The International Writers Magazine: Jamaica
Jamaica - Once you go, you’ll know
Jennifer J. Beaumont
You are on the run, in the midst of guerilla warfare, centuries before granola bars and beef jerky, up in the heavily wooded mountains, pimiento groves mostly, and, the pigs are plentiful. You can cook them, but caution has to be taken to be sure no fires or smoke is seen.
Aha, you dig a huge hole in the ground, line it with the pimiento wood then think about how to make this pork tasty.The paste of pulverized onions, herbs, bird and scotch bonnet peppers that all grow wild in the low bushes is poked into holes in the meat before placing it on the low, slow burning wood fire that has to be hidden, so you think of closing up this hole with the scooped out dirt – but first the meat is protected with leaves from the branches of the pimiento trees. The meal is now a spiced meat cooked over smoldering wood deeply infused with the pimiento. That’s right, you are a Maroon, so named because you are a self-liberating enslaved African from one of the many plantations in Jamaica, and you have created jerk pork! And, you are from Charles Town, in that section of the Blue Mountains in the parish of Portland, a descendant of Nanny, the only female listed among Jamaica’s historical figures.
Portland is on the northeasterly tip of the island, made popular to the world by luminaries like Ian Fleming, Errol Flynn and Noel Coward who all owned homes and produced significant works there, and by Margaret Cezair-Thompson who fictionalized their life stories in The Pirate’s Daughter. While the island exploits of these and other luminaries make tantalizing reading the experiences of this ordinary traveler is all about sensory awakenings through culinary delights and understanding the cultural context from which they emerge. And, it is a road trip, because, as of now, the only ports of entry by plane are Montego Bay and Kingston.
The road trip from Montego Bay to Port Antonio, the capital city of Portland, a few miles from Charles Town, is all along the beautiful coastline, and a five-hour journey. The two-hour ride from Kingston offers a mixture of mountains, rivers, and coastline. Let’s disembark in Kingston and exit from Montego Bay. So, it’s the two hour ride first.
Most airlines are not offering meals these days so with the shortest flight to Kingston being one hour and forty-five minutes from Miami, it is expected that you’ll arrive famished, no matter your port of embarkation. Depending on the time your plane touches down and how long it takes you to traverse that long walk to the immigration and custom officers, then collect luggage you might be ready for breakfast – a full Jamaican breakfast requiring time to savor several dishes solo or in combination and sip freshly ground and brewed Blue Mountain Coffee or hot chocolate tea (Did you know that Jamaicans append the word “tea” to any and every hot beverage, or that hot chocolate is not from the instant powdery stuff but home-made from the locally grown and prepared cacao seeds?); lunch of “fast food jerk something” or a delectable uncooked concoction; dinner that reminds you to live local but eat global assuring a mélange of local products used for exotic interpretations of global cuisines; and the heady infusion of fruits into a non-typical “I Scream” dessert .
||Your stop for breakfast and most meals in Kingston will probably be in New Kingston, the “new” commercial center about 25 minutes from the airport in one direction, equidistant from downtown Kingston home of the seventh largest natural harbor in the world in another direction, and 20 minutes from the foot of the Blue Mountain range gateway to Port Antonio.
With jerk being the most popular known preparation of Jamaican food, and its close association with pork and chicken, vegetarians might feel left out – but that’s not necessarily so. Rastafarians, a significant segment of Jamaica’s citizens, and largely among the entertainers, eat only Ital food, freshly cooked, no meat, so vegetarians will always have options.
So, where do you eat? Both the Jamaica Pegasus, around for more than 37 years, and the Wyndham Kingston, formerly the Hilton Hotel, offer full Jamaican breakfast buffets – ackee and salted codfish, steamed callaloo, escoveitch fish, fried dumplings/johnny cakes, roasted breadfruit, fried sweet plaintains, boiled yellow yams, sautéed kidneys and or liver, run dung with herring or mackerel, amid a cornucopia of fresh local fruit and juices from local fruits. Fast food lunch of festival (comparable to hush puppies) and patties – beef, chicken, shrimp, lobster, soy, vegetable, ackee; soup – fish, beef, vegetable; are available at Island Grill and Juicy Patties – chains/franchisees found all over the island. For those not eating meat, the choices are plenty at all of these establishments; however, there is a place, a unique place, Mi Hungry, in the Courtyard, a food court of upscale restaurants with no mall in sight, offering sun-cooked cuisine and organic, natural juices. Have you thought of making fruit juices where the only liquids are freshly squeezed cane juice (low glycemic index and helps fight cancers) or fresh coconut juice (promotes proper digestion)? The foods, like pizzas and pies, have crusts made solely from nuts and seeds then layered up with fresh fruits, of varying textures, showering the tongue with unexpected and unusually tasty bursts of flavor.
