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This Life: Anji Locke on bringing Caribbean taste to the Scottish Highlands

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Family, music and good food have established a little corner of the Caribbean in the north-west Highlands

 words Chae Strathie photography Laura Tiliman 

Glasgow in the late-1970s. It’s a dreich January evening. Suddenly an upbeat ska tune blares out of a window. As you pass by, an unfamiliar smell wafts into your nostrils – mango. You glance in and see a woman in the kitchen cooking her heart out, a man watching cricket on the TV, friends gathered around, laughing and eating.

In the middle of the throng, a group of giggling girls are showing off their latest dance routine.

One of these girls is Anji Locke, and this snapshot of a wonderfully vibrant home life is just one of the reasons she has ended up as the proud owner of the Black Pearl Creole Kitchen in the Highland village of Gairloch.

“When we moved from England to Glasgow in the 1970s we were the only black family in the area and our house quickly became the party house – everyone would come to eat my mum’s food,” she smiles.

“My mum, Ruby, who was from Dominica, was the main cook, while my dad, Fred, from Barbados, would also do some cooking at the weekend.” The aroma of mangoes still whisks her back to those days.

“People would visit from the Caribbean, and they’d always come with bags full of mangoes and limes,” she says. “The smell in the house would explode – it was just lovely.”

The girls practising their dance routines were Anji’s sisters. She’s the youngest of five, so it’s no wonder the place was loud and lively. “Family life was great. We’d put on a ska record and we’d all start dancing.”

Gairloch isn’t where you’d expect to find excellent Caribbean food, but it’s where Anji Locke has found success with her restaurant, Black Pearl

James and Anji

That love of dancing is something that keeps Anji well and happy to this day, and it was dance, not cooking, that she had her heart set on when she was growing up. But, as she recalls with a wry smile, “I said I wanted to dance, the dance schools said no.”

Instead, over the next 30 years or so, she split her time between working front of house in restaurants and modelling on catwalks and in magazines, before teaming up with a friend
to launch modelling agency, Stolen, in Edinburgh.

By that time she’d married James, a professional musician who’d scored big hits in the UK and US with his band The Chimes, and had two children, sons Elliot, who’s now 29, and Abe, now 25.

Meanwhile, her sister Janis moved to the village of Gairloch in Wester Ross in the north-west Highlands to open a B&B.

Over the years Anji and James and the boys would holiday there two or three times a year and they grew to love the area, with its beautiful beaches and sense of isolated tranquillity.

Abe became particularly attached to the place. “He’s on the autistic spectrum and every time we went to Gairloch he would flourish,” says his mother. “He’d open up. He was at one with the place.”

The family together; Elliot, 29, Abe, 25, and James and Anji

Then, in 2016, the house next door to Janis’s became vacant and the family suddenly had the chance to move there permanently. “It seemed like a good idea, so we moved up… and
it was a nightmare,” Anji winces. “It was really hard. I struggled a lot.”

For a while it was touch and go as to whether or not they’d stay.

“I felt like I didn’t have a voice,” says Anji. “There wasn’t anything for me to do, and my confidence started to diminish. Sometimes I’d just sit in my bathroom and cry.”

Luckily, she had a feelgood ‘go-to’ to keep her spirits up when she was at her lowest. “I’d trained to be a Zumba instructor in Edinburgh,” she explains.

“It always puts a smile on my face. If I get up in the morning and I’m not feeling great, I put on some music and dance for 40 minutes and I’m set for the day. Dancing is such a joy.”

Wellness to her is about looking after physical and mental health in tandem. “It’s very much mind and body,” she says. “I’ve always exercised – I bought a rowing machine when I was 12! I also eat organic food. Beetroot smoothies are one of my favourites. They give you energy and make you sparkle.”

Despite her initial struggle to settle, life changed dramatically for the better in 2019. All it took was a horsebox.

Anji laughs at the memory. “James bought it to take on camping trips with his mates so they could have a bar! I was like, ‘Not going to happen!’ I had the idea of turning it into a catering unit. I thought, ‘What do I enjoy doing?’ So I decided to make food and see if anyone would buy it.”

The Black Pearl used to be operated out of a renovated horse trailer

Once she and James had converted the horsebox and named it the Black Pearl Creole Kitchen (after Anji’s idol, the singer, actress and heroine of the French Resistance Josephine Baker), they set about launching it. Their maiden attempt appeared to be doomed, however.

“We were due to pitch up at a festival in Strathpeffer, but we arrived to find it had been cancelled,” she recalls. “We had all this food. I was in tears!”

But a quick bit of on-the-hoof poster-making and some Facebook posts turned defeat into triumph. “We said ‘Two dishes for the price of one – come to the car park in Gairloch’. The rain was pelting sideways, and I thought nobody was going to turn up.

Then a guy on a motorbike arrived and said he’d come all the way from Ullapool, fifty miles away, and had a big order! Next thing, there was a massive queue, and we sold out in an hour and a half.”

The Black Pearl restaurant in Gairloch has injected colour and Caribbean flavour into the Scottish Highlands
Warm up with the log burner and the spicy food

After that, Black Pearl went from strength to strength. Its latest chapter began last July when Anji secured the lease on a derelict café in Gairloch. “It was totally empty, but we bought a tree and made tables, then sanded them and scorched them so everything has smoke and fire theme.

“I’ve been blown away by the response from people who say they love my food. I’ve even had people from Jamaica say we do the best jerk chicken they’ve ever tasted!”

As well as that jerk chicken, you can treat yourself to the likes of BBQ ribs, sweet potato nests and ‘doubles’ (channa chickpea curry with fried ‘bara’ flatbread). Finish it off with rum-and-ginger sticky toffee pudding and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d died and gone to heaven.

“I’ve been blown away by the response from people who say they love my food. I’ve even had people from Jamaica say we do the best jerk chicken they’ve ever tasted!”, says Anji

But despite all this mouth-watering fare, ask Anji what food makes her feel good and she’s quick to answer: smoked trout from the Smoke House in Ullapool and some very special
fishcakes. “My mum, who died in 2020 at the age of 100, would make them when we were growing up,” she says with such nostalgic fondness it’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat.

“I was putting together the recipe recently for a new book by Ghillie Basan called Seafood Journey, and I remembered how I’d get so excited when I smelled them!

“Mummy would never reveal exactly how she made them, so when I wrote the recipe it was from taste memory. She made them with love.”

“I’m very grateful. The Black Pearl is my favourite place to be. It makes me feel so good. We get the fire going and the reggae music on and it’s wonderful and warm. It’s my home, my jewel… my hidden gem.”
Anji’s Kingston Mac and Cheese with cream, smoked cheese and a subtle spice

Speaking to Anji, it’s clear just how meaningful food is to her. It’s a connection to the past, to family, to heritage and to the people around her.

The locals and tourists who get to taste her fabulous creations are very lucky to have her, but Anji feels she’s the fortunate one. “I’m very grateful. The Black Pearl is my favourite place to be. It makes me feel so good. We get the fire going and the reggae music on and it’s wonderful and warm. It’s my home, my jewel… my hidden gem.”

From party house to party Pearl. Fred and Ruby would be proud of their girl.

BLACK PEARL CREOLE KITCHEN

Achtercairn, Gairloch IV21 2BP

t. 07300337201 | e. blackpearlcreolekitchen@gmail.com

Visit Black Pearl’s website | Follow Black Pearl on Facebook | Follow Black Pearl on Instagram

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