Made in the Keys

Whether it’s brew­ing home­grown craft beer or putting an in­va­sive species on the menu, a new gen­er­a­tion of lo­ca­vores in the Florida Keys is help­ing re­de­fine the re­gion’s food and drink scene

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Alexan­dra Pope

Whether it’s brew­ing home­grown craft beer or putting an in­va­sive species on the menu, a new gen­er­a­tion of lo­ca­vores in the Florida Keys is help­ing re­de­fine the re­gion’s food and drink scene

I‘MUP TO MY EYE­BALLS in seafood ap­pe­tiz­ers, so it takes me a mo­ment to reg­is­ter the change in the mu­sic. Un­til now, the acous­tic gui­tarist seated be­neath a wooden ar­bour on the beach­front pa­tio at Marker 88 restau­rant in Is­lam­orada on Plan­ta­tion Key has been play­ing clas­sic rock tunes, but with the shad­ows length­en­ing across my ta­ble of del­i­ca­cies, he’s switched to a gen­tle lul­laby. It’s sun­set time. A small crowd has gath­ered along the nar­row pier that juts from the pa­tio into Cot­ton Key Basin, which is ruf­fled with wave­lets on this soft spring evening. Cou­ples kiss and pose for self­ies while chil­dren sit qui­etly, their legs dan­gling over the water, and watch as the hori­zon shades from pale yel­low to vivid tan­ger­ine to dusky laven­der. The song ends as the sun fi­nally dis­ap­pears, and the din­ers break into ap­plause, though it’s not clear whether it’s for the gui­tarist or the sky. Sun­set is a big deal in the Florida Keys, explains Andy Mc­grotha, Marker 88’s gen­eral man­ager. It’s when his restau­rant is busiest, re­gard­less of the time of year. “Our busi­ness is built around the sun­set — as is all life in the Keys, re­ally. Sun and sand and water.” And food. Marker 88’s spe­cialty is “Floribbean” cui­sine: seafood, fresh-caught in Key Largo, pre­pared with the flavours and spices of the is­lands. I try the co­conut-bat­tered Keys shrimp and wash it down with a key lime mar­tini — cit­ron vodka, Keke Beach key lime cream liqueur, pineap­ple juice and fresh lime juice with a gra­ham cracker rim. My en­tree is pan-fried yel­low­tail snap­per with key lime beurre blanc, and dessert is — what else? — a thick wedge of house-made key lime pie topped with a sky-high tower of an un­be­liev­ably airy meringue. It’s my first evening of a four-night road trip through the Florida Keys, and I won­der briefly if it’s pos­si­ble for a per­son to have too much key lime. But as I’m about to learn, the “any­thing goes” vibe that has long made these is­lands a haven for cre­ative types is at­tract­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of lo­ca­vores, mak­ing the Keys a des­ti­na­tion for sur­pris­ing ex­pe­ri­ences — culi­nary and oth­er­wise — that rarely hit a sour note. THERE’S SOME­THING about this ar­chi­pel­ago of more than 1,700 is­lands that calls to drifters and dream­ers. Per­haps it’s the fact that it feels more cul­tur­ally akin to Cuba than to con­ti­nen­tal North Amer­ica. The pace of life is un­hur­ried, the com­mu­ni­ties close-knit and sup­port­ive. What­ever it is, it mo­ti­vated in­dus­tri­al­ist Henry Fla­gler to ex­tend his Florida East Coast Rail­way from Mi­ami to Key West in 1912, lay­ing much of the ground­work for the 180-kilo­me­tre sec­tion of U.S. Route 1 that con­nects the is­lands to­day. It also in­spired Ernest Hem­ing­way’s pen and Jimmy Buf­fett’s six-string. And it lured Burling­ton, Ont., na­tive Craig Mcbay away from a decade-plus ca­reer in fire pro­tec­tion in West Palm Beach to Is­lam­orada, where nearly four years ago he es­tab­lished the Florida Keys Brew­ing Com­pany a few kilo­me­tres down the high­way from the Marker 88 restau­rant. “I love the small com­mu­nity,” he says. We’re stand­ing out­side the brew­ery’s old tast­ing room on a palm-lined street in the Mo­rada Way Arts and Cul­tural District. A VW van equipped with beer taps and air­brushed with a scene of hibis­cus blos­soms and surf­ing marine

