For this edition of the blog our FEAST reporter headed up the less frequented Norwood High Street in search of bistro café Reggae Britannia. Just past the Book & Record Bar, on the opposite side of the road, is the modest frontage of this unique Caribbean eatery. Owner and head chef, Sky, was already ensconced in her galley kitchen cooking up jollof rice.
Throughout the interview, she cooked with grace and ease. What is special about Reggae Britannia? Sky emphasises her restaurant serves healthy Caribbean – she explains that traditional Caribbean cuisine has slave origins, so some of the dishes are based on leftovers. She gives oxtail as an example. Oxtail can be fatty cooked the traditional way, but Sky trims off the fat and roasts it so it isn’t greasy. She adds that nowadays many people suffer diet-related problems: cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure. “The food you eat is vital to your wellbeing, you know what I’m saying”. She gives an intense look. With this as her philosophy, Sky cuts back on salt and sugar in her cooking, making her own patties and vegan balls, and serves jerk chicken skinless. She also makes a range of fresh juices, blending seasonal fruit and vegetables. It’s a labour of love producing such wholesome food. Sky cooks fresh every day and this is slow food…the jerk chicken can take 4 hours. She checks the jollof rice as she speaks: ”This will take 2 hours”.
It’s clear how much love and energy Sky puts into her cooking and how hard she works. She sources her own stock, shopping at the organic market in Vauxhall, and buying meat and fish locally. Then there’s the preparation. She doesn’t short cut. If a sauce needs thickening, she will blend up some veggies. If a dish needs coconut, she will use fresh coconut. Respect. Then there is cooking during the day and, lastly, serving food to her customers. She has recently signed up to Uber Eats so people can order take-outs for delivery. Indeed, a courier appeared during the interview and she calmly parcelled up a dish for him to deliver. She quotes a Caribbean saying: “If you want good in life, you nose has to run” (i.e. you have no time to wipe your nose – she adds; it’s an expression that her mum explained to her).
How did Sky get into this line of work? She pauses. “I got my love of cooking from my dad. He taught me how to cook and season food.” She remembers she had wanted her dad to open a café in Northcote Road but that didn’t happen (she grew up in Battersea but has lived in West Norwood for 25 years). Her grandmother had been a chef, apparently, and when Sky visited Jamaica, people knew immediately who she was because her grandmother had been strikingly tall, just like her. But Sky didn’t get into the cooking business for many years. She used to run a security company, but her heart wasn’t in the job. “It was just a means to feed the kids.” She eventually followed her passion and started cooking from home. And it really is a passion. “Cooking is chemistry.” She does events – Notting Hill Carnival back in the day, festivals in Bristol and Leicester, weddings, church functions, stage shows, reggae events – anywhere there is a need for food. That’s how she got into having a stall at West Norwood FEAST for 5 years – you’ll find her always on the same pitch at Family Hub. She has also been known to do Christmas dinners and package meals that she cooks and freezes for people with no time to cook.
In 2012, she finally took the plunge and opened her own shop at 114 Norwood High Street. Then, for a while, she was based in the West Norwood Health and Leisure Centre. She comments: “That wasn’t the right space”. She moved into her current premises on Norwood High Street in July 2017, opening a couple of months later. She adds: “The shop hadn’t been used for 20 years so it needed a lot of work.” As the road name suggests, this street contained the earliest group of shops in West Norwood although it was subsequently overshadowed when shopping parades were built along Norwood Road around 1900 (these shops were served by horse-drawn trams shuttling passengers down the road from St Luke’s Church). If you look carefully at the faded buildings in Norwood High Street, you can see this is the true old heart of Lower Norwood (as the area was known in days gone by). Today, businesses like Sky’s are a welcome breath of life. She is full of ideas. She is considering doing cookery lessons where people can learn a dish as a group on the premises and she has recently launched a special late night Friday “See You After Work”: you visit the café to relax, eat, listen to music, and play dominoes and cards. Sky comments that many of her customers are music heads – they know their R&B, soul, rock steady. Sometimes Sky has a DJ or she will DJ (yes, as well as cook!) Sometimes she simply tunes into The Rock 926 internet radio, which plays non-stop R&B, jazz, gospel, old school (http://www.therock926.com). Sky has links to the radio station and has even hosted her own talk show where people ring in, to discuss fashion, immigration, food…
The favourite part of her work? She smiles slowly: “Seeing people enjoy my food, seeing them return again, getting food reviews on Facebook.” Just then Sky’s mum arrived. She looks a healthy 60 years old but has just turned 85, enjoying a celebration organised by Sky. Sky joined her, sitting outside in the sun for a chat whilst the jollof rice bubbled on the stove inside.
Returning a few days later one evening to eat with a friend, there was a table of eight people tucking into curried goat and jerk pork. Sky was in her kitchen cooking each dish – she popped her head out as acknowledgement. Our reporter ordered jerk chicken served with a side dish of vegetables and rice and peas, and can vouch for the fact Sky has a well-earned reputation for cooking delicious food.
This is slow cooking at its best and Sky runs her place with few staff, a dining experience at Reggae Britannia is like being at someone’s house. So go with time on your hands and before you are truly hungry and relax. Bring your own bottle or sample the fresh juices.
You’ll be rewarded by some very lovingly prepared food.
101 Norwood High St
Tel: 07713 971657
(please ring ahead to check)
Fri: 10–midnight (See You After Work)