They call this cluster of dwellings Belvue (‘Beautiful View’) and from Yolande Baptiste’s verandah overlooking St George’s, Grenada’s capital, it’s easy to see why. Look west towards the powder-blue Caribbean, and you’ll see lush rainforest teeming with bananas, coconuts, citrus, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Reach out from Yolande’s window, and you can almost touch the pendulous mangoes and breadfruit. Behind her turquoise-painted stilt house, in a garden carved from the rock face, English rosemary grows among the exotic carambola (star fruit) and a Jamaican akee tree thrives.
It’s a scene of unimaginable bounty, which Yolande will soon exploit. A local home cook who has kindly invited me into her home, she is about to prepare a traditional Sunday lunch of ‘oil-down’, Grenada’s national dish — so named because the key ingredient, coconut oil, sinks to form a puddle in the bottom of the pan. Spread out on a table are bushy callaloo leaves (similar to spinach), a mottled green breadfruit, chives, thyme, a wedge of yellow pumpkin, okra, yams, bay leaves, bunches of green bananas, Technicolor peppers and a dozen cloves of creamy garlic.
Yolande cuts the breadfruit into quarters and peels off the rind. Then she washes the starchy segments in lime juice, along with the yams and green bananas, and puts them in an iron pot with the other ingredients. Chicken, sausage and salted pork come next. Grating the coconut, she mixes it with water to make a rich cream and adds that to the pan as well. Finally, she rolls dough into cylinders to make traditional dumplings, dyed yellow with turmeric, and floats them on top to steam.
Velvety and aromatic, the oil-down is a triumph, the meat providing sparks of moreish flavour in the mildest of comfort foods. This rustic style of cooking is what Caribbean food is all about, yet many dishes are long forgotten and unlikely to be encountered by visitors — unless, like me, you’re lucky enough to know Yolande. Cookbooks from the 1950s feature such recipes as split-pea and flying fish salad, married women’ (marinaded herring), aubergine baked in coconut cream, conch fritters, saltfish pie and guava tart — yet most restaurants, especially in resorts, serve international food (grills, seafood, salads) or familiar cuisines such as Italian or Oriental. It’s a tendency that goes back to the 1970s, when tourists arriving from America demanded the kind of food they ate at home.
One of the harshest critics of the trend was Lord Glenconner, aka Colin Tennant, the Scottish eccentric who turned Mustique into a playground for millionaires and royals, notably Princess Margaret. He later settled in St Lucia, where he owned the quirky restaurant Bang Between the Pitons.
“Everything came from Miami,” the waspish octogenarian told me, shortly before his death in 2010, “so the only local thing on menus was soup. The true cuisine got swamped by what was then called ‘Continental food’; it was actually American. That got superseded, in the 1990s, by clever chefs with their nouvelle cuisine, who added what they thought were local sauces to Continental food. By then it bore no resemblance to Caribbean cooking at all.”
Only in 2000, with the surge of interest in ‘real food’ and provenance, did chefs begin to take Caribbean cuisine back to its roots. One of them was Jon Bentham, executive head chef at Boucan Hotel & Restaurant in St Lucia, who was then head chef at nearby Anse Chastanet. Steeping himself in the culinary idiom, Bentham — who had trained with Gary Rhodes — began sourcing ingredients from local farmers and growing some himself on the resort’s estate, then using them in novel ways. Some produce proved more versatile than he expected.
“This is a christophene,” he explains, showing me a prickly, pear-shaped vegetable with bland, watery flesh. “It has the texture of a pear, but you have to put flavour into it. I used to do a poached christophene in red wine, with creamed blue cheese.” Inspired by the classic dessert of pears poached in port with Roquefort, it was a hit with European guests.
Other successes were Jamaican glazed back ribs, devilled salmon with lobster ‘accra’ and saltfish, and a green fig and christophene salad with cucumber souse. “People think of green fig as the unripe stage of a black fig,” Bentham says, “but it’s actually a young banana, part of what locals call ‘ground provisions’ — starchy vegetables to give them energy.”
