Confessions of an expat – Sometimes it does grow on trees

There’s one in there somewhere: an avocado tree provides its fruit with perfect camouflage.

Mangoes all over the ground as I walk the roads near our house. But the tree in our garden? Finished. Harvest has been and gone at Chateau Morvan. The trouble with mango trees is you get all you’re going to get all at once. So one day you’ve got buckets of them under water to try to keep them until you fancy one again and the next day the tree is bare. We had so many that when the guy came to fix the phone line and asked if he could have one for his daughter I gave him a shopping bag full.

The issue now, though, is avocados. Or rather one avocado. The only one left on the tree. It’s half a mile in the air and so well camouflaged that every time I look it takes a minute to locate it. But today is the day and I have plans for it: plans involving Worcestershire sauce and a knife and fork. Cut it in half, mash it up and splash some of the spicy brown nectar on it. It’s the easiest starter in the world, but the kind of thing that impresses people if they’ve never come across it before.

They’re funny things, avocados. Rock hard for most of their life, perfect for about two days and then garbage. Of course I could go to the shop and get one, but when you’ve got a tree right outside the house, spending money that way seems wrong.

So there it hangs, dark green and seductive (and there aren’t many things you can say that about). In the house we had when we first arrived in Tobago there was a pool in the back yard. An added bonus about that was that swimming pools tend to come with a long-handled net for sweeping leaves out. And if you angle them up instead of down, you’ve got a perfect avocado grabber. Wave the swaying pole in the right direction until it pops under the fruit, give a sharp tug and you’ve got half a meal right there.

The house with the pool is way in the past, though, and therefore avocado retrieving devices have to be improvised. What we have here is a long aluminium strip with an l-shapedprofile, as if it were for protecting the edge of an interior wall. Maybe that is what it was made for, but in its retirement it has languished, unloved, in our back yard, covered with dirty sand. Now, though, in its twilight years it has been given a chance to be useful again. With a wire coathanger attached to one end like a noose, it is a humble masterpiece of homemade avocado-picking  technology.

The trouble is, the object of my hunger is a long way up and even my flimsy metal friend can’t reach it.

Where is my 13-year-old tree-climbing son when I need him? Now 22 and living in Barcelona, as a matter of fact. Which leaves his old man to perch precariously on a bar stool and fish in the sky, more in hope than expectation. My wife, the reviver of a plan which I had already considered and rejected, has the vital job of holding the stool while I risk my neck. Aren’t women supposed to be the cautious ones?

It has to be done. You can’t live in such a bountiful place and be deterred by such a piddling obstacle as height.

Madam seems to think it will be a doddle: thrust the device skywards at an angle of perhaps 70 degrees and it will garotte its target like an 18th century brigand who’s just swum ashore with a dagger between his teeth. My superior grasp of the situation includes the words “no” and “chance”, which doesn’t go down well.

So, while she abandons her stabilizing role in favour of getting a good look from a distance and offering left-right-up-down advice, I poke the tool with as much accuracy as randomness will allow and the coathanger snags a branch. My adviser is excited and urges me to shake it.

I shake. Leaves flutter and suddenly a pear-shaped heavy object loses its grip on the branch and plummets to the ground.

It’s undamaged and hard, but nothing a couple of days wrapped in newspaper won’t cure. Or buried in flour, or whatever old wives’ tale you favour.

This is the life. Free food, and nobody was hurt during the capture. Maybe I should borrow somebody’s pool-cleaning net and sit on a rock at Bacolet, dipping it into the sea and returning with some magnificent, nutritious and free fish for the main course.

There’s a worldwide boom in avocado prices and a gang in California was recently busted for a $300,000 avocado heist, but hey, we’ve got a tree that produces them for nothing. Pity it seems to be closed for the season, that’s all.

Bloke in the Kitchen. Barbecued seafood with avocado and palm hearts


Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

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Shrimps on the barbie: this lot are pretty small, but see what you can find

Seeing actual fish on a barbecue is relatively rare and there is a reason for that. Food tends to stick to the bars on a barbecue and fish is soft, so it is too easy to tear it, break it, and generally make a mess of it. With a nice big steak from some chunky fish such as salmon you might be okay, but other than that it is quite a challenge.

It helps if the bars are shiny and clean, but that means you have to cook the fish first, and anyway, how many of us have the time or inclination to get the thing back to pristine condition? We’ll clean it, yes, scrub it with a scouring pad and maybe take a nostalgic trip down Brillo Pad Lane, but there are likely to be brown spots where it should be gleaming like a lake in a fairy story.

