Spice it up in Jamaica
A wealth of healthy fruits and vegetables, including ackee, breadfruit, ginger and the Scotch bonnet peppers that give jerk sauce its heat, grow on Jamaica. (Robin Robinson/QMI Agency)
WHITEHOUSE, Jamaica - When it comes to a distinctive international profile, Jamaica punches way above its weight. Lush landscapes, golden beaches, friendly people, Red Stripe beer, Blue Mountain coffee, and the setting for several thrilling James Bond novels are some of the tiny nation’s claims to fame. Then there are its stars - musicians like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Shaggy and Sean Paul, actor Grace Jones and Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt - to name just a few.
Not bad for a country with a population of only 2.8 million and a land mass that would fit into Canada 900 times.
But our group of Canadian and American travel writers is not here for the beach or the beer - and, sadly, not for the reggae music either. We’re here to experience Jamaica’s unique cuisine at Sandals Whitehouse, a luxury all-inclusive couples resort in a 200-plus-hectare nature preserve in Westmoreland parish on the island’s ruggedly beautiful south coast.
Our guide on this tasty mission is Walter Staib, culinary ambassador to Sandals Resorts. The celebrity chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and host of the multi-Emmy-Award-winning TV series A Taste of History, is a big fan of Jamaican cuisine.
After a seamless check-in to our spacious concierge suites, our first “assignment” is to sample typical Jamaican dishes during a rustic stove-pot supper at the open-air Bluefield’s Beach Club, one of seven restaurants at Whitehouse.
Prepared by Staib and an army of talented Whitehouse chefs, the variety of delicious dishes is staggering and includes: Red peas soup, pumpkin soup, curried goat, oxtail stew, jerk chicken and jerk pork, ackee with salt fish (Jamaica’s national dish), spicy shrimp, rice and peas, steamed callaloo with garlic, pineapple coleslaw, citrus slaw, tomato salad, thick slices of warm bammy (a flat-bread made from cassava), and “festivals” - addictive little fried sweet dumplings. For dessert there is cake (spice, rum, coconut and chocolate), ice cream (mango, soursop, rum and raisin), banana (fritters, pudding and bread), sweet-potato pone (or pudding), coconut drops and gizzada (a spicy coconut tart).
The next day, a jerk hut is erected on the beach near the main pool, and Staib fires up a few half-cut steel-drum barbecues to give us a lesson in “jerking.” He tells us that perfecting one of the island’s signature dishes is not only about making the jerk marinade but also about the cooking method, right down to the type of wood - Jamaican pimento, aka allspice - used to fuel the grills.
Chicken, beef, pork, fish, lobster and shrimp can all be “jerked,” Staib says. But the seasoning - a mixture of fiery-hot Scotch bonnet peppers, ground allspice, fresh thyme, chopped ginger, diced onion, minced garlic, scallions, soy sauce and pepper - can be as individual as the person who makes it. (Lazy cooks like myself can buy jerk seasoning and marinade in the resort gift shop, and Staib says it may soon be sold in North America.) Staib, who specializes in culinary history, says Jamaica’s diverse and complex cuisine can be traced to its colonial history, which made it a crossroads in the Caribbean - a place where indigenous, European, African and Asian cultures came together. Today a wide variety of fruits and vegetables grow on the fertile island, and because there is no bio-engineering, these have “tremendous flavour.” n n n It’s one thing to dine well at a luxury resort but it takes a foray into the countryside to see how the locals eat. So Staib organizes an excursion to Alligator Pond to check out Little Ochie, one of the region’s most popular seafood restaurants.
After leaving the manicured Whitehouse grounds, we embark on a bumpy bus ride through a lush - and not entirely tamed - landscape of towering palms, flowering tulip trees, dense bamboo, banana plantations, orange groves, colourful small grocery stores, impossibly tiny beers joints, primitive jerk huts, and an array of houses hugging the roadside - everything from tidy pastel-hued cottages to dilapidated shacks, half-built homes, luxurious villas ringed by iron gates and mini-mansions clinging to steep forested hillsides.
