Belgium’s Chocolate Maker, Euphrasia Mbambe, is Breaking Traditions

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2019

Sitting on the crossroads of Western Europe, Belgium is a small country that reminds one of Amsterdam, Paris and Venice. With Medieval and Art Nouveau architecture, fashion and diamond merchants, vibrant museums, and a unique sense of humor, Belgium is one of the most culturally accepting countries that you should consider traveling to.

From Mantonge (aka African quarter) in Brussels to the Turkish kebab houses in Antwerp, Belgium’s diverse population includes large minorities of North-Africans (predominantly Moroccan), Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians as well as Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Turkish, Greeks, Poles and many more.

Immigrants from francophone Africa (mainly Belgian Congo) settled in the French-speaking region of Wallonia. When walking around this region, you cannot escape the aroma of freshly made waffles, corner frites stalls (the Belgians claim to have invented French fries), and the myriad of chocolate shops. There are over 2,000 chocolate makers in Belgium, producing 172,000 tons of chocolate each year. The industry is dominated by large brands such as Guylian, Neuhaus and Godiva. The best-known commercial brand of Belgian chocolate, Côte d’Or, was founded by Charles Neuhaus in 1870, referring to the Golden Coast (now Ghana in Africa), where the cocoa beans first originated.

Now, there is one female Afro-Belgian chocolatier in the market.

Euphrasia Mbambe of Sigoji in Belgium
Photo credit: Sigoji
Chocolate Rooted in Cameroon

In southern Belgium, in the French-speaking town of Rochefort, Sigoji,produces pure chocolate infused with imported spices and coffee.

“As a child, I remember watching my grandfather working on his plantation, harvesting cocoa, fermenting and drying cocoa beans,” says owner Euphrasia Mbambe, who was born and raised in Cameroon. Mbambe remembers how the fruits were collected and sent off to Europe. She had no understanding of what would become of them — that the beans were turned into chocolate — until she moved to Belgium and tasted the finished products herself.

By the age of 18, Mbambe was sure she wanted to be a chocolatier but, “being Black and female in a male dominant chocolate world was impossible.” She put her dream on hold until years later when she inherited the cacao plantation from her grandfather.

“I always say that cocoa beans are part of my blood. I know their flavor, the smell of their leaves, the heart of their mucilage. It’s something impossible to explain, but it enables me to create a good balance in my chocolate,” Mbambe says. She went to evening school to study chocolate making and trained with well-known chocolatiers in Belgium, before opening her two stores – Sigoji (named after her two multiracial sons, Siméo and Ugo).

Box of Sigoji Chocolates
Photo credit: Sigoji

Using ingredients such as ginger, goji berries, pépites, and vanilla, Sigoji creates an irresistible and harmonious balance of African and Belgian flavors in their nuggets, pralines, ganache and chocolate bars. “I use tea, nuts and flowers, but very little sugar in my chocolate. It is important to taste the cacao, which is what reminds me of home,” Mbamba adds. She sources beans from her grandfather’s plantation in Cameroon, as well as suppliers from Haiti, Madagascar and local farmers in Wallonia.

The brand Sigoji is now educating farmers in Cameroon about how to have a healthy harvest, the worth of their harvest and the chocolate-making process. It also assists with building schools, hospitals and orphanages. Mbambe offers bean-to-bar chocolate-making workshops to visitors at her boutique in Ciney.

And to bring it all full circle, Mbamba was voted “Best Craftswoman” in 2017 and “The Best Chocolate Factory in Wallonia” by Gault and Millau in 2019.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Autism Influencer and Baker, Jeremiah Josey, is Inspiring Kids Around the World

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Dec 2019.

At only 20 years old, Jeremiah Josey is a Maryland-based baker, model, author and inspirational speaker. He has walked the New York Fashion Week runway, appeared on Steve Harvey’s show three times, and was recently called out as one of 14 top autism influencers on social media by ‘Autism on The Mighty’ community. And he has accomplished all this while suffering from autism, a development disorder that restricts one’s communication skills.

Josey started baking with his grandmother in his early teens. Her sunny side up eggs called “egg in a basket,” that she often made, enamored him.  He learned to perfect the eggs and set off to discover a world of pastries and desserts. Be it the holidays, family birthdays, or weekends, Josey often found himself alongside “grandma” baking pumpkin pie, blueberry pie, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin chocolate cheesecake, and chocolate cake. “We cook from love and put our heart and soul in it,” Josey says about his cooking.

When Josey expressed a passion for cooking, his mom reached out to Washington, D.C.-based “Top Chef” Kwame Onwuachi and asked if Josey could come and cook with him at his restaurant. He agreed and it set Josey on a journey of cooking alongside celebrity chefs all around the world. During one of his appearances on “Steve,” Harvey surprised the young star with an impromptu baking session with celebrity pastry chef Christina Tosi, founder of the dessert and bakery restaurant chain Milk Bar.

