A report by James Henderson for London’s Telegraph.
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 salt, right at the roadside. They certainly make the lips sting. Next was a man boiling peanut soup in an aluminium pot, which he ladled into polystyrene cups. Based in pumpkin and potato, with scallions and pepper, it was swimming with soft nuts.
At the top of Spur Tree Hill, on the higher ground of Manchester Parish, we came across a line of 10ft shaggy green shrouds standing to attention like soldiers. Yam. It is the famous starchy vegetable that Usain Bolt says made him run so fast. And yam is sold at a special rest stop at Melville Hall, served buttered with a little salted cod (once a staple protein, now a Jamaican favourite), in aluminium foil.
If the north coast sees tourism, Kingston is the Jamaicans’ Jamaica. We arrived in the middle of Restaurant Week and at Bolt’s original Tracks and Records restaurant, in uptown New Kingston, I met the organiser, Stephanie Scott.
“The fun for a visitor is to see the evolved version of our food, the fusion of many different flavours – as in the Jamaican motto ‘Out of many, one people’. But there’s also the original fare in the raw, the African, Indian, Lebanese and of course British.”
Tracks and Records, with its multiple screens showing sporting events, serves its escoveitch fish (a recipe from around the Latin Caribbean that uses spices and vinaigrette), in a sandwich made of local cocobread.
It was mid-morning as we drove north on the Junction Road from Kingston, along the Wag Water Valley, a meandering cleft in the mountains, and then turned west at the coast towards Ocho Rios. Here the road skirted the shoreline, passing occasional beach bars and rickety fruit stalls, always colourfully arranged, before clambering into mountains and offering superb views.
At lunch we joined the Jamaicans in Port Maria for a pattie. It’s a lighter version of our Cornish pasty, with flaky, buttery pastry. And like our pasties they offer more than plain beef mince nowadays, with fish and vegetarian fillings as well. They even wrap their pasties in cocobread. It was not for me, but I was happy to finish with a gizzarda, sugared coconut shavings in a small cup of pastry.
Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios is a good example of the fusion Stephanie referred to. The dishes have all the varied heritage, but then Miss T takes things further by making them more accessible to tourists. On an open-sided deck with a tin roof and brightly coloured furniture, I tried oxtail, normally served as a hearty stew with hefty “ground provisions” (starchy vegetables). Instead it arrives boneless in a “rundown” (vegetables reduced in coconut milk) and served with pasta. On the final run back to Montego Bay, we came to perhaps the most famous rest stop in the island, the Puddin’ Man. Outside his shop stand six “Dutch Pots” on car wheel-rims, charcoal burning underneath them and stacked on the lids – “Hell a’ top, hell a’ bottom … halleluiah inna middle…”, I was told. “Pudding” is a sweet potato or cornmeal mix made with coconut milk, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. It’s so heavy that it’s extremely hard to stay awake after eating.
In Montego Bay I finished up at another Jamaican stalwart hotel, Half Moon, where chef Christopher Golding has been trying to wrest Jamaican cuisine away from jerk for the past 10 years with his contemporary take. He takes traditional Jamaican dishes and prepares them in new ways. His ackee and saltfish, the Jamaican national dish, is novel. The salted cod comes as a Provençal brandade, puréed with olive oil and milk, and the ackee (a yellow fruit that cooks up a bit like scrambled egg) arrives in a flan with breadfruit dumpling.
So I had to sneak out when I realised I was about to leave Jamaica without having had any jerk. There are “jerk centres” all over the island now, but you need to pick your spot. Proper jerk is cooked with allspice wood, whose bark oils infiltrate the meat.
Return flights tend to leave in the evening, so I spent my last afternoon at the Pork Pit, where butterflied chickens and sides of pork were smoking and sweating between slender branches of allspice and sections of wriggly tin. It’s still fun to watch the chef. He lays the meat on to a block, whips out a machete and then hacks it into bite-size chunks before lobbing it on to a sheaf of paper and handing it to you. Just be extremely careful about how much hot pepper sauce you apply. It affects anything edible for yards around.
Tropic Breeze (01752 880880; tropicbreeze.co.uk) is offering a trip to Jamaica similar to James Henderson’s from £2,249 per person, including return flights with Virgin from Gatwick to Montego Bay and all transfers. Guests spend three nights at Half Moon, one night at Jakes in Treasure Beach and three nights at Sandals Royal Plantation. Further information: visitjamaica.com.