Thousands flocked to the third and final day of this year’s V.I. Agriculture and Food Fair Monday, many returning for the second or third time as they shopped for gifts, bought plants, and visited exhibitions and demonstrations they missed before.
All over the sprawling grounds, people milled from area to area, many looking at the dozens of booths and tents set up by businesses, government agencies and schools.
The V.I. Energy Office had a working solar electricity demonstration and information on tax rebates and incentives for alternative energy. The Water and Power Authority, Innovative, Hovensa, the University of the Virgin Islands and many others had elaborate informational displays.
The V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources’s tent was almost a tour unto itself, with information stations for each of the multifaceted government agency’s divisions.
As a never-ending stream of student groups and curious adults wandered through, DPNR Enforcement Officer Roland Moolenaar talked about boating safety, holding up and explaining safety equipment like floating, waterproof GPS locators and marine smoke flares.
"I tried one of these flares out in a bucket of water one day, being nosy," Moolenaar told the kids. "You have to be careful. It gives out an enormous cloud of black smoke, and it will not go out. It boiled off all the water in the bucket."
At just a single DPNR table, Terry Vanterpool, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, shared information about archeological studies, displays of prehistoric and historic archeological artifacts, and information about a program to place plaques marking important historic structures.
Vanterpool had shards of ancient pottery made by the original Taino inhabitants, and shards of colonial-era Danish pottery. She showed samples of some ancient culinary artifacts, too, like a little bag with two black lumps that turned out to be a sample of very, very old popcorn from a Taino encampment.
One could spend an hour just absorbing everything within the DPNR tent, and it would take a herculean effort to see every single display at every tent—even in two or three days.
But local food is the focus of the fair, and like every year there were traditional cooking demonstrations. Saturday saw corn fish, roast fish and vegetarian presentations from Ralph Johnson, Victor "Fish" Edney Sr. and Lynda Mohammed.
On Sunday Nathalie Ballentine held a discussion on wild "bush" herbs, tea, medicines and kallaloo; and Evannie Jeremiah once again contributed her traditional culinary expertise, showing how to make banana sweet potato casserole.
Monday, Clint Ferris gave his ever-popular clinic on making homemade ice cream with native fruits, and Sylvia Ventura gave a well received, straightforward demonstration of how to make the rich and hearty traditional pasteles, which are often served around the Christmas holiday.
A small crowd was already waiting to see pasteles made when Ventura arrived and began setting up her wares.
"I heard yesterday when I was here showing a friend around the fair they were demonstrating pasteles today," said Trudy Little of St. Croix. "I was excited because I’ve been here 25 years, and I’d never seen them made before, so I thought, this is my chance."
Pasteles were originally from Puerto Rico and came to St. Croix with its Puerto Rican residents, said Ventura. They look like little string-wrapped envelope-sized paper packages, with a banana leaf wrapped around a mix of starch and meat. (Editor’s note: For Ventura’s special recipe, see article’s end.)
Not all the awards had been handed out as of late Monday afternoon, and officials at the Agriculture Department said final ticket sales and all the names of all the winners would not be available for a few days.
But some winners were already selected and given ribbons. This year the Agrifest had a public or amateur contest for best carrot cake, and Keith James of St. Croix walked away with the prize.
Among the vendors and professional cooks, Alda Francis won best conch in butter sauce and best souse. Francis has been a longtime fair participant and has won best souse before, including in 2010 and 2008.
Lorroley Hall got the top award for boil fish and fungi. Best roast pork went to Deborah Jack, and best pasteles to Friedensfeld Moravian Church.
First prize for red pea soup went to Lillian Belardo de O’Neal. Best maubi went to Marie Edwards, and best ginger beer to Catherine Joseph.
In baked goods, LaVerne Bates won for best butter cookies, Marie Edwards had the best coconut tart, Maria Lewis won for best Vienna cake, and Manuel Lugo scored the top slot for plain cream cake.
Fresh ingredients – and love – are what made his cake so good, said Lugo Monday. "You have to bake it with love or else it won’t come out right," he said.
Check back in a day or two at the V.I. Agrifest website to see the complete listing of fair winners.
As dusk fell, the food stands and gift stalls began to pack up and the bands stopped playing music, the crowd reluctantly began going home, too, filling the roads with cars full of tired, happy families as the 40th Annual V.I. Agrifest came to a close.
Sylvia Ventura’s Pasteles Recipe
For the recipe Ventura used, you grate equal portions tania, pumpkin, white potato and very green, green fig banana.
"If you want it harder, firmer, you can use less potato and pumpkin and more green banana," she said. You can use a grater, a food processor or heavy-duty blender, like an osterizer, she said.
The recipe only works if the bananas are truly green and not merely unripe, she said. If the banana has begun to soften at all, even if not ripe enough to eat, it will prevent the pasteles from setting up properly and will ruin the entire batch, she said.
Add some bright orange annato oil, which you can make by heating annato seeds in vegetable oil until it develops a rich color. Throw in some fresh green sofrito to taste. Ventura made her sofrito with garlic, culantro (which is also called recau—cilantro can be substituted), onion, sweet peppers, parsley, chives and celery, all pureed together to a thick mash.
"Once you make it you can freeze it in an ice tray and have recipe-sized sofrito cubes to use whenever you want," she said.
Chicken, beef, pork or conch can all be used for meat in pasteles, but the most traditional is pork. Boil a pork rump roast until it falls into pieces. Cook the same weight of pork as all the starchy ingredients combined.
Take a segment of banana leaf cut into a rectangle the size of a typical greeting card.
Place a banana leaf onto a sheet of parchment paper, drizzle with some annato oil, spread a spoonful of the spiced provision mixture, and an equal amount of the pork or other meat.
"Don’t put in too much because it will grow while you boil it," Ventura said.
Fold the parchment paper, banana leaf and mixture in half, then fold the top edge over an inch, like the top of an envelope; then fold both ends away from the folded lip, so both ends touch in the middle. Tie the parcel up with cooking twine just like you would tie up a parcel to be mailed, arranging the string so it holds the package together without binding it so tight it changes shape.
After you have wrapped up all the meat and provision mixture into banana leaf and parchment paper parcels, you can freeze them for later or boil them for about 20 minutes. Once frozen, they will take closer to an hour to fully cook, she said.
You can serve the hearty, starchy delights with a side of pigeon peas and rice, salftish, or whatever you like, Ventura suggested.