There are certain elements of Trinbagonian culture that are associated exclusively with the Holiday season and no other time of year. Parang, a style of Spanish folk music, only begins to get airplay on local radio from October, but by early December it can be heard everywhere; on local television, at parties, and blaring from speakers placed outside of stores. Similarly, a cornmeal and meat dish cooked in banana leaves known as pastelles, and a creamy libation called Ponche Creme are both culinary items that are rarely made outside of Christmas. For many, a Christmas meal is only complete with the presence of a pastelle on the plate and a post-meal glass of Ponche Creme. Generations of Trinbagonians all across the globe have fond memories of consuming Ponche Creme and pastelles on Christmas morning while the sound of parang music and the aroma of a baking ham fills the air. Beyond the association with Christmas, pastelles, Ponche Crema, and parang also share a common story in how they became part of Trinbagonian culture. All three came with Venezuelan migrants leaving the South American mainland to work in the burgeoning Trinidadian cocoa industry during the nineteenth century.
Due to this Venezuelan origin, pastelles and Ponche Creme share similarities with food items from across Latin America. For example, pastelles are virtually identical to Tamales, a Mexican dish that originated in Mesoamerica several thousand years ago. The main difference is that tamales are typically wrapped in a corn husk, while pastelles are wrapped in a banana leaf. Similarly, Venezuelan Ponche Creme is virtually identical to Creme de Vie from Cuba, and Sabajón from Colombia. The only real difference between these Latin American eggnogs are the names, and the type of spirit used in each. In his book on the history of Bacardi, author Tom Gjelten describes the French influence from both Louisiana and Haiti as a force that helped shape rum culture in Cuba. This possible French influence offers an explanation into why Creme de Vie has a French name instead of a Spanish one. Similarly, the name Sabajón also offers some clues into the origin of the Colombian version.
Sabajón, Sabayon, Zabaglione, and Zabaione are all regional names for a type of Mediterranean custard. Regional variations exist; for example in Tunisia, it is flavored with rose water, pistachio or almonds, while in Italy, it is fortified with marsala wine. This dessert was supposedly invented by a Franciscan Friar called Paschal Baylón who used eggs, sugar, and wine to create a nourishing dish that was easy for bedridden patients to consume. The various names all originated from the words “Saint Baylón” in different languages. It is possible that Colombian Sabajón came directly from monasteries in southern Spain and retained the original name. A related beverage from Central America called Rompope, can be credibly traced to a convent in Central Mexico. The origin of Rompope helps support the idea that these Latin American eggnogs might have been introduced to Central and South America by the Catholic Church.
Recipes for these Latin American eggnogs, inclusive of Venezuelan Ponche Creme are all very similar. Sweetener and milk is slowly simmered so that some light caramelization occurs in a manner similar to how Dulce de Leche is made. Egg yolks and rum are then tempered into the thickening liquid and the heat is reduced. Some Ponche Crema recipes call for a small amount of cornstarch to help thicken the beverage. The Mausca people who lived in central Colombia celebrated the December solstice with a cloudy, alcoholic beverage made from corn called Chicha. It is possible that the use of cornstarch is a relic from when their festival was assimilated into Christmas.
A convenient method of making Ponche Creme is to blend an already prepared flan with some white rum. This makes it easy to only mix a single glass when a guest requests some instead of an entire batch. Not only is it convenient, this method is also very cost effective, since even a powdered flan mix could be used. Commercial versions of Ponche Creme are also popular in Venezuela. The first of these was produced by a company in downtown Caracas called Licorería Central in the early 1900s. This brand might actually be the oldest commercial cream liqueur, predating Sangster’s Rum Cream and Bailey’s Irish Cream by over sixty years.
In South America, Ponche Creme is unique to Venezuela. This is likely related to the fact that Venezuela is the only Spanish-speaking country on the continent entirely north of the Equator. For places like Peru and Paraguay, Christmas is celebrated at the warmest time of the year and adopting a European eggnog tradition would be entirely out of place. However, the beverage spread from Venezuela to several nearby islands so that Ponche Creme has now become the quintessential Christmas beverage in much of the southern Caribbean.
When Ponche Creme crossed the narrow passage from Venezuela to Trinidad, it gained several new names. A 1931 issue of the Sunday Guardian advertises Ponche de Crema as being as “palatable as milk and honey” while the chorus for the Lord Kitchener calypso goes “drink a rum and a Punch-a-Crema.” It has also been “frenchified” with Ponche de Creme being a popular term. In Trinidad, Ponche Creme also became thinner, with several recipes now calling for the entire egg instead of just the yolk. This change was due to the influence of eggnog recipes from the United States where whipped egg whites were often folded back into the beverage before serving, but also as a cost cutting measure since it used less eggs. The definitive change that differentiates Trinidadian Ponche Creme from the Venezuelan version though is the use of Angostura Bitters. Recipes for Trinidadian Ponche Creme might vary on the type of rum or the blend of spices, but they all call for a few generous dashes of bitters.
From Trinidad, Ponche Creme traveled even further north to Tobago, Barbados, and Grenada. Recipes remained the same, with the only difference being a preference for the local white rum of each island, and less of an insistence on using Angostura Bitters. In Barbados, there is a brand using Mount Gay Rum called Ponche Kuba. The inspiration for this product is supposedly from Cuba, but its history is so closely connected to islands where Ponche Creme is popular that it is likely that Ponche Crema was also an influence. Ponche Kuba was created by a businessman from Curaçao, a member of the Netherland Antilles located just a few miles north of Venezuela. Along with Bonaire and Aruba, it is part of an island chain known as the ABC Islands. While these islands are distinctly Dutch-Caribbean, Ponche Creme has managed to permeate their culinary culture and become a popular seasonal drink. A commercially produced version from Curaçao called Ponche Caribe was developed by a businessman from a nearby Venezuelan coastal state who moved to the island in 1928. This version is a take on his family recipe so it’s very traditional, but the company also produces a green hued Pistachio Ponche Creme. Using pistachios to make Ponche Creme seems to be unique to the ABC Islands. Practically everyone selling Ponche Creme offers it as an option, from large liquor companies to small vendors selling a few bottles seasonally. It is made similarly to regular Ponche Creme but with the addition of pistachio butter and pistachio extract, and the other ingredients balanced accordingly.
All across the southern Caribbean, Ponche Creme represents something unique. A time-honored Christmas drink that has developed a cultural identity that is unique to every individual location.