May 212013

santa helena


Today is a double threat. It is the feast day of St Helena of Constantinople, and, not by coincidence, a public holiday on St Helena Island.

St Helena (the saint) has two main claims to fame.  She was the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, and she is credited in legend with finding the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 326-28, when Constantine was emperor, Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. Jerusalem was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by Emperor Hadrian. He had built a temple over the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. Accounts differ concerning whether the Temple was dedicated to Venus or Jupiter. According to tradition, Helena ordered the temple torn down and on excavating the site found three crosses. There was a feeling among the discoverers that these were the three crosses from Calvary but Helena needed proof. So she had a woman who was near death brought from the city. When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross she suddenly recovered and Helena declared that cross to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace’s private chapel, where they can still be seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries. Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of earlier Roman emperors.

The Island of St Helena, located in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles west of the coast of Africa, is one of the most remote islands in the world. Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, and because of the date he named it Santa Helena after Helena of Constantinople.  Henceforth, control of the island went back and forth between the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and Dutch, although the Spanish and Portuguese dropped out of the picture quite early on leaving the British and Dutch to fight it out.  It was an important stop for their ships going to and from the Cape of Good Hope and beyond so they could take on fresh water and supplies.

Although St Helena was under the control of the Dutch East India Company at the time, the British government selected St Helena in 1815 as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.   He was eventually built a permanent home on the island where he died on 5 May 1821. During this period, Saint Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession, but the British government met additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The island was strongly garrisoned with British troops, and naval ships circled the island. In 1834 Britain gained control of the island, and it is now one of the last vestiges of the British Empire.

With the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, St Helena was no longer needed as a port of call for ships heading for the Pacific, and became increasingly isolated.  Nowadays there is one main way to get to the island, which is to fly to Cape Town and then take the RMS St Helena to the island.  It calls about once every 12 days.  Otherwise you need to sail your own boat. Tourism is almost entirely centered on visits to Napoleon’s home and grave promoted by the French government. Because of the difficulty getting to the island, tourism represents a very small part of the economy (3% of GDP).  There are plans in the works to build an airport on the island although no airlines have expressed interest in the route.  The hope is to build sport fishing tourism because of the plentiful fish in surrounding waters.

Fish cakes with distinctive flavorings are a signature dish on St Helena.  The recipe below is adapted from the one used on board RMS St Helena.  Local fish, such as tuna and wahoo, are usual, but any firm white fish will work.  The recipe uses a blend of mixed spices available only on the island.  I give a substitute here which is close.

St Helena Fish Cakes


1 lb (450 g) fish filets (fresh tuna or wahoo in preference)
1 lb (450 g) potatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 strips of bacon, finely chopped (optional)
Hot chiles to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon St Helena mixed spice (see below)


Cook the potatoes in salted water until tender, then drain and mash them. Put the mashed potatoes in a large bowl and leave until cool.

Wash the fish, and chop it very fine.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a skillet and sauté the onion , parsley , thyme, chiles and bacon (if used) until the onion just starts to brown.

Take the skillet off the heat and add the mashed potato, fish, mixed spice, and beaten egg.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly and form round patties with your hands, about the size of a tennis ball.  Flatten them into a fat disk somewhat thicker than a hamburger.

Shallow fry the fish cakes slowly to be sure they are cooked through and then raise the heat and continue frying until both sides are brown.

Serve the fish cakes as a main meal with rice and vegetables, or as a snack on a bread roll with ketchup.

Substitute St Helena Mixed Spice

Thoroughly mix together these ingredients and store in an airtight jar.

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano