Taste & Travel
SUSIE ELLISON gets a taste of the shrimp industry in Florida.
…Amelia Island is credited with the birth of the modern American shrimping industry…
CHEF TODD RUIZ is looking pretty pleased with himself. His flock of handsome Rhode Island Reds and prettily speckled Cinnamon Queens has offered up a clutch of still warm, multicoloured eggs. The feathered girls are clucking around us, one pecking experimentally at my painted toenails.
The path to their free-range pen winds through a stand of coastal hammock, between live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, spiky stands of yucca, and mop-headed cabbage palms. A wooden footbridge crosses a shallow stream and the path leads on to the hoop-house, where tanks of fish are feeding nutrients to an aquaponics growing operation that provides fresh romaine lettuces to the Verandah restaurant, one of several Ruiz oversees as Executive Chef at The Omni Amelia Island Plantation.
Amelia, the northernmost barrier island on Florida's Atlantic coast, has an interesting history. It was home to the Timucuan, coastal dwelling Native Americans, until 1562 when French explorer Jean Ribault landed there. Over the next 400 years the island flew eight flags, alternating between Spanish, Mexican, Patriot, French and British rule, until the US government took control in 1821.
In Amelia Island's golden age, it was a playground for wealthy Americans, whose elegant Victorian mansions add charm to the treeshaded streets of the principal settlement, Fernandina Beach. Florida's
oldest tavern, the Palace Saloon, is just one of the landmarks in the historic downtown, along with many heritage buildings that now house cute B&Bs, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. The Visitor's Centre is housed in the old railway station, starting point of the first railroad link between Florida's east coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Amelia Island is also credited with the birth of the modern American shrimping industry. An enterprising Sicilian fisherman developed a trawl net that dramatically increased the catch — and income — that could be garnered by family-owned boats. This stretch of the Florida coast is one of only a few places where you can taste American shrimp straight off the boat, fat, sweet and still redolent of the sea. But even frozen, wild-caught American shrimp are a treat worth seeking out, both for their sweet taste and for the support their purchase gives this endangered local industry.
At Timoti's Seafood Shack you will most likely have to get in line to place an order but this popular local picnic-table hangout serves the freshest local seafood, including those wonderful shrimp — in baskets, tacos, sandwiches, salads and poke bowls — with homemade iced tea and beer to wash it down. At The Salty Pelican, a jumpin' joint on the Fernandina Beach waterfront, “peel and eat” shrimp — steamed and seasoned, with wedges of lemon for squeezing — come with live music and prime sunset viewing.
Kicking it up at Lagniappe — a fine dining establishment that balances snappy service with top-notch New Orleans-style cooking (and a perfect Sazerac) — local shrimp, accented with tasso ham and andouille sausage, makes a terrific topping for Geechie Boy heirloom grits. Catch of the day (flounder) with an asiago crust, spinach risotto, and smoked tomato coulis is another standout.
Omni Amelia Island Plantation also uses local shrimp (exclusively) in its restaurants, in keeping with its sustainability ethos and hyperlocal footprint.
A far-sighted land developer named Charles Fraser bought 3,000 acres of uplands and tidal marshes on Amelia in the 1970s, with the goal of creating a resort that existed in harmony with nature. The Omni Amelia Island Plantation is surrounded by native Florida vegetation — roads weave around and under ancient live oaks, beachfront and dunes are protected and residential units are nestled within the hammock, surrounded by tumbling flowers and greenery.
Todd Ruiz found a little piece of paradise when he landed the job at the Plantation. Raised on a South Texas farm, he inherited a green thumb from his dad. “Growing food comes naturally to me,” he says, leading the way through his organic gardens to a meadow filled with beehives. While his hens provide eggs for the omelets served at the resort's Sunrise café, the bees provide honey for toast and the sevengrain granola mix that Ruiz makes himself. The bees feed on the native vegetation, producing seasonal honeys — palmetto in fall and winter, wildflower in spring, and the rare and highly prized tupelo in summer. They also have access to the calamondins, pomelo, peach, satsuma and Meyer lemon trees Ruiz has planted in his garden, along with vegetables and a galaxy of herbs. “We have an almost yearround growing season here,” he explains, going on to describe the farm-to-table dinners he hosts in the garden for guests of the resort. “They are happy to help with the chickens,” he adds. “Not so much with the bees.”