Dreaming Big Together

Josey got his first passport this past summer and since then has traveled to Bermuda to bake alongside different chefs and speak on autism at schools. He has been invited to Jamaica and Quatar in 2020. He tells other children, “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you cannot pursue your passion and have big dreams.” He also records his journeys for his YouTube channel – Jeremiah’s Cooking Adventures.

Josey’s biggest inspiration has been his mother, Simone Greggs. “She always told me, ‘You can do it. It may take you longer, you may need to find a creative way, but you can do it.’ She has never left my side and we wouldn’t know what we would do without each other,” he says. His biggest challenges have been overcoming stage fright and the fear of public speaking due to lack of self-confidence, but he practices at home and is getting used to it.

Autism Influencer and Baker Jeremiah Josey
Photo credit: Jamie Cheyenne

The mother and son duo co-wrote a picture book — “Here’s What I Want You to Know” — based on a conversation they had when Josey was bullied at school. “I took his words and created the book to help African American, Hispanic and ethnic minority parents who have just received the diagnosis that their kids have autism,” adds Greggs.

When asked about his future plans, Josey continues to work on his “big dreams.” His mother is compiling all the recipes he has prepared with celebrity chefs for a cookbook. He is currently working on a new clothing line called Passport Adaptive™ to launch in 2020 and trying to get into culinary school. Some of the culinary schools are not ready to accept autistic students and it’s not easy for Josey to take entrance tests, so this has been challenging. He would also like to open his own bakery called Jeremiah’s Cakes and Shakes.

This young baking star is just getting started and the biggest advice he shares with kids with autism is to be happy, to be excited about their work and never stop dreaming or following their passions.

For updates on Josey’s baking journey and adventures,  follow him on Instagram.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

A Modern Take on Sierra Leonean Cuisine: Here’s What’s Cooking in Maria Bradford’s Kitchen

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

Maria Bradford is changing the way diners perceive African cuisine. She pairs her African-inspired modern savory street food snacks with English cakes and scones and caters them to a tea party in London. She mixes hibiscus with strawberries picked at her neighborhood farm in Kent and sells the “Passionately Bissap” juice bottles through her online store.

Bradford is a native of the West African country Sierra Leone that is typically associated with transatlantic slavery, Ebola, poverty and corruption. “I divert the conversation to food,” says Bradford, founder of Maria Bradford Kitchen, based in the UK. “I talk about my fun childhood in Sierra Leone, where I was surrounded by aunties and grandparents. Though I had a single parent, I was always around people.” Bradford points out that Sierra Leon is also known for welcoming people, beautiful beaches and great food.

Childhood Foods Reinvented

If you browse through Bradford’s Instagram page (which has 22K followers and counting), you can visualize the comforting, yet contemporary food she is referring to. Bradford did not want to present the stereotypical West African dishes, such as peanut stew and jollof rice. Instead, she is inspired by the street food she fondly loved as a child but was not allowed to eat, as her mother considered eating on the street to be rude. “I would use my taxi fare and walk back home so I could buy donuts after school,” she points to the inspiration behind her pumpkin drop donuts with cinnamon sugar. Her sophisticated dishes, such as fish untu (steamed fish balls) and lemongrass soup, morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), cassava flatbread with pan-fried sea bass, use the flavors and ingredients from Africa and are presented with her own unique twist.

Bradford’s culinary journey started only a few years ago when she was cooking for family and friends. Her first catering gig — a cousin’s baby shower in London — motivated her to start her own business. She created an Instagram page, enrolled in culinary school, set up a catering business, and started a product line selling drinks and sauces.

Juices from Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

Bradford creates the Sierra Leonean-inspired drinks and chili sauces with seasonal, natural ingredients. “Again, I took from the beverages sold from bicycles on the streets and had my own take on them,” Bradford explains. With tropical flavors of coconut water, lavender, tamarind juice, ginger, hibiscus and mango, the different juice concoctions are great as cocktail mixers. She advises drinking them by themselves or adding a bit of brandy or whiskey for a special holiday treat. Passionately Bissap pairs exceptionally well with gin or prosecco. The products are available online on her website or by messaging her through her Instagram page.

