In Search For Rum Cake at Ridley Road Market


It was my grandmother (now back in Jamaica) who told me of the Tortuga rum cake sold at a small Caribbean bakery in the heart of Dalston’s Ridley Road Market. She added at the time while straightening her violet hair extensions that the beef patties were also something not to be missed. Six months later, and the words ‘Tortuga rum cake’ still danced through the electric pathways in my mind. I wanted to taste this delicious cake, which put a cheeky smile on my grandmother’s face.

Made from an aged oak barrel Tortuga five-year-old rum, this special Tortuga Gold blend of rum is not bottled and not available to the public. The recipe is over one hundred years old and has been passed down from mother to daughter throughout the years. It sounded like a secret product that only frequent customers could try. What made it even more intriguing is that the Caribbean bakery does not even have a name. It just exists, and people know it exists, just like the many stalls that inhabit the market six days a week.

I had decided that on my next break from work that I would take a day out and travel to Ridley Road Market, not only in search of the nameless Caribbean bakery and the Tortuga rum cake, but also to find out more about the history that surrounds the culturally diverse and vibrant market.

I left my house on a bright and early Saturday afternoon. The sun was beaming effortlessly, lighting up the pavements. I boarded the bus 149 from the bottom of Stamford Hill, one of London’s Hasidic Jewish enclaves. This is at the beginning of Stoke Newington High Street, which bisects a straight line through the outer edges of Stoke Newington. This road then morphs into Kingsland Road and continues its Roman-like route through to Dalston and on towards Shoreditch.

Before 1965, what is now known as the London Borough of Hackney was in fact three separate metropolitan boroughs – Shoreditch, Stoke Newington and Hackney, each with histories stretching back to the middle ages. Hackney was first recorded in 1198, Shoreditch in 1148, and Stoke Newington in 1274. For 400 years after these dates all three were farming communities in the Middlesex countryside. Each was a parish, centred on a parish church. These survive today as Old St Mary’s, Stoke Newington; St Leonard’s, Shoreditch (rebuilt in 1740); and St Augustine’s Tower in Mare Street, which is the only remains of Hackney’s medieval church.

I sat next to a young Chinese man dressed in a striped, smartly pressed, dark suit. He shifted his body and moved closer to the window as a gesture that welcomed me to the empty seat next to him.

“Thank you,” I said smiling.

“You’re welcome!” He replied in broken English. Moments later we began talking about the glorious British weather and how we both yearned to be residing in another country. It was Korea for him and Japan for me. We soon found ourselves talking about the essence of what it means to be British. I stated that I see myself as not being British, but being a world citizen. To which he replied with the most hilarious statement.

“Being British is about meeting your friends all of which are mixed nationals, going to a Salsa night club, followed by an Indian curry, taking a cab with a migrant driver, returning home to drink a Dutch beer, relaxing on your furniture from Ikea, and watching boring American programmes on a Japanese TV.” He scratched his rough jet-black hair and smiled.

I disembarked the bus 149 at Kingsland High Street, and slipped into a mass of people all with a set agenda for that Saturday, for I was told by grandmother that the rum cake is only made on Saturdays. I had decided not to ask people for directions to the Caribbean bakery shop. I wanted to find it – I wanted it to appear in front of me magically. It was as if I was hunting for buried treasure like the city slickers without a map. I was excited.

I turned left onto Ridley Road Market and stood still for just a moment to breathe in the air of history.  I analysed while walking slowly – the market was smelly, it was noisy, from time to time people were bumping into each other, it looked like a tiresome place to be. Yet it was completely fascinating, it was alive. There was a fine mixture of races rubbing shoulders with each other: Indian, Chinese, Jamaican, pre-yuppy Londoners, Turkish, African – a colourful mix of languages and dialects sailing through the fish-tinted air.

The different stalls at the market gave it an element of cosmopolitanism, a microcosm of a city in one singular market place. The sounds of people bargaining for a cheaper deal, the different languages and accents heard made me question where the people at this market came from, as well as different, well recognised reggae music emanating from the back streets of the market, muffling all other sounds just from outside.

At first I see a Turkish vendor, selling olives and different cheeses, typical of Mediterranean cuisine.  His produce stored in big clay pots, and his prices prominently displayed in front of them.  The sound of him calling out to customers, telling them they can try anything they want for free, shouting out his prices, winking and suggestively calling out to a group of young ladies walking by defines the characteristics I had in mind of a market stall vendor.  His thick Turkish accent and a flag of Turkey proudly displayed at the corner of his stall immediately confirming that he was indeed of Turkish origin.

“Hey Mr, try these olives, come come I let you try them for free,” he said to me as I walk past.

I tried a big, green olive stuffed with feta cheese, and I was absolutely amazed at the taste of garlic and olive oil infused with the taste of feta cheese.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Just down the road, I live in Stamford Hill.”

“Nah, I mean, where are you from originally?”

“Oh, my mum’s Jamaican, my dad’s English.”

“Good for you.  Which olives do you prefer? The small container £3.50, the large £6.”

“I’ll have a small container, but I want half and half. Half green olives with the feta cheese, half green olives with the almond.”

I paid him his money, collected my olives and wandered off to the next stall.  Ahead of me was a series of stalls selling more food produce, vegetables and fruits from all over the world.  An Indian stall on my right; alphonso mangoes, okra, aubergines, brown coconuts, some brown fruit called chikoo, and different herbs which I guessed are used as different garnish all displayed, and once again all the prices written out in front of it, either in weight or in quantity.

“Where are you from?” I asked the Indian guy in the stall next to me.

He responded with a look of surprise, probably a question not frequently asked by potential customers.  At first he stammers, then replies, “I’m from India, but I’ve been in this country since the 60s.  Where are you from, young man?”