In 2004, Bentham’s old boss, Gary Rhodes, opened Rhodes Restaurant at the Calabash Hotel in Grenada. One dish on the menu today is grilled snapper with a bouillabaisse of lobster, orange and christophene. The trend continued, as chefs picked up on the culinary accent of each island and modernised it. This year, Sorcé opened at the W Retreat & Spa on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, taking over from Alain Ducasse’s miX On The Beach. Serving such dishes as mofongo (plantain-based dish), stuffed Caribbean lobster, and sopa de marisco (Viequense version of bouillabaisse) it is pretty authentic. Lord Glenconner would have surely approved.
Five Caribbean food finds
1. Barbados: The defining dish here, and on other Commonwealth islands (eg Jamaica), is souse — a rich stew of meat and gravy, using the cheapest cuts.
2. Jamaica: Rice ’n’ peas, jerk chicken, curried goat and meat patties are typical dishes, while ackee (a fruit) with saltfish is the national dish, once the food of slaves.
3. Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico: The Spanish bequeathed arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), moros y cristianos (literally, ‘Moors and Christians’ — black beans and rice), adobo (a spicy seasoning mix) and chorizo.
4. Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Barts: French legacies include boudin (black pudding, but with scotch bonnet peppers), fish court bouillon (with garlic, mostly) and fish crêpes saintoises (pancakes), which are named after a traditional boat.
5. St Maarten, Saba, St Eustatius: On St Maarten, Philipsburg pancakes (pumpkin flapjacks) are named after the old Dutch colonial capital. On the other islands of the former Dutch Antilles, Spanish and French influences blur.
Four places for authentic Caribbean food
1. The Aquarium: Grenada
My favourite restaurant on the Spice Island, ideal for recovering from a long-haul flight or enjoying a last lunch en route to the airport. Located right on Magazine Beach, with a coral reef ideal for snorkelling, it serves everything from simple fried fish with salad to ginger-glazed lobster, callaloo cannelloni and shrimp in shredded coconut (pictured above). Quirky decor, a barbecue lunch on Sundays (with live music), and fine wines from a climate-controlled cellar add to the appeal.
■ How much: Mains from £10, three courses from £19. La Source Road, Point Salines. www.aquarium-grenada.com
2. Boucon: St Lucia
Part of the Hotel du Chocolat boutique hotel, launched in 2011, Boucan is on the Rabot cocoa estate — and chocolate features in every dish. Jon Bentham’s inspired creations, using locally sourced ingredients, include ground provision hot pot (green fig, pumpkin and lentils in a coconut stock spiced with scotch bonnet, nutmeg and cinnamon) and boucaneer’s bouillon — a soup of fish, scallops, celery and potato, with herbs from the organic garden.
■ How much: Mains from £13; three courses from £25, excluding drinks. The Rabot Estate, Soufrière. www.thehotelchocolat.com
3. La Guarida: Cuba
This is the best-known — and best — of Havana’s paladares: private restaurants which are often run by families. Try the conejo al aceite de oliva con caponata (rabbit in olive oil with peppers, onion and aubergine) or cherna compuesta a lo caimanero (grouper with coconut and spices) in the Nunezes dining room three floors up.
■ How much: Mains from £7; three courses £20. Concordia No 418/Gervasio y Escobar, Centro Habana. www.laguarida.com
4. Boston Jerk Centre: Jamaica
In early August, as the island celebrated 50 years of independence, this Port Antonio institution was given a fresh lick of paint. It comprises a cluster of stalls selling chicken, pork, sausage, goat, fish or lobster in a spicy jerk sauce, ordered by the quarter, half or whole pound. Cooked in a ‘jerk pit’ fired by pimento logs and covered with a sheet of corrugated iron, it’s served with rice ’n’ peas, roasted yam or breadfruit, festival (cornbread) and a Red Stripe beer.
■ How much: From £2.50 for a 1/4lb chicken. Boston Beach Lane, Port Antonio.
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)