Travel, Food and a Cookbook
Maria Bradford of Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

When not cooking, Bradford is traveling and drawing inspiration from other chefs around the world. She takes cooking classes, cooks with local chefs, hosts pop-up restaurants and draws parallels between how people eat in Sierra Leone versus the rest of the world. In Javier, Spain, she went down to the fishing bay each morning and cooked with the locals. “Growing up, 90% of my diet was fish, as it was cheap and accessible, so I love to cook with fish,” she says. You can see many of her fish dishes in her picture feed. In Malaysia, she compares the chicken satay to Sierra Leone peanut chicken. Her latest travels took her and her family to a homestay in India, where she learned to cook from an older lady in Kerala. “It reminded me of my own family and how we love to invite strangers,” she adds.

“A cookbook is definitely coming at some point,” says Bradford, but currently she is focusing on renting a commercial kitchen where she can host frequent supper clubs as she continues to positively showcase the flavors of West Africa.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Keisha Smith-Jeremie Helps Adults Reimagine Applesauce with Sanaía

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

A Bohemian entrepreneur has reinvented an American staple with a Caribbean twist. Sanaía Applesauce is not your ordinary applesauce that kids usually snack on. This one has flavors such as tamarind, ginger, hibiscus, lavender, and white pear in a yogurt-cup like packaging. It is also made with all-natural ingredients and is less than 70 calories.

Growing up on the beautiful islands of The Bahamas, founder and CEO Keisha Smith-Jeremie never realized how idyllic her childhood was. “I had 8-9 fruit trees in my backyard and we would help our neighbors pick fruits over the weekends. You almost knew what month it was based on which fruits were in season. That is the deepest connection I have to my roots that led me to start my business,” says Smith-Jeremie about how she founded her company.

When she left The Bahamas at the age of 16 to attend the University of Virginia, it was the first time this island girl experienced winter and snow. She missed the flavors of home — tangy tamarind sauce and sweet guava jam — so she went to the local grocer in the Shenandoah Valley, got some apples and started making her own applesauce; recreating similar textures and flavors.

Guava Sanaia Applesauce by Keisha Smith-Jeremie
Pictured: Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

Over the years, Smith-Jeremie tested her recipe with friends. Her tamarind and applesauce concoction got rave reviews and she decided to commercialize the products. After appearing on the ABC’s “Shark Tank,” she joined hands with businessman Mark Cuban who ultimately did not invest but stayed on as an advisor to Sanaía Applesauce.

Now, Sanaía’s guava and unsweetened applesauce flavors are available at 800 Walmart stores and through Amazon.com.  Flavors hitting the shelves in 2020 will include hibiscus, ginger, tamarind, lavender and pear.

Disrupting the Industry

So what makes Sanaía Applesauce different from the other applesauce brands that have been on the shelves for decades? Smith-Jeremie says everyone from her 10-year-old goddaughter (who she named the brand after) to Millennials and adults love the unusual fruit flavors and texture of the apple wedges in her applesauce. Sanaía is made with whole Granny Smith green apple wedges, as well as all-natural and organic ingredients. No added sugars make the applesauce a healthy, vegan, GMO-free, low-sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free and allergen-free snack that satisfies your sweet tooth craving. She shares, “I created Sanaía because I believe that what we eat provides us with the fuel we need to live the life we want.” She advises to eat the applesauce chilled or poured over warm granola.

Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce by Sanaía
Pictured: Unsweetened and Guava Applesauce | Photo credit: Sanaía

As a female immigrant entrepreneur, Smith-Jeremie juggles her personal and professional life while growing her business. She attributes her success to having a great team. “Surround yourself with passionate people who also see your big vision. As a small company, I am closer to my customers and can make decisions much faster. The comfort is in not knowing all the answers, but focusing on all the advantages you have,” she advises.

When asked where she sees the brand going next, Smith-Jeremie responds that her aspirations are to see Sanaía at college campuses and in airplanes and grocery stores. Currently a $900M market with 99% of the spend focused on children, she believes that applesauce is ready for mature and healthy flavors and that Sanaía is the brand that will lead the way as adults reimagine the way they think about applesauce.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Where to See Transformation in Medellín, Colombia

Cuisine Noir. Oct 2019.

In recent years, the city of Medellín has transformed into a vibrant and upscale city that visitors from all over the world have fallen in love with. Located in the Aburrá valley, surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and was named the Innovative City of the Year (by The Wall Street Journal in 2013), outranking New York and Tel Aviv. It’s year-round spring-like climate, modern art museums, bustling nightlife, and colorful cultural festivals, make it an ideal destination to visit in South America.

Kids and adults exercising in Medellín, Colombia
Pictured: Local Life in Medellín | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Most hotels and restaurants are concentrated in the upscale El Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. Here you can easily walk to trendy cafes, bars, clubs, and some of the largest shopping malls in the city. Medellín is also known as the fashion capital and offers everything from designer brands to local handicrafts. But, to learn about the city’s makeover, take the metro cable that connects the cosmopolitan lower city to the slum areas located along the slopes of the mountains.

