Go or­ganic, lo­cal… and Ja­maican

As the farm-to-fork con­cept takes root on the Caribbean is­land, James Hen­der­son en­joys a culi­nary tour

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Can Ja­maica ever out­grow jerk, the style of bar­be­cu­ing that is the is­land’s de­fault culi­nary of­fer? Ja­maica is amaz­ingly fer­tile and has ex­cep­tional pro­duce, but jerk and hot pep­per sauce are the only food­stuffs for which the is­land is known – al­beit de­servedly so.

The Caribbean has al­ways had an is­sue with food. His­tor­i­cally ho­tel fare has been bland, us­ing largely im­ported in­gre­di­ents (both be­cause of the vol­ume needed and the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of on-is­land sup­ply); “burger-tory”, as one wag put it. And to be hon­est, lo­cal fare isn’t much more ap­pro­pri­ate. Few vis­i­tors would be happy with a week’s worth of green fig stew and curry goat.

In Ja­maica the sit­u­a­tion has been com­pounded by the preva­lence of all-in­clu­sive ho­tels – if guests have paid up front, there is lit­tle in­cen­tive for them to go out to eat; nor for the kitchen to im­press a cap­tive au­di­ence. The re­sult is that even the main re­sort towns, through which hun­dreds of thou­sands of vis­i­tors pass each year, and which ought to be buzzing with restau­rants, barely have a hand­ful of good places to eat out.

Changes are afoot, how­ever.

Ho­tels have been de­vel­op­ing their menus; many all-in­clu­sives have à la carte din­ing rooms. Out­side the ho­tels, the ever-en­ter­pris­ing Ja­maicans have be­gun to cre­ate bet­ter op­tions to add to the tra­di­tional rest stops that make a drive around the is­land such fun. So, what with Usain Bolt open­ing his Ja­maican restau­rant Tracks and Records in Lon­don just last month, it was time for an­other look.

I made a cir­cuit of the is­land from Mon­tego Bay in the north west, start­ing at Round Hill, an ex­tremely smart in­de­pen­dent ho­tel in tra­di­tional Ja­maican style. Long-stand­ing Caribbean hote­lier Josef Forstmayr ex­plained some of the is­sues over a lunchtime tast­ing menu – bread­fruit tacos, packed with es­cov­eitch fish and avo­cado, fol­lowed by re­fresh­ing in­ter­lock­ing cubes of red and yel­low wa­ter­melon with gin­ger and then ac­kee pasta.

Some in­gre­di­ents have to come from out­side – prime steak, for in­stance, and cer­tain cold-wa­ter fish – but the is­land can pro­duce so much and chefs can be cre­ative.

Round Hill main­tains a kitchen gar­den and has re­la­tion­ships with nearby farm­ers to as­sure qual­ity. There is ac­tu­ally a Ja­maican breed of cat­tle, used in the ho­tel’s mince and stews. Ja­maica red poll is a British red poll and zebu cross, which is suited to life in the trop­ics. Forstmayr al­lows no fruit from out­side the is­land, though. “Why would you im­port ap­ples and grapes when we have such amaz­ing pro­duce here?” In­stead break­fast is lo­cally farmed pineap­ple, pa­paya and mango.

The cre­ativ­ity has be­gun to ex­press it­self in farm-to-ta­ble ex­pe­ri­ences. Jake’s Ho­tel at Trea­sure Beach has a monthly “farm and fish­er­folk” evening on the beach, and above the re­sort town of Ocho Rios, Stush in the Bush (stush means re­fined) of­fers smart veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan food.

Near Mon­tego Bay there is Zim­bali. We drove deep into the coun­try­side south of the town, through cane fields and then up into “bush”, to an old co­conut plan­ta­tion in the Canaan Moun­tains. The evening be­gan with a walk around the gar­den, where we were shown some of the in­gre­di­ents to be used later – pineap­ples, “pears” (av­o­ca­dos) and sor­rel, a plas­tic-look­ing red flower that makes a sweet red Christ­mas drink. We moved into din­ner on banked seats over­look­ing the open kitchen, where the chefs ran through Ja­maica’s ex­cep­tional spices and fruits as they pre­pared them – sour­sop, pa­paya, all­spice (which has hints of cin­na­mon, nut­meg and clove) and scotch bon­net, the fear­some lo­cal pep­per the Ja­maicans use so much.

We started with a mango and avo­cado salad, with shrimp and a sor­rel re­duc­tion, then soup, pump­kin boiled with rose­mary and scal­lion (lo­cal spring onion). There was no stock, but the vel­vety tex­ture came from co­conut cream. It was a pescatar­ian evening, so we had lob­ster and crusted snapper with a yam and sweet potato mash, and fin­ished with caramelised ba­nana touched with rum and all­spice. Ali­cia, the chef, ex­plained that most of the in­gre­di­ents came from less than a mile away.

Ja­maica al­ways re­wards vis­i­tors who get out and ex­plore, and so I set off with a car and driver. We tuned in to Irie FM – a ra­dio sta­tion that plays mostly “roots” reg­gae (rather than the rap-style dance hall beloved of young Ja­maicans) – and, Red Stripe in hand, I watched the world go by along the south coast. It is heart-rend­ingly pretty coun­try. After the cane fields of West­more­land, moun­tains built up on the left and the green­ery be­came ram­pant. Grasses reached out into the road, over­growth furred phone lines and turned fences into hedges.

The Ja­maicans love to break a jour­ney and the is­land’s roads are punc­tu­ated with “rest stops” and stalls. The area of Mid­dle Quar­ters is fa­mous for its “pep­per swims”; bright red shrimps from streams sim­mered in pots with scotch bon­net pep­per and

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