Matthew Hampton gives a flavour of this island region’s culinary fare, which packs a punch with depth, heat and speciality ingredients
If all the Caribbean had to offer was jerk chicken, that would be enough, for the fire and smoke of the barbecue pit has wafted so far around the world there are now whole festivals devoted to it. And yet Caribbean cuisine does not stop there. From the sea to the spice market, chefs have an enviable larder at their disposal, and they certainly make use of it.
Red snapper, tilapia, plantain, allspice, breadfruit and, of course, fiery scotch bonnet peppers … all are staples of the Caribbean kitchen. Herbs and spices
are especially prized.
“We grow so many spices, you can smell them on the breeze,” says Brian Benjamin, the ‘BB’ of BB’s Crabback restaurant in Grenada. The island is known as the spice isle thanks to its plentiful nutmeg plantations.
“Nutmeg can be used in everything from salad dressing to ice cream and added to cocoa tea with cinnamon and bay leaf for a refreshing drink.”
For Fabien Vigee, executive chef at St James Club Morgan Bay in St Lucia, local produce really does have a more pronounced taste: “Homegrown herbs are more aromatic and starchy foods are more dense in texture, thus creating more flavourful dishes. A sweet potato grown in the US would be totally different in texture and flavour from one grown in the Caribbean!”
But it is what chefs do with those ingredients that really matters. Vigee, for example, soaks his breadfruit in seawater and then cooks over an open wood fire. “Some of our cooking techniques came about because of unavailability of ovens, fridges and all the culinary luxuries that now exist.”
And in leaner days when certain ingredients were unavailable – or unaffordable – chefs had to get creative. From fish heads to chicken backs, unheard of cuts of meat became delicacies.
Nowadays, produce is plentiful, and the food scene has moved on apace, with chefs drawn to top-class hotels and restaurants to show off their skills.
British chef Alan Larch, for example, oversees the reopening this winter of the CuisinArt resort in Anguilla, which was one of the first resorts in the world to operate its own hydroponic farm. This meant just about anything could be grown on-site without having to import ingredients.
Also in Anguilla, Belmond Cap Juluca has even more international names on board for its grand reopening this winter. Another Brit, Andrew Gaskin, oversees a new Pimms restaurant on the beach, as well as Maundays Lounge, a tapas bar experimenting with Peruvian fusion. CIP’s by Cipriani is back too, serving Italian classics with a local accent.
No visit to the Caribbean would be complete without a little rum tasting, and again there are whole festivals devoted to the stuff. Barbados is the biggest producer, with Mount Gay and Malibu dominating supermarket shelves. But visit for the Barbados Food and Rum Festival in October and you can taste all manner of smaller batch samples.
Equally important, and a little sweeter, Caribbean cocoa beans are among the most highly prized in the world, which might explain why Hotel Chocolat bought its own producer in St Lucia. The Rabot Estate near Soufriere supplies all of the upmarket brand’s beans; you can even book a stay at Boucan – the hotel at the heart of the estate – to see how beans become chocolate bars.
Few things go better with chocolate than coffee, which is the perfect excuse to indulge in yet another local speciality. Jamaica’s Blue Mountain estate is renowned for its mildly flavoured beans, and of the 20 per cent that isn’t exported, you can buy the ideal gift for the caffeine addict in your life, or just enjoy a simple espresso while watching the sun set: the gourmet way to end the day.