Mama Shar's is bringing a taste of the Caribbean to Lancashire
- Credit: John Cocks
A volcano prompted Sharmen Frith-Hemmings to leave Montserrat for a new life in east Lancashire, but the woman herself is more of a whirlwind.
She has crammed more in to her 49 years than most manage in a lifetime, and she is constantly buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm.
‘Life’s too short not to do something you love,’ she says, and it’s clear from the noises in the background that she’s not letting a chat with Lancashire Life stop her from getting jobs done.
Since she left the island after the eruption in the Soufriere Hills in 1997, Sharmen has studied for qualifications, raised a family, worked in the courts system for a few years and spent a decade working in social care. She’s also done event catering and venue dressing, made costumes for Preston’s Caribbean Carnival and worked as a personal trainer.
And throughout all that, she’s been in the kitchen re-creating the Caribbean flavours she enjoyed when she was growing up.
Her latest incarnation is as Mama Shar, whose range of sauces and seasonings promise the authentic taste of the Caribbean.
‘My brother taught me to cook,’ she said. 'From being a young girl I loved being in the kitchen and making traditional Caribbean food, like the national dish of Montserrat, goat water.’
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About two-thirds of the island’s 11,500 population left in the aftermath of the eruption and Sharmen added: ‘My mum came ahead of me – Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, so there was the opportunity to come here when it was unsafe – and she was saying for ages that I should come. It took the volcano to make me leave, but I’ve never regretted it at all.’
She saw an opportunity to turn her lifelong love of food into a business when she visited a nail bar. ‘I was having my nails prettified and the nail technician had a bowl of food and I was horrified by it,’ Sharmen said. ‘It wasn’t good food. There was no flavour I told her to take it back and get her money back and said I’d make her some meals.
‘I made her a lentil soup and she was hooked. She introduced me to some friends and they started bringing friends and I realised I couldn’t carry on just doing it for the love of cooking.’
She launched the business from a small kitchen she hired in Preston and very soon she was making more than 100 traditional Caribbean meals a week – including rice and peas, jerk chicken and herb potatoes. In 2019 she took on an empty shop and moved production to Burnley and in January last year she bought a catering trailer with the idea of taking her food on the road to events around the county.
Covid put those plans on a back burner but during lockdown Sharmen launched a series of online cookery courses which proved popular with people of Caribbean heritage who wanted a taste of the food they remembered, and with others who simply wanted to broaden their range in the kitchen. She plans to continue the Zoom courses after restrictions have eased.
She has also created a range of sauces and seasonings and is now working on a recipe book which will bring together the dishes she loves with stories from Montserrat and a little of the island’s history.
‘I love cooking,’ Sharmen said. ‘And I’m passionate about introducing people to authentic Caribbean food, not the British supermarket version of Caribbean food. There have been so many influences on Caribbean food over the centuries – the English, Portuguese, Africans and others have all left their mark and I want people to experience the wonderful flavours my brother taught me to cook.’