What is the Cayman Islands' number one export item? Rum? Fish? Diving Equipment? No. It's Tortuga Rum Cake, made from a hundred-year-old family recipe.
Every year, Tortuga Rum Company owners, Robert and Carlene Hamaty, export nearly 200,000 pounds of rum cake in the three-month Thanksgiving to Christmas time period alone. (This doesn't include the large numbers of cakes visitors purchase on the island and bring home.)
Former US President Carter orders Tortuga Rum Cakes every year. An ABC-TV anchorman introduced Tortuga Rum Cakes to viewers of Good Morning America, after he discovered it on vacation in the Cayman Islands. Even the Today Show featured a segment about the rum cakes.
Tortuga Rum Cake was the first Caribbean food product featured by The Home Shopping Network. A syndicated food columnist told MSNBC-TV viewers that Tortuga Rum Cake was one of his favorite gourmet items at New York's International Fancy Food & Confection Show. "Take a bite of this and you can taste the rum!" he told his audience.
But can a cake be that good? When a writer proposed a story on Tortuga Rum Cakes to Caribbean Travel and Life, the editors were intrigued, but sceptical. They ordered two cakes from the Tortuga Rum Company to try them first-hand. The outcome of their unbiased culinary review? According to the article, which did appear in Caribbean Travel and Life, "One cake [was] gone in approximately 30 seconds. The other mysteriously disappeared from the office refrigerator overnight."
|Carlene and Robert Hamaty|
|Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll|
The Tortuga Rum Cake recipe remains a closely guarded secret, despite pleas from customers and Gourmet magazine. "It was a family recipe, passed down to me from my mom," says Carlene. "It all started when a friend, who loved the rum cake, asked me to bake some for her restaurant."
At the time, Carlene was a flight attendant supervisor for Cayman Airways. Robert was the chief pilot. As their romance fired up (they married in 1988) so did the rum cake business. "Treasure Island Resort asked for 600 mini-cakes to give their guests for Christmas," recalls Carlene. "My friends came over to help me bake them, assembly-line fashion in my oven. It took the whole night."
Christmas rum cakes
The following year, in 1986, the President of First City Bank, in Texas, tasted the Tortuga Rum Cake when he came to the Cayman Islands, and placed an order for 150 special clients. He later ordered more. His order, combined with other customers, totalled 3,500 large cakes. "I'll never forget it. It gave me nightmares," shudders Carlene at the thought of it. "We baked them all in Robert's mother's oven in Miami, packaging them in red containers with cards for Christmas."
In 1989, the Hamatys opened a bakery to handle the booming business. At first, they sold their rum cakes from the Tortuga Duty-Free Liquor Store which they jointly opened in 1987.
The name, Tortuga, was another joint decision. (Las Tortugas, which means "the turtles," was the original name of the Cayman Islands.) "We chose the galleon as our logo because it symbolizes the Cayman Islands' shipping heritage," says Robert.
Internet orders from around the world
Today, 30 to 40 per cent of the Tortuga Rum Cakes sold are shipped to fulfil Internet and mail order requests. "We sold 70 large cakes to a Japanese couple to give to guests at their wedding in Osaka," says Robert. "In addition, Princess and Royal Caribbean ships sell the rum cakes in their gift shops."
In three Tortuga Rum Company bakeries (one at the Airport Industrial Park, one on Harbour Drive in George Town, and the other near the Cayman Turtle Farm), visitors can peer through glass windows to watch white-garbed staff create the cakes.
A mouth-watering rum aroma pervades the shops. Bakers remove trays of cakes from industrial-size ovens and pour a secret rum syrup mixture over each one individually. "We use five-year-old, specially blended Tortuga Gold rum from 218-litre oak barrels for the syrup," says Robert. "It's not the same flavor as the gold rum in the bottles. That's part of the secret."
|Pouring rum syrup over freshly baked cakes|
|Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll|
Rum is the only preservative, so the cakes receive a six-month expiry date, after they're vacuum-packed in the factory.
Tortuga rum cake flavors
There are eight varieties of Tortuga Rum Cakes: the original golden recipe (still the top-seller and Robert's favourite), chocolate, banana, pineapple, coconut and key lime.
Blue Mountain coffee rum cake was created by Robert's mother, Tatiana, when she was 82 years old. "She worked for five months to adapt it for commercial use," says Robert, proudly.
It's hard to walk out of a Tortuga Rum Company store without at least one other delectable treat, in addition to rum cake. The temptations include rum mints, fudge and truffles, Tortuga Steak Sauce, pungent with spices, tamarinds and mangoes, and scotch bonnet-scented Tortuga Hell Fire Pepper Sauce, which is hot enough to cause a nuclear meltdown.
Especially popular is the Tortuga Rum Coffee, made from coffee beans soaked in rum for 10 days.
If the aromas make you hungry, you don't have to prematurely open up your vacuum-packed cake. All Tortuga Rum Company stores offer free samples.
Cayman Islands Department of Tourism: www.caymanislands.ky