It is at the sound of the pestle that the sunrises on Ash Wednesday at the interior of Santiago Island.
The Wednesday before Carnival signals the first day of Lent. It is the time for prayers, fasting and abstinence that anticipates Easter according to Catholic doctrine. Paradoxically, in Santiago Island the day is celebrated with a traditional Banquet.
The pounding of the pestle marks the beginning of the day because the corn flour has to be prepared for couscous that is served with sugar cane syrup (honey) following the big lunch of Ash Wednesday. The "xerém" is another dish, also made from the pestle that cannot be missing on the table.
The preparation for the big meal starts a few days earlier. In the regular markets and fairs assembled specially for this time of the year there is no shortage of sugar cane syrup, dry fish, kale, green banana, yoca and sweet potato. Those are the ingredients for the stew.
The fish is salted and dried in the sun and it is the main ingredient for the stew. The coconut milk is the final touch that can be added to both - "xerém" and the fish and vegetables stew.
The commotion is also big in the city of Praia in the days that anticipate Ash Wednesday. The "xerém" and the corn flour arrive ready for cooking in the nation´s capital and can be acquired at the great ash fair that is assembled at the main avenue in town. Hundreds of people are attracted to the outside market. The stalls are placed a few days in advance, nevertheless, there are always people that prefer to wait for the last moment looking to get the best deals.
All through the avenue lots of families can be found waiting for transportation towards the interior of Santiago where the tradition of Ash Wednesday is believed to be taken more seriously.
A centuries-old tradition
The Ash Wednesday is a tradition exclusive to the islands of Santiago and Maio. According to some researchers this is a century´s old tradition.
On Ash Wednesday the Portuguese colonizers used to dismiss eating meat on that particular day. Back then, on that day one expected to make one single and modest meal. That was the reason why they preferred fish instead. Besides it was a product much more accessible since it was always abundant in the archipelago. According to their religious obligations the slave owners offered a great portion of the cooked meal.
That was an act of charity on a day that the church, particularly, demanded them.
Centuries went by and Catholicism became the main religion for the vast majority of Cabo-verdeans. Yet, the tradition of that Wednesday feast prevailed through our time.
A community meal
The family is gathered for the opulent meal. While the fasting is no longer a practice on Ash Wednesday, charity and good deeds were not forgotten. For those who arrive to the island or live by themselves there is always one more seat on the table. Actually community lunches are promoted everywhere through the island and everyone is welcome to join them.
The day is synonymous of sharing and for that reason even though the menu is pretty much the same at all houses the tradition demands for the neighbors to exchange offerings. Everyone has to taste a bit of the meal from the neighboring house.
At the end of the day is time to wash the pots and dishes. It is also time to rest. And dinner is dismissed only because the lunch extends to late afternoon as if one single meal on that day.
On an eternal dilema between the sacred and the profane, between tradition and religious precepts, the islanders remain faithful to this centuries-old tradition.
The aroma of the dry fish dizzled with coconut milk is on the minds of those who live the Ash Wednesday tradition inside and outside of Cabo Verde. Another reason why the flavors of the motherland are part of a cultural heritage to be preserved.