Connecting Communities

Medellín has the first (and only) metro system in Colombia, which has had a measurable social impact on the city. These impressive cable cars, now connect formerly difficult-to-reach favelas (shanty towns) with the metropolis. An entire “metro culture” program set up by the local authorities, offers educational opportunities and a leadership training school, as well as free libraries and afternoon music concerts at the stations, to many low-income families that live in these areas.

At Santo Domingo, you can find young men and women offering guided tours of their neighborhood known as Comuna 13. The area, which was once known as a hub for drug cartels, is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Medellín. The residents are encouraged to display their social and emotional struggles through colorful murals outside their brick and cement walls, leading to an open-air museum of sorts. More than 25,000 visitors walk through the narrow hilly streets of Comuna 13 each week, watching rap artists and talented street artists. Local enterprises have popped up serving the tourists with trendy cafes, souvenir shops and snack bars.

Mural and Business in Comuna 13
Pictured: Mural and Business in Comuna 13 | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Further up, riding the cable car offers spectacular views of the valleys and forests, ending at Arví Park, an ecological nature preserve and pre-Hispanic archeological site. Residents from surrounding villages sell their products at Mercado Arví, an outdoor market located next to the gondola station. Here you can taste fresh homemade buñuelos, arepas, empanadas, tamales, honey, fruits, and mortiño (blueberry) wine, as well as shop for handicrafts. Walking trails located inside the park take you through natural forests covered with wildflowers, orchids, and butterflies. From here, you can make your way to some of the flower farms located in the township of Santa Elena. Many of these peasant families have set up restaurants and museums next to their farms. Here you can enjoy a traditional Colombian farm-style lunch of grilled meat, rice and beans, with a spectacular view of flower orchards.

Flower Farm in Santa Elena in Colombia
Pictured: Flower Farm in Santa Elena | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
A Celebration With Flowers

One of the most important events in Medellín is the Feria de las Flores (The Flower Festival), which represents the end of slavery. Slaves once carried wealthy men and women on their backs up the steep mountains of Antioquia when there were no other means of transport. Once slavery was abolished, these wooden disks or saddles were repurposed to carry flowers and vegetables to sell in the markets. Many of the descendants of the saddle carriers, known as silleteros, mark the tradition by carrying flower arrangements on wooden planks through the city during the flower parade.

he Parade of the Silleteros  in Medellin, Colombia
Pictured: The Parade of the Silleteros | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The “Cultura Silletera” (flower-growing culture) has been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation. The festival also pays tribute to the flower industry, a thriving business in Colombia. The country is the second largest exporter of flowers, after The Netherlands.

More than 400 events take place during a 10-day period in August, including a pageant, class car parade, a horse parade, a flower parade, an orchid exhibition, street fairs and musical concerts. Attending the Flower Festival is one of the best ways to get an authentic taste of the paisa culture.

~ As seen on Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Where to Trace Afro-Colombian Culture in Cartagena

For Cuisine Noir. Oct 2019.

Located on Colombia’s northern coast, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena is best known for its colorful buildings, historic monasteries, an active nightlife, and pristine beaches; reminiscent of Old San Juan, Old Havana and Miami.

Statues in Cartegena, Colombia
Pictured: Statues in Cartegena | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Cartagena was the first Spanish colony on the South American continent and the first sanctuary for freed African slaves in the Americas. Evidence of Afro-Colombian history can be discovered on a guided walking tour of the walled city with Nicomedes Vergara Melendez (aka Nico) from Sion Tours. Melendez grew up not too far from here. Like most Colombians, he either knows everyone in town or gets to know them with his friendly attitude.

Melendez and I walk through the walled city on a warm afternoon. The area is divided into three neighborhoods: San Pedro with its Andalusian-style palaces; San Diego, where merchants and the middle-class lived; and Gethsemani, also known as the popular quarter. Every turn has something of interest to see: home of acclaimed author Gabriel García Márques, a pink opera theater, a narrow street covered with umbrellas and much more. Old renovated monasteries turned into boutique hotels, international restaurants, designer jewelry stores, and thought-provoking street art, make Cartagena a photographer’s paradise.

Preserving Afro-Colombian History

One of the must-see cathedrals in the walled city is Iglesia de San Pedro Claver built in honor of the priest St. Pedro Claver. Claver was the saint of the slaves and a human rights defender. Out in the square, you can see women dressed in colorful skirts carrying fruit baskets, posing for photos. These are the women of San Basilio de Palenque – the first free slave settlement in the Americas.

