Go organic, local… and Jamaican
As the farm-to-fork concept takes root on the Caribbean island, James Henderson enjoys a culinary tour
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