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Description automatically generatedAs she took a bite from her second mini-sandwich, she turned to me and said “ I really love  the combination of flavors in this. I can’t stop eating it. What exactly is this?” 

I smiled as I had noticed  that the young American woman sitting next to me at the Scholarship Awards  Dinner was enjoying  a bite-sized Jamaican Bun & Cheese sandwich.     While it  hadn’t occurred to me that this could be  unrecognizable,  I could easily relate to her enjoyment, as Bun & Cheese is  one of my favorite flavor combinations.   The deep flavors of the molasses, raisins and spices pair perfectly with the creamy, somewhat salty  cheddar-like-cheese, creating what one writer calls a   “compelling third-taste dimension – a hidden vault of flavor”. 

After I told her what it was, she commented that the Bun reminded her of Irish Soda Bread and a little like some Cinnamon Raisin Breads.  At this point,  I knew she was  a sister foodie.   I was surprised, however,  that she didn’t mention Hot Cross Buns.  Nevertheless,  her comment captured some of the influences on our cherished Jamaican Spicy Bun.   The Caribbean, with its Indigenous, European, African, Indian and Asian influences, has had a way of absorbing them and coming up with something different and sometimes uniquely inexplicable.

What is the origin of  the Jamaican Spicy Bun ?

Its origin is pretty obvious  as it bears  the same name as the English Hot Cross Bun.   Colonists brought to Jamaica the tradition of eating cross buns (to symbolize Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross) on Good Friday.  The  buns are finished with crosses traditionally cut into the surface of the bun. Some recipes dredge a paste of water and flour into the cut or add a sugared icing on top to form the cross. 

But what about the variations in texture and change in shape of the Jamaican Buns? These seem to  depend on the baker’s personal influences and tastes and might well explain  the Irish Soda Bread texture  of some buns and the Scots-Irish influences in Jamaica.  Locals further adapted the Bun by reshaping it into a loaf and adding dried fruit in some instances

And  what about the Jamaican Bun’s unique flavor?  it is very likely this is the African contribution which comes from  the easy access to molasses (instead of honey or the refined sugars) and their love of intense spices. 

What is the source of the cheese which completes the treat?

This is the tricky part.  Often it is the brand, Tastee Cheese,  a  New Zealand produced canned cheddar product, uniquely made for Jamaica.  Why did Jamaicans develop this particular taste profile for a cheddar cheese product? Cheddar,  an English cheese “produced since at least the 12th century”, would  have been brought to Jamaica. Did Jamaicans, however, develop their own unique cheddar cheese profile ?  I remember as a child, growing up in Jamaica, that our family was a member of a milk cooperative.  Was cheese or a processed cheese one of the milk products?   I also recall as a child that after a major hurricane, Jamaica received canned American processed cheddar cheese products.  Could Jamaicans  have developed an appreciation for this flavor and texture.  This requires further research.

In searching for this cheese profile in America, my Sister, who was a pastry chef, and is now living in France, once told me excitedly that she found a smoked gouda cheese which was pretty close with the added depth from the smokiness.  I am sure there are other interesting close cheese or cheese product approximations.  But you can find Tastee cheese in the Washington DC Metropolitan Area, as this area has a significant population of persons of Jamaican heritage.

Now here is the puzzle—how did this pairing of Bun & Cheese come about?

According to one writer, “The inspiration for the pairing is unknown, but one thing is for certain: cheddar cheese and hot cross buns are neither Jamaican, nor eaten together. But Tastee Cheese and a spiced bun is as Jamaican as it gets”.

Memories of  Bun & Cheese

Writing this article, made me  crave Bun & Cheese.  As a child, before Good Friday,  my Father who was apprenticed as a baker in St. Elizabeth, would bake buns at our home in Chicago.  His buns were big, round,  had a texture closer to Irish Soda Bread and were individualized with each family member’s edible initials on top,  and,  of course, were Jamaican in flavor.  We ate it with a mild cheddar cheese on Good Friday as there was no cooking.   In my “memory talks” with a good friend, Dr. Basil Buchanan, he recalls when growing up in Jamaica there was no cooking until after 3pm on Good Friday.  “This was tied to church services  held in the afternoon, usually around noon or midday to 3pm, to remember the hours when Jesus hung on the cross”.

My  Bun & Cheese craving is greater this particular Easter as we deal with coronavirus disruptions and social distancing.  I  will indulge in a slice with cheese.  Of course,  I am unlikely  to stop with just one slice, so maybe I’ll just buy a whole loaf—an Easter Bun—and cheese. It will be comforting and will take me back to Family and Jamaica.

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