“I’m from London, Stamford Hill to be exact.”

“No, no, where are you from originally.”

I started to see the pattern here, so I tell him exactly where I’m from, my ethnic origins, where I live and the conversation steers to what it is I do.  I explained that I’m a freelance consultant, my intentions of coming to Ridley Road Market. I talked about wanting to learn a bit about the past and the present and especially the future of market places in London, what with globalisation, gentrification, and big supermarkets popping up wherever there’s any space.  I thought that this vendor would be the ideal person to learn about the market’s past. So I started a series of questions which led to a lot more answers than I’d first expected.

He told me of the past of Ridley Road Market, and of how before the First World War there was a predominantly Jewish community who lived around the area; therefore they ran the market for their own community.  The remnants of which there is a bagel bakery, which is open 24 hours a day, all days of the week except for Friday evening and Saturday daytime, for which they keep the Sabbath Day holy.

After World War Two, there was a sudden influx of people from different parts of the world coming into London to settle here.  There were a number of Caribbean and Indian settlers at the beginning, who fought for the British Regiment during the two wars.

The Afro-Caribbean community developed fully from the 1950s, but there has been a Black presence in Hackney since at least 1630. Similarly, people from the Indian subcontinent came to Hackney in numbers only after the Second World War, but Asian nurses of British children, visiting Britain with their employers had been staying in Hackney from 1900.

The Indian man had brown skin, a moustache, thick greying hair, kind eyes and a pleasant smile. From time to time he waved his hands in circling gestures to empathise his points. He was happy – he was happy that someone was listening to his story. He clearly knew his history about this area, and before our conversation came to an end, he made it his icing on the cake to tell me that this was an area of high crime rates in the 19th Century. Wealthy philanthropists saw it as an opportunity to go to these parts of London and do their moral good by helping the poor or just to observe.  They thought that by morally enriching them they would better them.

“Thank you for your time.” I said.

“No no, no problem! Come again, and write about my stall eh!” He replied, smiling brightly.

As the sun climbed farther in the sky I began to grow tired. The constant dodging of people was beginning to tell on me. The market was bright like a multicoloured blanket covering each corner. Your every need is met. You can buy batteries, clothes, shoes, DVD’s, pets, food, hair products, bed linen, curtains and much more. The only thing that you have to worry about as a consumer is going to the market stall and leaving with the best price – but that comes with frequency and knowledge.

It was after dodging into the side-paths to escape the thick crowd that I found what I was looking for. A small Caribbean bakery with a blank white board running across the top sat nestled between two off-licenses. For a moment, I wondered how the bakery could have survived all this time without a name. I felt like that by walking into the bakery I would somehow be transported into another world.

I stood for a while watching several people coming out smiling and laughing with those inside. A beautiful harmony surfaced around this bakery. It was for the most part, magical.

I stepped inside. The smell of fresh bun and chicken glided in the air leaving a sweet and warm fragrance all around. There was an old man with a brown hat sitting in the corner, and two slender ladies standing behind the counter. A flag of Jamaica was pinned in the corner above a drinks fridge, which sold nourishment, ginger beer, Caribbean fizzy drinks, and super malt. The walls were painted yellow and behind the glass all the products were neatly displayed; patties, Caribbean bread, cakes, curry goat chicken, dumplings, and a few other products I had not recognised. However, I did not see the rum cake I had gone in search for. One of the ladies smiled at me with clean white teeth as the other called into the kitchen asking for more rice.

Taking up much of the space on the main wall behind the two ladies was a large board with all the prices. I analysed it vigorously looking for the price of the rum cake, but failed to see it.

“Is this a family owned business?” I asked.

“Yes! It has been passed down from generation to generation.” Replied the second of the ladies in a Jamaican accent. “What would you like dear?”

I always found that when a lady speaks with a Jamaican accent in a soft tone, it is wonderfully warm and inviting. I smiled and stepped closer to the counter.

“I would like two slices of your Tortuga rum cake please.”

“A new one today!” said the voice of the old man from behind me.

“Who sent you?” Asked both the ladies in unison.

I thought for a moment and without hesitation I replied.

“Grandma sent me.”

Everybody smiled and chuckled. One of the ladies went into the kitchen and arrived back moments later with a big round glass tray. There it was! The Tortuga rum cake sat graciously. I could smell the sweet rum oozing into the air like steam from a boiling kettle.

“Actually, give me three slices please! I would like to try one now.”

“Anything else?”

“A ginger beer and a vegetable patty.”

“You want it hot?”

“Yes, please!”

While one of the ladies warmed up the patty and put the ginger beer into a bag, the other put two slices of the rum cake into the same bag and then handed me one slice together with a piece of tissue. I held it for a moment and looked at its brown fluffy texture. I took a bite!

Suddenly all the sound around me leveled out and disappeared in sync. I could taste the raisins, the soft sweet sponge, and the enchanting Tortuga rum crumbling and coming to rest in my mouth. The taste was even greater than my expectations — it was magical! I took a deep breath and smiled at the staff for I finally understood what gave my grandmother that cheeky smile. For I too now smiled cheekily as I stepped back out into the bustle of Dalton’s Ridley Road Market. As I walked devouring the remainder of my rum cake and glancing at the many happy faces surrounding me, I realised the true finding of my journey. The true journey had taken place inside of me, I had resurrected the interest in my Jamaican heritage — I had resurrected a part of me that was secretly fading away.

Ridley Road Market

Ridley Road, Dalston, London, E8

Train: Dalston Kingsland

Bus: 149, 242, 243, 67, 38, 76

Open: Mon-Wed 09:00-15:00, Thu 09:00-12:00, Fri-Sat 09:00-17:00