Women of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia
Pictured: Women of San Basilio de Palenque | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

At Plaza de Los Coches, Melendez points to glass jars filled with goodies that look like meringue and peanut brittle. “After slavery was abolished in Colombia, many of the women started their own business – including making and selling homemade sweets and coconut macaroons known as cocadas,” Melendez informs.

The next day I travel inland with Isabella Sanchez, a young woman who was born and raised in Cartagena and runs her own translation company. We make our way through the city’s traffic towards country roads where there is nothing but forests and a few farms. San Basilio de Palenque is approximately 30 miles away in the foothills of the mountain range Montes de Maria, but it takes almost two hours to get there. The settlement was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and noted by International Decade for People of African Descent, which focuses on the protection of the rights of people of African descent, recognizing their contributions and the preservation of their rich cultural heritage.

Founded in the 1600s by West African slaves who escaped Spanish oppression, the settlement attracts travelers who want to learn about African heritage. Sanchez herself has only been to Palenque once before, for a music concert. She is as curious to find out about the history, food and people.

Colombian Hospitality

In 1691, the Spanish crown issued a royal decree guaranteeing freedom to Africans in San Basilio de Palenque if they stopped welcoming new escapees.  Due to its isolated location, the inhabitants were able to preserve their unique language, food and customs.

Palenque resident Danilo Casseres Cassiani offers guided tours starting at his home. In his modest living room, he talks about his ancestors’ bravery and proudly shows us the thick cookbook, “Cocina palenquera para el mundo,” a collection of authentic recipes put together by the local women which went on to win as one of the best cookbooks in the world (by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing).

Where to Trace Afro-Colombian Culture in Cartagena
Pictured: Danilo Casseres Cassiani and His Family | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

We walk a couple of blocks on the dirt grounds that make up the town, stopping to see a statue of Benkos Biohó, the founding father of Palenque, the main square where kids play while adults sell souvenirs, and older men sit around chatting in makeshift bars listening to music blaring from speakers typically used for public events. We stop at Belleza La Reina del Kongo, a local hairdresser, to learn about different kinds of braiding techniques. Hairdos were very important for the slaves, not for fashion, but for mapping escape routes and carrying plant seeds.

Next, we are invited into the home of maestro Rafael Cassiani, a folkloric hero known for his songwriting and music composition based on champeta. Like American rap, champeta music and dance were historically associated with “creole therapy” for Afro-Colombians and rejected by wealthier socio-economic groups.

When we return, Cassiani’s niece fries whole fish in her outdoor kitchen and offers us a simple lunch of coconut rice and fish with tomato and onion sauce served on banana leaves. We eat with our hands and it is delicious.

Colombian lunch of whole fish with tomato sauce and rice
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

In Cartagena, you can have a broad range of experiences, from staying at luxurious mansions in the walled city, sunbathing on the islands of Rosario and Playa Blanca and eating at world-class restaurants to stepping back in time in a remote village that has preserved its 500-year-old culture.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

Jérôme Aké Béda’s Journey to Switzerland’s Historic Winegrowers Festival

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Sept 2019.

Twenty thousand spectators gather in an open-air arena built along the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The colorful display of costumes, floats, dances and music, feels no less festive than Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. More than 7,000 local actors, singers and musicians participate in a two-and-a-half-hour show staged by Daniele Finzi Pasca who is known for his direction at the Sochi and Turin Olympic ceremonies.

This is Fête des Vignerons, a traditional winegrowers’ festival held roughly every 20 years in the lakeside town of Vevey. The festival, which connects people from the villages, countryside and vineyards, is recognized by UNESCO on its list of intangible cultural heritage.

Jérôme Aké Béda’s Journey to Switzerland’s Historic Winegrowers Festival
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

This year, for the first time in the Fête’s 400-year old history, a black African played a leading role. Jerome Aké Beda was one of three professionals tapped to portray doctors on stage as they explained the history of winemaking and argued in their funny banter (in French) how wine should be made while connecting the 21 different acts of the orchestrated performance.

Making History in Wine and Switzerland

Beda was born in Côte d’Ivoire and moved to Switzerland in 1990. He worked as maître d’ at a restaurant and worked his way up to be named Sommelier of the Year by the Swiss Gault & Millau Guide in 2015 and Commander of the Vaudois Wine Order in 2018. Beda is the author of two books, “50 Best Winemakers of Switzerland” and “The 99 Chasselas to Drink Before Dying.”  He still works as a sommelier at Auberge de l’Onde, an upscale restaurant located in the heart of Lavaux region, between Lausanne and Vevey, surrounded by terraced vineyards that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I caught up with Beda soon after his seventh performance on a warm sunny afternoon outside the stadium in Vevey. Fête des Vignerons has twelve shows held over three weeks on some mornings and evenings.

