Sharon Quintero. Photos Kimberly Castillo

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Sharon Quintero

Carrying on the pastelle & black cake tradition

By By Kimberly Castillo

SHARON Quintero's fingers glide across the oiled surface of a fig leaf. Gently yet firmly she lifts the end of the leaf and folds it in neatly. One pastelle down, hundreds more to go.

Quintero can probably make pastelles and dole out measurements for her cakes in her sleep. For the past 20 years, each time the parang and decorations signal the start of the Christmas season, she is in her kitchen busy making orders of fruit cake and pastelles. Aside from that, Quintero is also the kitchen supervisor/manager at the Asa Wright Nature Centre. It's hard work, but it's work which Quintero loves and her passion for it is infectious.

"You have to be comfortable and love what you do. If I didn't love what I do, then it's going to show in my food and people would not enjoy what they're eating," she says.

The 37-year-old mother spoons some minced meat onto the pale yellow cornmeal and she smiles, remembering the days when as a young child growing up in Blanchisseuse, her parents would mince their own meat as they set off to make the family's yearly pastelles — a task that would often take them into the late hours of the night.

"My parents used to do gardening, so they had their own fig leaves. They would boil the meat first before mincing it, then they would season it. My parents never blended the seasoning because the food always tastes different and better when you chop the seasoning by hand. My mother always mixed the cornmeal with just a little flour to make it smooth and not grainy," she says. Everything was done by hand, there were no pastelle presses back then, says Quintero.

The little girl watched and learned. By the time she reached her teens, Quintero says she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

"What made me like pastelles was watching my mother when she used to make them when I was a little child. I said to myself that when I grow up this is what I wanted to do. And it's income during Christmas time. I love doing it," she says.

"It must pay well," I say.

"Of course!" she replies as she dips her fingers into a saucer of oil before running them over a fig leaf. "I would be making more if I charge full price, but then people may not want to pay those prices, so I keep the prices reasonable."

For the season so far, Quintero has had to fill an order for 400 pastelles and she has already made four pounds of fruit cake in addition to which she has her day job at Asa Wright which she takes just as seriously. She's been working at the centre for 16 years.

"I don't take nonsense and I don't stand for things done halfway. If we don't prepare food properly, people can get sick. I am a person who would stand up and watch what you're doing and if I don't like it, I'll speak up and say something and make sure you get it right. When foreigners visit the centre, they might be tasting local food for the first time and when they leave, I want them to have only good things to say about our food," she says.

A tiny voice and childish laughter interrupts our conversation, it's one of Quintero's children. I ask her how she manages to balance motherhood with her job as kitchen supervisor while catering for her Christmas customers.

"On my time off, I take a shower, get an energy drink, give the kids something to eat and drink to keep them quiet. Sometimes I go all night and don't even bother to sleep," she says.

As we talk, Quintero doesn't miss a beat. Instead she churns out pastelles one after the next. Before long, the smell of fruit cake in the oven wafts through the kitchen and flows throughout her house in Arima.

Years ago before Quintero had any children, she would often work from Christmas straight until Carnival, filling orders. But now things are different and with young kids in tow, she sees the importance of spending more time with her children.

"After 16 years, I'm beginning to feel like I need a break. And with kids to see about, I feel a little run down," she says with a laugh.

For Quintero, she's not only doing what she loves, she's also carrying on the tradition left by her parents and her grandparents. And that, more than anything else gives her the greatest pride. It's 11.30 a.m when our interview ends but I know that Quintero's work in the kitchen wouldn't be over for many hours. Occasionally, she'll wipe excess oil from her hands onto a dish cloth and look up to see what the children are up to, before getting back to work.

For tasty pastelles and fruit cake, contact Sharon Quintero at 786-7946.

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