconut, condensed milk, eggs, rum and vanilla and pour into the caramelized mold. Pour an inch of boiling water into a larger pan and set in oven. Put pan of custard in the waterfilled pan and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes. Let cool and unmold. CLARA'S FRICASSEE DE POULET (4 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon oil 1 chicken, cut in pieces 1 medium onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon thyme 1/4 cup parsley 3 cloves 2 teaspoons tomato paste Chopped green peppers (optional)
In a flameproof casserole heat butter and oil and brown the chicken. Add onion, garlic, thyme, parsley, cloves and tomato paste, plus optional green peppers; mix well, and let brown 5 minutes longer. Add just enough water to cover the bottom and stir. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Add enough water to form a sauce and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes longer or until chicken is cooked through. CLARA'S COLOMBO (3 to 4 servings) 2 1/2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon salt or to taste 1/2 teaspoon pepper or to taste 3 teaspoons curry powder, or more if desired 1 pound cubed goat, lamb or beef, or 2 1/2-pound chicken, cut into pieces 1 pound diced eggplant (optional) or other diced vegetables 2 branches parsley Rice for serving
Rub 2 cloves garlic, salt, pepper and curry powder well into meat and refrigerate at least 1/2 hour or overnight. Put the meat in a frying pan with no oil or other fat, cover and cook slowly until meat is cooked through. Include eggplant or other vegetables if desired. Occasionally lift the lid and add a couple of spoonfuls of water if the meat is sticking. Mince the parsley with the 1/2 clove garlic and additional salt and combine into a paste. Stir into the meat for the last 15 minutes of cooking. Serve the colombo hot, with rice.
Note: This curry can also be made with fish, in which case thyme should be added to the seasonings. CHEZ CLARA LOBSTER (For each serving) 1 lobster, live, for each person 1/2 cup chopped parsley Juice of 1 large lime 2 tablespoons corn oil 2 small cloves garlic, minced Salt
Plunge lobsters into boiling water to cover and cook them 6 minutes for small ones, a few minutes longer for larger ones. Split lengthwise and set aside while you prepare the sauce.
Combine parsley, lime juice, oil, garlic and salt. Stir well. Brush lobster halves generously with the sauce and grill on hot coals or under a broiler just until lobster has cooked through, about 4 minutes. Pour remaining sauce over lobster and serve immediately.