“The artistic director and president of Fête des Vignerons came to eat at my restaurant three years ago. They drank a lot of wine and after that, came back and said to me, I’m picturing you on stage! At first, I didn’t take him seriously, but he came back three times. I consulted my friends and they all encouraged me to do it,” Beda says about how he was selected to play a lead role in the 2019 Fête. “An African person has never participated as an actor before, so I agreed to try it,” adds Beda. When I asked him why he thinks they picked him for the role, he said, “When you make your cinema production, you create a costume and then find the right person to fit in it. They probably saw me as one of the three doctors (who in real life, work as a journalist, a teacher, and Beda as a sommelier).”

A Somm Life to be Proud of

Though Beda had no background in acting, as an award-winning sommelier, he considers himself somewhat of an actor. “I present wines on stage and in interviews.” For the Fête, the three actors practiced in hiding to keep their identities from the public until the first day of the performance. “In Switzerland, everyone knows me as the only black sommelier,” he laughs.

3 Actors on stage at Fête des Vignerons in Switzerland
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Beda’s grew up in a country that does not make wine or even grow grapes. He attended Abidjan’s Hospitality School and worked as a butler at Wafou, a famous restaurant in the Ivorian capital. His mentor got him a job in France, and later Switzerland, where he trained with expert sommeliers. Today, Beda oversees 4,000 bottles of fine wines in his cellar and hosts wine dinners and wine tasting classes.

“What attracted me about wine is that you learn about geology, history, culture and meet all kinds of people,” he says. His secret to learning about the wines is meeting the growers themselves, hearing their stories of how they make the wine and visiting the vineyards.

“Our former president of Côte d’Ivoire once said that anybody can achieve something if they believed in it. That’s my philosophy. When I came to Switzerland, I decided I will be the best sommelier. I accomplished that. Now, I feel I became a part of history again. I am proud.”

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Exploring the Charm and Culture of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Aug 2019.

Here’s how you can skip the beaches to experience the real charm of the Yucatán Peninsula.

With sunny weather, historic ruins and beautiful beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, the state of Yucatán in Eastern Mexico is popular among international tourists. The most commonly known beach towns here are Cancún, Playa del Carmel and Cozumel. However, if you are not looking for all-inclusive beach destinations and an energetic party atmosphere, there is rich Mexican culture and cuisine to be discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Charming Magic Towns

Cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and colonial-era cathedrals make Valladolid one of the Pueblos Mágicos (or “magic towns”) of Mexico. These are a series of cities that preserve the history and culture, making them “magical” in some ways. While the gridlike downtown offers a variety of handicraft shops, art galleries and restaurants, Valladolid is also a good base for visiting Mayan ruins and cenotes in the Yucatán.

Most buildings are painted yellow in Izamal, a small city that was a site of pilgrimage for the Maya dedicated to the creator god “Itzamna” and sun god “Kinich Ahau.” Here you can see a colonial Franciscan monastery from the 1500s, Maya ruins and cultural museum. Sundays are especially great to visit as the Parque Zamna is filled with live music, shops and vendors selling local food.

Ancient Mayan Ruins

Yucatán has a higher concentration of Mayan descendants than other parts of Mexico, and you can see many ruins of pyramids and temples here. The most famous one is Chichén Itzá, the largest pyramid and a stone temple site. If you want to get away from the crowd of visitors, go to Uxmal, one of the most important cities in the Mayan world with well-preserved rounded-edge pyramids.

Ruins of Tulum in Mexican on the Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: Ruins of Tulum | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The ruins of the ancient Mayan holy city of Tulum stand on rugged cliffs overlooking the sea. Ek’Balam, translating to “the black jaguar,” is less known but still an impressive archaeological site, bustling from 660 BC to 1600 AD. You can see the city walls and ruins of about 45 structures surrounded by a dense forest here.

Cultural Capital 

Mérida is the capital of Yucatán and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. It is home to educated, higher-income Mexicans and ex-pats who live in renovated Spanish bungalows, as well as newly constructed modern flats. As you make your way down from the main avenue, Paseo de Montejo, you can see featured art commissions, leading into a row of boutiques, theaters and museums. There are free cultural events every weekend from music and dance to art exhibits and Mexican festivals.

The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida is one of the best museums that preserve Maya culture, with more than 1100 artifacts. There is also a free light and sound show in the evening.

A Cenote in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: A cenote (natural pool) in the Yucatan | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Refreshing Cenotes 

Swim and snorkel in one of more than 5,000 natural pools called cenotes, located all around the Yucatán. Cenotes are sinkholes resulting from collapsing limestone bedrocks and were often used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial rituals. Today, they are tourist attractions, offering a refuge from the heat and a chance to be one with nature. Cenote Xkeken and Cenote Samula are two of the most well-known cenotes around Valladolid, because of their blue water and striking cave formations.