If you’re a real fish fiend and determined to have a go, the best thing is to buy some of those fish-shaped sort of cages. You put a fish inside and close it, and the flesh doesn’t actually touch the barbecue at all. The cage does, and the fish is right next to it, so it cooks but doesn’t stick.

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Fish holders, cages, baskets, contraptions. Whatever you call them, they keep the delicate flesh from sticking to the bars.

The best I can find as a technical term is “fish holder”, so if you’re trying to explain it to the assistant in the shop that sells this kind of thing, you’re going to be doing some descriptive business with your hands.

Alternatively, you could wrap a piece of fish in aluminium foil and slap that on, just as you put it in the oven. A fish fillet, a slice of lemon or some herbs on top, place it on some foil and wrap it up. It won’t have any of the barbecue flavor, but it will cook.

Remember, too, that fish generally takes less time, so however you choose to do it, make sure you don’t overcook it.

Far easier is to use prawns, or some other kind of seafood such as scallops, and because these are relatively small, they are often done on skewers (permanent steel ones or single-use wooden). This means you get kebabs, and you can either make a whole skewer of, say, shrimps, or mix in pieces of pepper or other roastable vegetables.

If you do that, try to make sure the pieces don’t stick out much further than the shrimps or scallops, or they will get burnt before the shrimps are done.

Cheap disposable barbecue, wooden skewers, some prawns and rings of squid. Elementary, my dear Watson

Squid does pretty well on a barbecue. If you use baby ones, you will need to clean them to get all the gunge out, but once that is done, sling them on the bars for a couple of minutes and they’re ready. For preparation, check out my recipe for Sea-Flavoured Squid: on the homepage, click on the search tool and type squid.

The most important thing to remember when barbecuing anything is that it’s not the smooth, predictable process you find in a good kitchen. Out there you’re thinking on your feet, making it up as you go along and just getting the job done.

Which brings us to the accompaniments. To go with fish there is a great, easy sauce called Chermoula. Click the search tool on the homepage and type chermoula.

Knock up a potato salad. Cut the spuds into chunks and boil them, then cool and drain them and mix in some mayonnaise plus a sprinkling of chopped parsley (mainly for decoration). Don’t be stingy with the mayo. A little salt and pepper and there’s your bulk, your carbohydrates.

You could do something similar with pasta (fusilli, farfalle, penne etc.): cook it, cool it, drain it, add some mayo or even just olive oil and herbs, maybe some diced tomato or cucumber. Radishes, capers… Do what you like: it’s not governed by the Ten Commandments.

As for vegetable salads etc, it is tempting to knock up a standard-issue lettuce-based number, but we all know people only eat a few forkfuls out of a sense of duty.

But if you want to give your guests something they will actually like, here is a fantastic quick salad dish: avocado with palm hearts. It depends on there being some nice ripe avocados available, but let’s assume there are. Any decent supermarket or deli will have cans of palm hearts. They come in a sort of brine to keep them in good condition, and the hearts look like white candles, not a million miles away from asparagus, but with a flavour all their own.

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Palm hearts: the avocado’s secret love

So, peel and slice the avocados – nice big slices if people are sitting down, or you can cut them up if everybody’s standing up, juggling with wine glasses. Open a can of palm hearts and drain off the brine. Lay one or two over the avocado (again, cut them up if people are going to find it difficult to use a knife and fork).

You will hear one three-part question: “What are these things, where can I get some and why have I never noticed them before?” Then a statement-question: “Aren’t they just perfect with avocados.”



Bloke in the Kitchen. Avocado starter



Avocado with Worcestershire sauce (as a starter)


The easiest, quickest starter in the world. And it’s tasty. And almost everyone likes it.

The only thing with avocados is that you can’t bank on them being available in the right condition. So don’t announce you’re doing an avocado dish unless you actually have as many as you need in your kitchen, perfect and ready to roll.

If you announce it in advance, you’ll be chasing around every supermarket and corner shop in the area, swearing at rock hard ones and cursing the blackening, rotting ones.

The right condition is: starting to go soft. They need to give a bit when you give them a slight squeeze, and not spring back. If they spring back, they will probably be okay in a couple of days, but they’re no good right now. They will be tough and bitter.

If it looks like this and is slightly squidgy, you’re in business

Once you have one or two in the right condition, this is all you do:



Worcestershire sauce


Cut the avocado(s) in half (lengthwise)

Whack the stone with a sharp knife so the blade grips it. Then wiggle the stone out.

Mash the flesh up in the skin with a fork

Sprinkle on some Worcestershire sauce.

Serve with a teaspoon and a serviette/piece of kitchen paper

That’s it. THE END