A can of cheese and Haitian pikliz

As I woke up this morning, feeling the rush and urgency to bring you another flavorful story, pikliz came to mind once more. This time, my palate wandered back to Haiti’s traditional pikliz, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before. 

In my last entry, I also spoke of my preference for this shallot pikliz. But, staying true to the essence of this blog—honoring and sharing food memories as they surface—I must revisit some nostalgic times.

So today, to honor my taste buds and taste memory, let’s talk about a pikliz pairing that brought me joy as a child: cheese and pikliz. Our journey begins during Haiti’s 1994 embargo, then fast-forwards a few years to the life of a sixth grader, who later became a high school senior, enjoying cafeteria sandwiches on the playground.

Are you ready for this trip back in time ?

I was just seven or eight during Haiti’s embargo, yet the memories from that period are  forever carved in my mind. Perhaps jumbled into the same timeframe, scenes of soldiers, carpooling, and…cheese, stand out vividly. The first two were common occurrences: heavily armed US soldiers and their tanks frequently lined our school sidewalk, and many people survived the gas crisis thanks to carpooling. 

But since this is a food blog, let’s stick to the cheesy part of the story — literally and figuratively.

There’s nothing trivial about the connection between cheese and our traditional cabbage and carrot pikliz. The embargo meant we received—or perhaps it was smuggled?—unique food rations from various countries. One that stuck to me to this day involves a golden can and a small kitchen paring knife. This cheese, if I recall correctly, came to us from Holland, and the knife…well from our kitchens. Inside the can was the largest canned block of cheese I had ever seen. 

True to our Haitian tradition of giving nicknames, we had called it “fromage sinistré,” roughly meaning a survivor’s cheese.

Sold on the streets, the cans of cheese were often hot from the sun. Watching one being opened was the most delightful experience for my young eyes. After spending hours basking under our hot Caribbean sun and perhaps cooking in the hold of a ship as well, the can had tightened its grip on the cheese. Getting it out was a near mission impossible, unless you had one of those colorful small and thin paring knives, which is what we used.

Cheese and pikliz, spicy Haitian condiment | Tchakayiti, Haitian Food Blog

As I commit these words to writing, I am right here at my mother’s office desk, watching her knife work. She would carefully run the knife around the can to extract the first slice of cheese, which would then allow her to shake out the rest of the block. I can’t say with certainty that the cheese ever came out whole, but that doesn’t diminish this story. Big block or not, perfectly sliced or not, served in big chunks or not, what mattered was the adventure our taste buds embarked on the minute the cheese made its escape.

We would savor our slice or chunk of cheese, still warm from its journey, paired with nothing other than our typical saucy cabbage and carrot pikliz. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I claimed that back then, that cheese in a can was the best cheese I had ever tasted, besides tête de maure, of course.

The embargo eventually ended, taking the golden cans of cheese with it. 

However, the pikliz remained, and I experienced it in a new but equally cheesy way. This time, it was in our cafeteria cheese sandwiches, enjoyed during exam season. I believe it was a simple The Laughing Cow cheese dip sandwich, which we enhanced with our beloved pikliz—a favorite treat on the playground till my senior year in high school.

It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed this simple combination of cheese and pikliz. This treat has given way to more elaborate sandwiches like the griot sandwich I have shared with you before. Yet, cheese and pikliz, remains an adventure worth embarking on.

P.S. Fresh baguette bread heavily buttered also pairs wonderfully with our traditional hot condiment. You’ll thank me later.

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