Kitchen Call: A tasty tour of the ‘Latin Quarter’

Linda Bassett

Madonna Berry is an assistant professor in the culinary department at Newbury College. The first time I met her she introduced herself as “the other Madonna, the culinary one. The advantage of my name is you won’t easily forget me.”

Chef Berry, president of the Culinary Historians of Boston, who teaches regional American and international cooking and as well as food history, holds a master’s degree in American Studies, with a specialty in American food, from the University of Massachusetts. Dozens of her talented graduates lead the kitchens of some of New England’s finest restaurants and hotel kitchens.

For the last 10 years, Chef Berry has treated her students to a walking tour of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood to explore food-related businesses owned by recent immigrants. The field trip grew out of her own extensive international travel, which focuses on food in addition to the usual landmarks.

Visiting a new location always involves a stop at a market, a restaurant and many samplings of the local street food. After a recent trip to China, she admits that the street food doesn’t always agree with her, but has learned to travel with a bagful of remedies so she is always ready for the next tasting.

Two years ago, Boston University offered her guided tour of Boston’s “Latin Quarter” to the public.

She smiles as she explains, “The term Latin Quarter was dreamed up by someone at Boston City Hall as a marketing tool, but it fits the area well. J.P. is crammed with authentic places owned by people from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador and more. This is where to discover and learn about exotic foods seldom found at the suburban supermarket.”

“The neighborhood is very much a Latino enclave. We explore restaurants, markets, bakeries, music and clothing stores, and bodegas (convenience stores). You won’t hear mainstream music playing in the background and very little English is spoken. By the end of the tour, you feel as if you’ve taken a long trip to a faraway place.

“Over the last few years, there’s been some gentrification and diversification,” she says.

“There’s been some condo development — the former Catholic church that served Irish immigrants has been sold to developers for mixed use housing — as well as an Irish pub and a Chinese takeout.”

Chef Berry advises comfortable walking shoes and a healthy appetite at the start. After outlining the history of area, tracing the influx of many immigrant groups who settled Jamaica Plain over the last century, there’s a quick survey to rule out any food allergies or dietary restrictions. This tour doesn’t culminate in a meal, as do walking tours of some of Boston’s other neighborhoods.

“It’s really a long, progressive meal. We make three to four stops to sample a rich variety of appetizers, entrees, snacks, desserts, fruits and vegetables over the course of four to six city blocks.”

“We visit at least two restaurants where we get tables, and I discuss the dishes I’ve ordered. There are a number of good-sized tastes of many items, which are split among the group. The business owners are enthusiastic, positive and eager to share their cultural and culinary traditions.

“The foods themselves, although unfamiliar in themselves have a comfort factor. There is a commonality about them, a universally satisfying feeling. At the end, we’re stuffed.

“At the markets, we explore unusual produce, and it’s almost like learning a new language, but easily learned because it’s a culinary language,” she says. “The markets are not ‘sanitized’ in that there are no bright lights showcasing the food; there are no gleaming stainless steel counters. Raw protein items, like chicken pork, fish, are not packaged like at Stop & Shop in individually wrapped pieces. Instead, parts of the animal, like pigs ears or chicken feet, are on display and I identify them and their uses.

“Having experimented with most of these items, I can give advice on how to use them and explain their equivalents in more familiar foods, like potato for batata,” says Berry. “Some of the ethnic produce is directly imported, some is trucked in by way of New York. We discuss how to store and how to prepare items like bananas which come in a array of sizes and colors — yellow, red, small, plantains — and are used as both a sweet or savory item in a meal. Aloe plants are used to soothe burns, but also produce a refreshing beverage. And we also taste a beverage made from purple Peruvian potatoes.

“We taste cheeses and sausages, learn about arepas and gordita, cornmeal cakes from Venezuela or Hondoras or Mexico, again tasting, and comparing the names and variations from country to country. Finally, we visit a bakery for breads and a Cuban sandwich, taste fried yucca, and end with rich, sweet Cuban coffee and pastries,” she explains.

“I have benefited from the generosity of this neighborhood,” says Chef Berry. “I’ve also learned a great deal from rich collection of international students I’ve taught over the years. They have been so generous in sharing their culinary traditions.

“Food is one of the common threads that gather all of humanity. When meeting someone from a foreign country, always ask about food, and the conversation will flow. People love to share their culinary knowledge.”

The Walking Tour of Boston’s Latin Quarter with Madonna Berry is scheduled for Sunday, March 29, 10:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m. Details are available on the Boston University Web site, www.bu.edu