wildlife is parked across the street. At the end of the block, a cover band’s ren­di­tion of The Ea­gles’ Take It Easy wafts out of Mcbay’s newly opened beer gar­den, a sun-dap­pled hide­away where chil­dren play gi­ant Jenga as their par­ents sip pints at brightly painted pic­nic ta­bles. Mcbay fell into brew­ing via a home­brew kit, a wed­ding gift from his mother-in-law, and found that he had a knack for it. At the time, no one was mak­ing beer in the Up­per Keys, so he and his wife Ch­eryl — a self-de­scribed mer­maid who’s largely re­spon­si­ble for the brew­ery’s flower-power aes­thetic — seized their op­por­tu­nity to bot­tle the is­land life­style. Their beers in­cor­po­rate lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and have cheeky names like Smelly Butt (a pineap­ple IPA) and Iguana Bait (a honey hibis­cus Kölsch and the com­pany’s top seller). Mcbay al­ways en­vi­sioned keeping the busi­ness lo­cal, but af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma caused wide­spread de­struc­tion through­out the Keys in Septem­ber 2017, he be­gan search­ing for new mar­kets for his prod­uct. His Spearfish Am­ber, Sunses­sional IPA and Iguana Bait are now avail­able up the east coast of Florida, but the heart and soul of the op­er­a­tion re­mains in Is­lam­orada. “Ev­ery drop of our liq­uid is made in the Keys,” he says proudly. Two blocks away is Chef Michael’s, one of a hand­ful of Keys restau­rants tak­ing a for­ward-think­ing ap­proach to an­other chal­lenge: li­on­fish. The eye-catch­ing, ven­omous fish, en­demic to the In­dian and South Pa­cific oceans, has in­vaded the Florida Reef, where it de­vours na­tive species and has few nat­u­ral preda­tors. For­tu­nately, it’s also ed­i­ble when cooked, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion has urged restau­rants to do their part to erad­i­cate the threat by putting it on the menu. Chef Michael’s brings in about 200 pounds of li­on­fish per week. My grilled li­on­fish ap­pe­tizer ar­rives whole, fins, face and all. It’s flaky with a del­i­cately sweet flavour, and when I’m done, I take a selfie with the head, be­cause how of­ten does a meal get to feel like a vic­tory? THE NEXT MORN­ING I’ve got my roadtrip playlist of throw­backs queued up (think Will Smith and early ’80s Madonna) and am en route to Key West, cross­ing from Marathon to Big Pine Key over the fa­mous Seven Mile Bridge, which is ac­tu­ally 6.79 miles. Com­pleted in 1982, it runs par­al­lel to Fla­gler’s for­mer rail­road, which it­self is un­der­go­ing a com­plete restora­tion and is ex­pected to re­open to pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists in 2021. By the time I ar­rive, I’ve moved on to coun­try mu­sic, which seems ap­pro­pri­ate given that Old Town, Key West’s his­toric down­town district, looks and feels a bit like a fron­tier set­tle­ment plucked from the desert and re­assem­bled on the bones of an an­cient coral reef. Roost­ers pa­trol the streets, obliv­i­ous to the mopeds that are the pre­ferred mode of trans­port for lo­cals and tourists alike. Live mu­sic and laugh­ter float out of the sa­loons along Du­val and Greene streets, home to such ven­er­a­ble drink­ing in­sti­tu­tions as Sloppy Joe’s and Cap­tain Tony’s Sa­loon. Dur­ing the nightly Sun­set Cel­e­bra­tion in Mal­lory Square, I take in a per­for­mance by the leg­endary Cat Man

of Key West, who shouts at the some­what bewildered crowd in French as his trained fe­lines jump through hoops and over the heads of young vol­un­teers. “Peo­ple have a live and let live at­ti­tude here,” Carol Shaughness­y tells me later that evening over plat­ters of shrimp and pep­per-jack grits and beer-braised mus­sels with chorizo and gar­lic at Lucy’s Re­tired Surfers Bar & Restau­rant. “As long as you have a good heart and want to be a part of things, you’ll be ac­cepted.” As the se­nior ac­count ex­ec­u­tive for New­manpr, Shaughness­y’s job is to pro­mote Key West tourism, but she speaks from a place of genuine pas­sion. Orig­i­nally from Min­neapo­lis, she first vis­ited Key West in 1976 on a break from school and de­cided to stay. Back then, she says, the el­e­gant wooden houses of the Old Town were tum­ble­down, the food scene prac­ti­cally non-ex­is­tent. Now, vis­i­tors with an ap­petite for au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences and lo­cals with a con­cern for the sus­tain­abil­ity of the reef are fu­elling a “boat to ta­ble” rev­o­lu­tion in Key West. Lead­ing that rev­o­lu­tion is Three Hands Fish, a Key West col­lec­tive that con­nects lo­cal fish­er­men with lo­cal restau­rants. As its name sug­gests, the group’s goal is three­fold: sup­port the Keys’ com­mer­cial fish­ery, en­cour­age stew­ard­ship of the reef ecosys­tem, and above all, en­sure that the fish on your plate is as fresh as it comes. So far 27 Key West restau­rants have signed on as part­ners of Three Hands Fish, in­clud­ing The Stoned Crab, which Shaughness­y calls the head­quar­ters of the eco-food move­ment. An­other is Blue Heaven, which like many places in town boasts a Hem­ing­way con­nec­tion: the prop­erty once hosted cock­fights and Fri­day night box­ing matches ref­er­eed by Papa him­self. Then there’s Azur, which spe­cial­izes in Mediter­ranean-in­spired cui­sine but lays on a Floribbean brunch to cure even the most venge­ful of post-du­val Street hang­overs. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I try a lit­tle of each of the braised beef hash and eggs with black truf­fle hol­landaise and the car­bonara break­fast — creamy lin­guine topped with pancetta, but­ton mush­rooms and poached eggs. When the key lime pie French toast comes out, I can see why it’s ap­par­ently Azur’s most In­sta­grammed meal: it’s quite lit­er­ally a piece of key lime pie sand­wiched be­tween two thick slices of grilled bread and driz­zled with berry com­pote. I text my hus­band to tell him that I’m leav­ing him for the French toast. He un­der­stands.

Take a jet ski video tour of Key West and see why the is­lands are the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion for water sports at can­geo­­west.

ABOVE: The li­on­fish ap­pe­tizer at Chef Michael’s restau­rant in Is­lam­orada. A num­ber of restau­rants are help­ing fight the in­va­sive species by putting it on their menus. LEFT: The Cat Man of Key West per­forms in Mal­lory Square.

Key West’s Azur restau­rant serves Mediter­ranean-in­spired cui­sine but is per­haps most fa­mous for its de­lec­ta­ble key lime pie French toast.

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