Tuesday, April 03, 2007

St. Thomas Charoset

Here, in honor of Passover, is my grandmother's recipe for charoset. (That's her picture from 1980, with two of her two great-grandsons. Read below to learn who the man is.) The recipe was recorded by my mother. For those of you of Eastern European descent, it is like nothing you have had. This is a Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) recipe from Panama, passed over to the isthmus from St. Thomas and probably before that from other earlier settlements in the Caribbean. (You can save this for next year.)

Panama (St. Thomas style) Charoset
From Inez Brandon Fidanque (1892-1991)
Recorded by Emma Fidanque Levy (1920-2005)

10 oz. pitted dates
12 oz. dark dried figs (de-stemmed)
8 oz. raisins
2 apples, cored and peeled
4 oz. walnuts

Chop and blend (with no recognizable pieces, but not too mushy -- if you use a food processor, do 1/2 at a time).
Add wine or cherry cordial (preferably Cherry Heering) to moisten.
Sprinkle with cinnamon.


Here's how the family arrived in St. Thomas, as set forth by Mordecai Arbel in Early Relations between the Jewish Communities in the Caribbean and the Guianas and Those of the Near East, 17th to 19th Centuries. As you read this, you probably begin to understand why controversy seems to follow members of our family!

In 1816, Joshua Piza . . . was invited to Curacao to serve as a cantor. . . . Born and educated in Amsterdam, he was already influenced by the customs and usages of modern European Sephardi Jews. His way of service clashed with the majority of the community members. On one side, angry voices called for his dismissal. On the other, he had a strong group of supporters. The rift degenerated into the secession from the established community of the protesters against Piza. They left the synagogue as well and prayed in private houses. Curacao Jewry broke into two communities with separate cemeteries, separate administration of Jewish laws (marriages, births, funerals, ritual slaughter, and so on).

The Jewish population of Curacao was an important part of this Dutch colony, and at times comprised over half of the white population of the island. Thus it was imperative that the rift be mended. By order of the Royal house of Holland and with the help of the head of the rabbinical court . . . reconciliation was achieved, but Cantor Piza had to go. The hunger for religious leaders was so great that Piza obtained a contract to serve the Jewish community of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas where he remained for many years. His descendants became quite prominent in the Jewish communities of Panama and Costa Rica.

By the way, my grandmother's father, David Henry Brandon (the other picture above), led the fire department (cuerpo de bomberos) in Panama City and arranged for cisterns to be built in the city. They would fill up when the tide was high and remain filled when the tide went out. This provided water for fire protection even when the ocean was far removed during low tides. He was later honored on a Panamanian postage stamp.


Bwana said...

So that's where you learned how to put fires out!

Nice genes.

Best wishes for Passover.

Anonymous said...

Do you eat this with matzoh? Is matzoh a Sephardic tradition? And ... YUM.

Anonymous said...

You bet. For sure. (And it has the additional benefit of offsetting the, shall we say, binding effect of the matzoh!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. Happy Passover. Some memories become concentrated and sweeter as time goes by, like the not quite mushy charoset.

Anonymous said...

Dates and figs -- much better than the Ashkenazi version!

Anonymous said...

Spanish sounds beautiful, sometimes... Happy Passover
Julio Mayol

Bernie said...

Chag Someach, will their be a BI branch in Jerusalem next year?

TRB said...

Wonderful story from which I learned many lessons. First, I now konw the tale of Der Fliegender Piza. Second, I learned that one can pit(h) a date like one can a frog. Third, even in Piza's time, board members likely split their vote 50/50 on whether to send their religious leader a get well card but all could agree on his resignation. Fourth, The floor of the St. Thomas synagogue remains clay due to Piza's directive that there should be sufficient clay to make Chanukah dreidels at the nearby island(ers) at Pesach time. And, five, Paul's ability to put out fires is a direct genetic derivative from his great grandfather David, himself the direct decendent of the feisty giant killer... and, oh yes, six, how tomake St. Thomas Charoset

Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious.

I've used the following variations--Sephardic haroset is superior to any Ashkenazi I've had:

Always dates and figs--

Pine nuts, almonds, dried apricots.

A friend who grew up in Jerusalem adds a banana. All variations seem to work.

Chag sameach!

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Congrats, put the badge on your site, and link to 5 blogs that make you think!


Emily DeVoto, Ph.D., said...

Chag sameach, and thanks for this post! The more I learn about the wanderings of the Sephardim the more fascinated I become, particularly those who started out in Holland and Italy (and Spain - shhh!) and found their way to the New World.

Anonymous said...

just made a practice batch for next year at 1/4 the recipe. it works but be careful with the cherry schnaps. i only had kirsch on hand (use it for cheese fondue) and even a splash seemed too much. had to cool it down with more dates, figs, and apples. i'll eat it up now by adding to yogurt. excellent expansion on the boring old recipe from my peeps in the shtetls.

Anonymous said...

The good news is that it keeps forever -- yes, even for a year or more -- so you can use the leftovers next year.

Anonymous said...

No leftovers to be had. We added it to organic whole-wheat matzoh mixed with organic "no drugs, no pesticides, no cages" eggs (oops, they're from Pennsylvania), fried it in organic, unsalted LOCAL butter in stainless-steel (non-teflon) pan over gas, and served it with, yes, org low-fat LOCAL sour cream and non-fat org yogurt. Yummm. Jewish chutney.

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody. Shalom!
My maiden name is Fidanque, and I would like to know if anyone may have known my family in Otrabanda CuraƧao, with the same family name.

Thanks for your reaction.

Anonymous said...

My sister is the family geneologist. Write her at sital@comcast.net.

Lisa Sarao said...

Just stumbled onto your page doing a search for Joshua Piza ... I'm a distant relation, in the DelValle side of the family. :) Regards, Lisa (DelValle) Sarao

Unknown said...

It makes me laugh how general our grandparents recipes were. They just figured stuff out, recipes today can be so scientific so that we barely need to think. Perhaps the greatest generation was that way for a reason.