Luxurious Haciendas

Another great way to enjoy the authentic charm of the Yucatán is by staying at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon.  This 19th-century working plantation and estate was converted into a villa-hotel and restaurant that retains an old-world charm. Stroll around the henequen plants, take a dip in the cenote, or soak in the scenery from your ceramic tiled deck. The beautiful setting of the hacienda makes it an ideal place for weddings and retreats.

Lunchtimes are busier at the haciendas as day-trippers stop by for tours and gourmet meals served in the garden.

Yucatecan Cuisine

Another reason to visit Yucatán is for its food! The cuisine of the Yucatán is somewhat different from what you would find in the rest of Mexico. Mayan, Caribbean, Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern cultures are reflected in the spicy and well-rounded dishes, such as sopa de lima, pauchos, salbutes, poc chuc and cochinita pibil (the national dish).

Salbutes from the Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: Salbutes | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

All of the destinations in the Yucatán are within a couple of hours drive from each other. There are many local hotels and haciendas around the state where you stay as a base for day trips to experience a few different locations. The Yucatán is also the safest state in Mexico and is easy to travel on your own, though some knowledge of Spanish will come in handy.

Visit Travel Yucatán at https://travelyucatan.com to “Find Your Inner Peace” and start planning your next Mexican getaway.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Rich with Culture and History – Senegal at a Glance

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Sept 2019.

Senegal is one of the most peaceful and well-developed countries in West Africa and there was only one reported case of Ebola in 2014 (according to WHO). This French-speaking country in the westernmost part of Africa is relatively easy to navigate and friendly toward tourists. It offers pristine beaches, large fishing villages, heritage sites and new museums. It is also one of the best places to learn about African-American history.

Weekend on Goree Island
Pictured: Weekend at Goree Island | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Dakar

Unlike other capital cities on the African continent, Dakar is relatively quiet and clean, especially on the weekends. Plan to spend a couple of days exploring the city’s French architecture, museums, markets and restaurants. Wander around the streets where you can see French bakeries selling fresh baguettes, hole-in-the-wall shawarma stalls and upscale coffee and gelato shops. Grab lunch in the courtyard of the French Institute and check out their schedule of daily music and cultural performances.

The recently opened Museum of Black Civilizations offers a good overview from the birth of humanity and early civilizations to textiles, fashion and modern art. The African Renaissance Monument is the tallest statue in Africa and was designed by a Senegalese architect. The 160- foot bronze monument is a symbol of Africa’s readiness to take its destiny into its own hands.

A short ferry ride from Dakar is Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, colorful Dutch slave trader houses, cobblestone streets dotted with pink bougainvillea and blue Atlantic waters make it a scenic location. Take a guided tour of Maison des Ésclaves (Slave House) to learn about the Atlantic slave trade that originated from the island.

The Pink Lake 

The second most popular destination in Senegal is Lac Rose (Lake Retba), also known as the Pink Lake. Here you can see seasonal workers collecting salt on long summer days while ladies dressed in bright traditional clothes sell souvenirs and homemade snacks. Spend a few hours watching the color of the dense saltwater turn into shades of pink, float in the lake, take a boat ride or spend the night at Hotel De Crostaux Roses to enjoy a peaceful ambiance away from the city.

Women in Senegal working around The Pink Lake
Pictured: Women working around The Pink Lake | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Lompoul Desert 

White sand dunes make for a scenic setting in Lompoul, where the local village community also runs a luxurious eco-lodge, equipped with en suite bathrooms, a restaurant and bar. Explore by foot, ATV or on camelback, relax with a cocktail or enjoy a traditional Senegalese meal. The village men entertain guests each night with drumming and jambe dancing under the stars.

Kaya Fisherman Village 

Stop at one of the largest fishing villages in West Africa to see the daily life of fishermen and their families. Afternoons are the best time to witness the bustling of the locals when fishermen return and pull their reels in. Hundreds of colorful boats dot the busy beach where men reel in nets, sort, bid and sell. Most of the seafood is exported to Europe.

As you pass through the villages, kids will wave and run up to greet you with “bonjour” in their soft, innocent voices. People in Senegal are extremely friendly and will strike up conversations or invite you to see their shops. The Senegalese people are proud of their teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality.

Saint Louis

The former capital of Senegal, with its French Colonial buildings and lively music scene, resembles the city of New Orleans. Many of the historic buildings in the UNESCO city of Saint Louis have been turned into hotels and restaurants. Though there are a few art galleries and African boutiques, most people spend a few hours observing pelicans, flamingos, seagulls and eagles at the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.