At Little Ochie, Staib is greeted chef to chef by owner Evrol “Blackie” Christian, whose oceanfront establishment has catered to locals and tourists for 22 years. Started as a “very small” one-man operation, the restaurant has grown into a dining institution. Now open every day, “from 9 (a.m.) ‘til you say when,” Christian estimates his 30 cooks and waiters prepare and serve up to 2,000 meals per week.
Christian’s recipe for success?
“We serve fresh seafood at a very reasonable cost,” says Christian, whose father was a fisherman. “People tell people about us Š that is how we built our reputation.” There is no set menu, and what is cooked in the kitchen depends on what the fishermen catch that day. Meals are served inside thatched-roof huts at picnic tables covered with paper tablecloths. Strung along the beach, some of the huts are made from old boats.
“We serve the widest variety of seafood in the country,” Christian says as he supervises delivery of heaping platters of “jerked, fried or steamed” seafood to our hut - everything from lobster to crab to shrimp to red snapper, accompanied by steaming plates of vegetables, bammy and festivals.
Today, like many days, local illusionist Merick Panton - aka the Nutty Professor of Alligator Pond - is making the rounds, entertaining diners with his clever card, rope and other tricks.
Our last full day at Sandals Whitehouse is devoted entirely to rum (this is the Caribbean, after all).
Sandals recently partnered with Guyana’s award-winning El Dorado Rum to supply its resorts with not only pouring rums for cocktails but also cask-aged premium sipping rums.
We are treated to a rum dessert-making demonstration with Chef Veejooruth Purmessur, the resort’s corporate pastry chef. This takes place at Cafe Paris, the French-style patisserie, which serves special coffees and flaky croissants and delicate pastries made from scratch.
Purmessur whips up a rum cake, a deconstructed apple-raisin-rum galette, a delicate lemongrass and rum jelly, and rum-filled chocolates for us to try.
But the most intriguing offering is blue cheese infused with aged rum, which sounds like it shouldn’t be good but proves to be delicious.
Still on a sugar high, we move to Casa Blanca lounge for “Bartending 101” with Troy King, Sandal’s group food and beverage trainer. King gives us a mixology lesson that runs through the basics of making classic rum cocktails - from fruity Daiquiris, minty Cuba Libres, creamy Pina Coladas to layered Hurricanes - and an exotic Sandals-original, the Jackfruit rum martini.
According to King, his favourite rum cocktail is a fresh fruit Daiquiri.
But, he confides, the resort’s most popular libation is the Jamaican Smile - a simple blend of fresh fruit juices and El Dorado rum.
“People are on holiday and they just want to enjoy fun, festive drinks,” King says.
Later there is a rum-tasting followed by a rum-pairing dinner - a culinary tour de force created by Staib and the Whitehouse chefs with every dish from Sea Scallops Ceviche to Pan Seared Bass Doree to Tournedo of Beef au Poivre made or paired with a different El Dorado rum.
All in all, it’s just another day in paradise.
IF YOU GO TO JAMAICA
Sandals Whitehouse has 360 rooms and suites in three low-rise European-style villages - Italian, French and Dutch. Every room is steps from the beach and has an ocean view. The resort is set in a 202-hectare nature preserve so it is never crowded. Rates vary depending on travel dates but there are some attractive deals this winter such as a free nights or spa and airfare credits. See sandals.com or your travel agent for details.
Several Canadian airlines have direct flights from Toronto to Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, where Sandals has a lounge for arriving guests to relax and enjoy a snack while waiting for their resort transfers.
While focused mainly on 18th-century American cuisine, A Taste of History has filmed episodes on several Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. For more on the show, see atasteofhistory.org. Staib is also the proprietor of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern, see citytavern.com.
The multi-award winning El Dorado Rum is the flagship product of Guyana’s Demerara Distillers. For details, see theeldoradorum.com. El Dorado rums are sold in Ontario through the LCBO.