Jamaica's 'Mein' Course
What more could we possibly ask for on a splendid Thursday morning as the Bentley handles the narrow streets of London? There's not much traffic on the road, the sun is shining gloriously and, dedicated Olympic lanes aside, we're making good time. South Kensington is minutes away and there's parking. SO has a breakfast meeting with Jamaican-born UK resident Jenny Mein at the private club Sumner Place. Like us, she is on time.
Mein is an attractive woman and is elegantly clad in a silk caftan top and crisp cotton pants. Her sophisticated demeanour causes quite a few heads to turn as she makes her way through the dining area and into the well-appointed garden. There are lots of things to discuss over freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee: for starters, her amazing collection of fine bone china tableware and giftware inspired by Caribbean fruit and flowers.
Share with us some of your early childhood memories.
I always remember my father (who died in 2009) looking handsome, dressed in his cricketing whites playing cricket at the club on the sugar estate where we lived. He loved cricket and always played on a Sunday with other members of the club and everyone came out to watch. I spent my childhood first at Appleton Sugar Estate and then, later on, when I was around five, we moved to New Yarmouth Sugar Estate where my father worked as a sugar chemist. He would always take us to his laboratory to show us how sugar was made and we were rewarded with paper cones of hot sugar from a tap. I also remember visiting my maternal grandmother at her house on a hill in the country during school holidays and helping her to water her garden (filled with fragrant thyme, mint, jasmine, datura lilies, and old-fashioned roses) and picking guavas, mangoes, oranges and limes from the fruit trees on the property. She always made us coconut ice cream from a huge wooden bucket. We had a truly idyllic colonial Jamaican childhood.
Tell us where you went to school.
I went to St Thomas More Preparatory, a Roman Catholic Convent in Clarendon, and later to a Church of England boarding school. After GCE examinations I went to secretarial/finishing school in Kingston. One of the students there was Cindy Breakspeare, who later became Miss World 1976. Another student was Kenny Benjamin, who owns Guardsman.
What brought you to the UK?
My younger sister and I were always travelling. We loved the romance of it, travelling to distant countries we read about in books. We went to Haiti, Central America, Guatemala, San Salvador as well as the usual Miami. We decided to go on a long tour of the continent starting from Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, etc. We had some English friends with whom we stayed in London. Finally, we decided to leave Jamaica and live in England. (I was sad to leave, but being young then, I wanted to explore other cultures. Also, at the time, during the 1970s, Jamaica was in turmoil and many friends were leaving to live abroad). My brother and his wife lived in London and I had friends there. I registered with a modelling and finishing school in London. There were many girls from all over the world. It was great fun. When we graduated they threw a huge party primarily for us to meet modelling agents, photographers, et al.
How and where did you meet your husband?
I met my future husband at that same party in 1979. We got married in 1981. He is English and from a distinguished military family that served in India as part of the British Empire for over 150 years. We were married for 16 years. We have a son, Alexander.
Tell us about your journey as a culinary author.
In 1987, I compiled a book about the favourite recipes of well-known women in the Caribbean. I visited Jamaica to interview Lady Glasspole, the wife of the governor general; Mitzie Seaga, wife of Edward Seaga, prime minister of Jamaica; Barbados to meet the wife of the governor general; and other wives of prime ministers and governors general in the other Caribbean islands. My interests are gardening, botanical painting, reading, and I am fascinated by the Great Houses of Jamaica and 18th-century colonial social history, food and collecting recipes.
What made you decide to go into bone china with a Caribbean sensibility?
In 1992, I started working as a food editor for an international lifestyle and travel magazine, which focused on the Caribbean islands. I cooked and styled the food for photographic shoots. One day I could not find any pretty china with tropical motifs for the food photography and decided then and there that I would produce my own china using motifs of Caribbean fruit and flowers inspired by my childhood family garden. I have always sketched and took botanical painting courses to develop my art. I decided to use my hand paintings of the ackee as motifs on the china, as the ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. I honed my china-painting skills at the Hobbyceram International School of Decorative Arts founded in Milan, Italy, which specialises in botanical painting on porcelain.
Clearly, it was your fascination with the Jamaican national fruit that inspired the collection.
I launched the Jamaican Ackee China Collection at the prestigious Jamaica Trade Expo Exhibition in 1998 at Olympia, London and was encouraged by the wonderful response to the china. I was introduced to Sandals Chairman Gordon 'Butch' Stewart and Omar Davies (the then minister of finance) who loved the china and were very encouraging.
How have you positioned your collections in the marketplace?
I used to market to sell in the USA, but since the tragedy of 9/11 things slowed down and so I have decided to concentrate on the UK market. However, I still intend to renew my contacts with the USA. I sell through my website www.jennymeindesigns.com, trade fairs, charity functions, and by word of mouth. The members of the Jamaican Georgian Society (of which I am a member) have been wonderful customers, as well as the Jamaica (UK) Nurses Association who put on huge fund-raising functions annually.
Who buys the china?
Some of my famous customers are Diane Abbott (a member of the British Parliament who has a Jamaican background); Lenny Henry and Dawn French, famous British actors; Margaret Bernal, wife of the former ambassador to Washington, Dr Richard Bernal; and many others. Incidentally, I presented The Hon Portia Simpson with pieces of the china when she was minister of sports, at a meeting she gave at the Jamaican High Commission in 2000.
Tell us about the pieces in your collection.
The china collections include coffee mugs, salad plates, trinket boxes, fruit bowls and square bon bon dishes. The china is ideal for special gifts, birthdays/anniversaries or sumptuous dinner sets for the stylish home.
The china is hand-gilded and manufactured to the highest standards in Stoke-on-Trent, England, using traditional methods.
What collections are you currently working on?
I am currently producing The Jamaican Guard of Honour Mugs and Tea Towels to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Jamaica.
What are your thoughts on Jamaica in light of the 50th anniversary of Independence?
I am passionate about Jamaica and unashamedly nostalgic about the sheer beauty of the island, the mountains, rivers, flowers, food and the humour. I have travelled to many countries in Europe and I regard Jamaica as just as beautiful as many of them.