“Mangoes, Ras, mangoes,” comes the voice of a stallholder, beseeching trade from a passing rasta. “Look at these dasheen, Ras, beautiful dasheen,” calls another. It’s a cacophony of voices, mostly speaking Patois or Creole, offering up plantains, green figs, bananas, coconuts and breadfruit. And once they spot Craig Jones, one of St Lucia’s top chefs, their shouts are all for him. A Saturday morning visit to Castries Market with this man could never be a quiet, anonymous affair. Not only is he a large Welsh guy dressed in a sparkling white kitchen shirt — a striking sight in this multi-hued market — he’s a Rastafarian to boot. With dreadlocks tucked neatly under a piece of white fabric that he’s fashioned into a puffball hat, he cuts an incongruous figure.
We pass brightly painted carts displaying the catch of the day and bearing mottos such as ‘bigger spliff’ and ‘hurt it’. To the side, one man is cutting turtles into small pieces, ready to be added to stew. Craig screws up his face.
Hunkering down on the pathway are women with yams piled high on pieces of tarpaulin. “These are your small, home-grown producers,” explains Craig as he smiles, waves and engages in chit-chat with them.
Today, he’s showing me around the market with Alexis Williams, another Rastafarian and the head gardener at Cap Maison, the resort at which Craig works as chef. The pair are animated as they point out stalls selling spices for making rum punch and guide me down alleyways where hatches open onto tiny kitchens.
As we wander, we follow the scent of mangoes. “There are 30 to 40 different varieties of mangoes,” Craig tells me. “There’s mango Austin, which is great, but mango Julie is the sweetest and has the best texture and taste.”
From Castries, we head northeast to the Babonneau district, which lies sprawled across a 10-mile ridge. We climb up behind Alexis’s house to the Funky Fungi Farm, a cluster of shacks in which he grows a selection of gourmet mushrooms.
“I first saw them growing from tree trunks and in the ground around Cap Maison and wondered why no one had thought of growing them for the plate. Until then, 100% of the island’s mushrooms were imported,” he says.
Inside the wooden hothouses, stacks of mushrooms burst out of bags filled with Alexis’s homemade ‘growing material’ — a concoction made from banana leaves and elephant grass. “It’s a constant 29C in the hothouses, which is perfect for growing,” Alexis explains.
“To see the whole process coming together like this is brilliant — and the best thing is that the mushrooms taste amazing.”
St Lucia’s history — it was colonised and fought over by the French and the English, with slaves brought over from East Africa and traders arriving from East India — means its gastronomy today is multifaceted and multi-flavoured. Fertile volcanic soil and imported plant species have created a bountiful larder. Today, the big bounty here is bananas: St Lucia is the biggest exporter of ‘green gold’ to the UK.
Under the shade of a flamboyant tree, Patricia-Lee Crozier, owner of Green Papaya, a natural skincare company, tells me about St Lucia’s plant life. “This tree is given the name ‘flamboyant’ because of its beautiful, vibrantly orange flowers. But we also use the seeds from the tree to make a shak-shak (an instrument somewhat similar to maracas). When you hear the rhythm, you can’t help but dance,” she says.
“Everything was brought to the island. They grew sugar cane so they could make money; then they did the same with bananas. They brought breadfruit over from India to feed the slaves because it produces those basketball-size fruits,” she explains.
“We have a Carib culture here — Caribs and Arawaks are the indigenous people — but our spices are very Indian so we use a lot of turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, bay leaf and star anise.”
Nutmeg, I’m told, is one of the keys to a perfect rum punch. “The key is to add two splashes of Angostura bitters, West Indian brown sugar from Ghayana and a grating of fresh nutmeg on the top,” says Patricia-Lee.
“Nutmeg is an aphrodisiac. And the rum — it tastes like juice, so you end up drinking it really quickly and don’t realise you’re getting drunk. That’s a true West Indian rum punch.”
Later, at a roadside pitstop called the Red Truck, I try a spiced rum. Laughter rings out when I announce it tastes like firewater and hand back the plastic cup.
The Red Truck stands on the edge of Cul de Sac, the industrial part of the island. It’s here you’ll find true St Lucian cooking: intensely flavoured cow heel soup; thick, bloody black pudding; and stewed or grilled pork, served up with a garlic sauce.
Our last stop is the Naked Fisherman, Cap Maison’s beach bar. As I seach for a rum punch, I keep one eye on the horizon. Alas, my naked fisherman doesn’t appear. On this occasion, it seems the aphrodisiacal qualities of the nutmeg have sadly been wasted. saintluciauk.org
Four places for a taste of St Lucia
As the name suggests, this restaurant is perched atop a cliff, offering views across to Martinique. The food is crafted by chef Craig Jones, a Welsh Rastafarian, and his French West Indian-inspired menu includes Kurobuta pork belly, razor clams and squid with a coconut foam. For more casual dining, head down to the cove on the water’s edge that houses The Naked Fisherman and indulge in a seafood platter or a spiny lobster roll.
How much: Three courses without wine at The Cliff at Cap from £40 per person.
Duke’s Place, Gros Islet
This popular fish barbecue shack in the village of Gros Islet is only open on Friday and Saturday nights — so expect to join massive queues for its fresh seafood. The owner, Duke, catches as much as he can and buys the rest locally, marinating and grilling the fish before serving it with a secret-recipe garlic sauce. There are conch fritters, snapper, barracuda and marlin on the menu, as well as half a lobster for £9 when in season.
How much: Grilled fish with sides and without drinks from £4 per person.
Rainforest Hideaway, Marigot Bay
Take a boat ride across stunning Marigot Bay to dine on St Lucian cuisine and local produce, including the lionfish, a predatory fish that has destroyed much of the island’s marine life. The fish is speared in the bay, then carefully — the spine is venomous — filleted by chef Asa Johansson and served with coconut crust. Other dishes include St Lucian jerk chicken, which has a zingier taste than its Jamaican counterpart.
How much: Three courses without wine from £35 per person.
Pirate Bay at Marigot, Marigot Bay
This waterfront restaurant can be approached either by boat or by walking through a mangrove forest. There are hammocks as well as tables by the water, and the restaurant has been built almost solely from recycled materials — think pickled woodwork and a sea-shack theme. One of the few places on the island to serve Antillia craft beer, the menu includes seafood chowders and Jack Sparrow’s Fisherman’s Feast, grilled at your table plus steaks, ribs and goat pepperpot curry.
How much: Three courses without wine from £23 per person.
Five St Lucia food finds
The island’s national dish of under-ripe banana cooked with onions, herbs, peppers and salt cod.
A breakfast drink made from grated cocoa, water, milk, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.
There are more than 30 varieties of mango growing in St Lucia, with a season from March to September.
A doughy breakfast ball that, despite the name, is sometimes deep-fried and served with salt fish.
A number of rums are produced on the island, including Admiral Rodney, Chairman’s Reserve and Bounty.
How to do it
Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)