Also, the Saint Louis Jazz Festival held in April is one of the most popular music events in Africa and requires reservations months in advance.

Touba

Touba is a holy pilgrimage site for the Mouride brotherhood, a Sufi order. The main attraction in this holy city is one of the largest mosques in Africa with a capacity of 7,000 people. With its intricately designed ceilings, minarets and large domes, the mosque is an architectural marvel and a revered pilgrimage site.

Touba Mosque in Senegal
Pictured: Touba Mosque | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

If you don’t speak French and are traveling in this part of Africa for the first time, it is encouraged to have a local tour guide or travel with a trusted company. There are few international tour operators offering sustainable tours to West Africa. Canada-based G Adventures recently launched its Senegal and The Gambia itinerary that includes highlights of both countries in a small group setting. G Adventures’ Planeterra Foundation helps kickstart and support social enterprises in Africa and around the world, which are embedded in their tours as customer experiences.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

Cuisine Noir. August 2019.

Aruba is a Dutch-Caribbean island known for its beautiful white sand beaches, tropical sea breezes and dry temperate climate. With a strip of all-inclusive resorts and vacation rentals, it is a popular destination among honeymooners and summer vacationers. The “One Happy Island” is also emerging as a cultural getaway.

Downtown Aruba and the capital city of Oranjestad, mainly cater to cruise ship passengers. While docked, they spend a few hours walking around the bright pink and yellow buildings filled with designer stores and friendly bars. Time your visit to early morning or late afternoon to avoid the rush.

Downtown Oranjestad in Aruba
Pictured: Downtown Oranjestad | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Manchebo Resort and Spa, one of the smaller boutique and eco-friendly resorts, is located only 2.5 miles from the main street. Here you will find modern Dutch-inspired décor across spacious bedrooms with unobstructed views of the Caribbean Sea from your private balcony. Manchebo has one of the best beaches on the island.  With only 72 guest rooms, you will always have enough space to lie under a beach umbrella, sit by the pool or grab a seat at the bar. Free yoga and Pilates classes, as well as a Balinese spa overlooking Eagle Beach, attract locals as well as guests to the resort.

The on-site restaurant, Ike’s Bistro,  offers Caribbean as well as vegan menus paired with top-shelf mixed drinks using local ingredients, such as mangoes, lychee and cashews. The rooms come with picnic coolers so you can fill them with snacks and drinks before heading out on an adventure around the island.

Shop for aloe-made products at the Aruba Aloe and crafts handmade by artists at Cosecha Aruban Craft Design & Heritage for original souvenirs to take back home.

Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage
Pictured: Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Island Adventure

The best way to explore Aruba is by driving around its 20-some miles. Most of the roads are well maintained, but it is recommended to use a four-wheel SUV in certain areas, including the famous Natural Bridge, Natural Pools and Arihok National Park.

From Oranjestad, head north to the Carolina lighthouse for a 360-degree view of the island and get your bearings. Nearby, Boca Catalina and Hadicuran beaches are good pit stops to swim or snorkel.

As you make your way to Paradera, take a hike at the giant tonalite Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations. The Alto Vista Chapel on the horizon is said to be the first church to be established in Aruba around 1750.

Casibari Rock Formations in Aruba
Pictured: Casibari Rock Formations | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

To learn about how stray donkeys are rescued and kept off the streets, visit the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary. Home to 150 donkeys, this volunteer-run nonprofit allows visitors to feed the affectionate donkeys or observe them from a covered porch.

Head to the restaurant Zeerover in the town of Savaneta for a late lunch.  The local catch that is sold and cooked by the pound by the fisherman who caught it that day. This casual oceanfront kitchen is a favorite hangout to eat, drink, shoot pool and meet friends.

Local Charm of San Nicolas

San Nicolas is the second largest city on the island, around a 30-minute drive from Oranjestad. What was once a bustling town fueled by ample employment by a Venezuelan-owned refinery is now sparse with a few residents and old shops. The main street of the city recently got a facelift thanks to global artists who participated in the Aruba Art Fair, creating colorful murals inspired by the island’s culture. Each year more stunning murals replace decapitated buildings with artwork that brightens up San Nicolas, aka ‘Sunrise City,” because the sun rises on the eastern side of the island.

How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

A few locally-run restaurants are in the area, including Charlie’s Bar which has an eclectic display of memorabilia that the owners have been collecting for more than 80 years. Nearby, Baby Beach is a shallow, family-friendly beach, where you can find Arubans with family and friends, especially on the weekends.

To see kite surfers in action, head to Boca Grandi and for body surfing and bodyboarding, watch the waves at Nanki. Hardly any tourists make it out to these parts of the island, so you will mostly find locals relaxing at the peaceful Roger’s Beach.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.