A culinary tour of the Caribbean, where everything is served with a side of sunshine
We are going to hold our hands up and confess that we have a bit of an obsession with these islands. The Caribbean is among the very few destinations that can make an office full of travel journalists stop what they are doing and go all doe-eyed. Whether it’s an image of white sand being gently lapped by periwinkle blue water or a beach barbecue heaving with smoky meats and encircled by frosty beers, the Caribbean has the kind of allure that you just don’t find with other places – particularly when we are in the midst of January’s ice-cold clutches.
Few places on Earth have had such a turbulent history. In 1975, when Bob Marley famously sang the lyrics: ‘In this bright future you can’t forget your past’, Barbados, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Tobago had just declared independence after five centuries of European rule. His was the voice of positivity in a region that was finally beginning to take shape.
After Colombus’s first voyage in the 15th century, the Spanish empire swallowed up most of the islands, exterminating the native Arawak population. Then Sir Francis Drake arrived in 1585 with a penchant for Spanish gold. Thus began almost 300 years of European squabbling. The British and French snatched St Lucia from each other 14 times and the Dutch colonised more than 13 islands. It was only when the American Revolution weakened the Empire that Britain’s power over its eight Caribbean colonies showed the first signs of relenting.
It was a time of pillaging and piracy, with buccaneers such as François le Clerc (Peg Leg) and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) terrorising swathes of the ocean. Vast sugar plantations kept European palates sweet, while 12.5 million African slaves were shipped to this New World to toil in horrific conditions. Their descendents make up the majority of the islands’ population today.
This is the cultural tapestry from which Caribbean cuisine has emerged, drawing on European techniques with sunshine flavours. How about jerk chicken spiked with Scotch bonnet peppers and smoked over the wood of pimento trees? Or deep-fried dumplings with salt fish stew? Maybe rum enriched with cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg and sea moss? The French legacy is creole and the British are responsible for hearty meals: potatoes and pineapple upside-down cake. African influences make themselves known in the prevalence of one-pot fish or meat stews, bulked out with christophenes (squash-like savoury fruit), dasheen (taro) and breadfruit.
With such a fractured past, and geography varying from tufts of volcanic rock in St Barts to rolling fruit tree orchards in Jamaica, the nuances of the individual food scenes are just as fascinating. Let us guide you around seven of the best.
Home to a more varied culinary culture than you’d imagine, there’s more to the Caribbean than pristine beaches and wall-to-wall sunshine (though it certainly helps). Imogen Lepere looks at the islands where food is life and always served with a smile
Opposite page, clockwise from top left: a farm worker with breadfruit; St Lucia’s Pitons; a C’est La Vie villa on St Lucia; lobster sizzles on the grill; a favourite tipple; a bottle of Cap Maison rum; locally made chocolate; cocoa beans; ripe pods; visiting the greengrocer. This page: the inviting jade waters of St Lucia