Dinner often begins with soups such as gungo/pigeon peas served full-bodied, non-pureed, allowing each ingredient to be savored for its own texture and taste, created by chef Richie Richards, at the Gallery Café, in New Kingston’s newest hotel, The Spanish Court, designed by a local architect and adorned with wood of the native Blue Mahoe. Three miles away, a smooth cream of pumpkin soup hinting at a relationship with the scotch bonnet pepper is served at the Grogge Shoppe, Devon House, mansion of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel, built in the late 19th century, restored in 1968, and designated a national monument in 1990. Shopping at the boutique establishments is another draw to Devon House, but most visitors and local citizens alike, will succumb to the compulsion to leave home, come by after the movies, at the end of the work day, or after skipping dessert where dinner was eaten for an “I Scream” in guava, mango, Guinness stout, or other sweet ending on a cone or in a cup. Sweet plantain filled tarts or light airy coconut macaroons prepared to order by My Elite Grocer owned by foodie blogger Gale Peart, are for those with caloric allowances beyond a cone and double scoops of ice-cream.
So, well-fed and on the way to Portland, there is a desire for that beverage often consumed multiple times each day, seeking that perfectly roasted bean, brewed just so – coffee, Blue Mountain coffee! A tour of the Craighton Coffee Estate, its 200 year old mansion loaded with antique furnishings of different periods, is a first stop in the mountains. The Master Coffee Roaster, 14 years on the job, explains the eight types of roasts that unfortunately very few coffee drinkers have taste buds attuned enough for complete discernment. Be aware, he warned, that all coffee grown in Jamaica is not Blue Mountain Coffee. That distinction goes only to those beans, each ripe one harvested individually, primarily by the hands of women, grown in volcanic soil at a minimum of 2,000 feet above sea level, on a 40 mile wide mountain range, and requiring 9-11 months for full maturity. In fact, like fine wine, Jamaica’s green coffee is shipped in oak cask for preservation of the characteristics and flavor – the only country in the world to do that.
With stops like these the pre-determined two hour ride expands into a unique gastronomical adventure. Back on the bus, speeding past dense vegetation, riding perilously close to sheer drops minus guard rails, attention turns to identifying the various items used in preparing several dishes previously enjoyed and items never seen before. Opportunities for up close touching come as independent vendors erect stalls along the side of the road displaying fruits, vegetables, spices, and tubers for sale. And, there is street food purchased from the corner shops and food stands and small Mom and Pop establishments. Is there really a difference between KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and OFC (Oriental Fried Chicken)? Are there additional nutritional benefits to vegetarian red peas soup when raw peanuts are cooked in? Fish and seafood are fresh caught, fruit and vegetables are harvested from local gardens or back yards – so all organic. Meals are cooked daily, as leftovers are not favorites in the Jamaican household, in the vernacular of the Rastafarians “no food brought forward” from the previous day.
Food security for the 2.8 million citizens, with a per capita income of US $4,500.00, is very high on the agenda of the Jamaican government so there are several programs, in partnership with local and international organizations as well as institutions of higher education to improve the standard of living by improving production of, and marketing strategies for agricultural products, lowering dependency on the importation of basic items like rice and cereals, and increasing versatile usage of current diet staples like the breadfruit, which hails from the Malay Archipelago and was brought to the island by Captain Bligh between 1780 and 1786 as food for the slaves.
||The road wends along the Hope River, gushing in some places, trickling in others, before following the coastline into Boston Bay, about 5 minutes from the center of Port Antonio, tightly packed with jerk stops. Shaggys Jerk Stop, run by the grandson of the founder, a Maroon, who has died, uses pimiento wood, leaves, and a secret jerk sauce mixture to prepare jerk pork, chicken, fish, and lobster, served with homemade juices – pineapple, and june plum - spiced with ginger.
The jerk stop is a communal spot, mostly for the men, so the slapping of domino pieces provides a backdrop to the din of conversations among old friends catching up.
Breathtaking views of Ian Fleming’s Navy Island and the calm, emerald green waters of the sea – the Caribbean Sea, one of the world’s largest salt water seas, lapping the shores of 22 islands, Cuba, Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico being the largest four – elicits oohs and aahs. Climbing the hill, on the way to the final meal of the day, a cooking demonstration/food preparation under the guidance of chef, artist, and co-owner of Mockingbird Hill, Barbara Walker evokes questions of the “what” and the “how” of the meal.
Arriving in time for afternoon tea, a daily ritual of the hotel confuses those ignorant of the English tradition adhered to no matter what the outside thermometer reads. It is welcomed, paired with Solomon Gundy, another use of the herring, in a pickled pate spread thin on wafers topped with sliced tomato, grown less than 65 miles away. Started 18 years ago, with co-owner Shireen Aga, Mockingbird Hill, a 10 room luxury hotel nestled in 6 acres of terraced gardens, was voted Best Accommodations for the Environment at the 2010 Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards; is solar powered, a member of the International Slow Food Movement, committed to a sustainable community; develops local talent and observes meatless Mondays. Did you know that nearly 20% of man-made gas emissions come from the meat industry? Never served is a meal or drink using ingredients not indigenous to Jamaica, out of season, or having to travel more than 100 miles. That’s right, lobster is not served from the beginning of April to the end of June. Being off the beaten path, visitors are offered pampering massages; a homemade or locally produced jam/jelly/sauce each night of the stay; interactions with nature and local customs through a series of hikes; bird-watching; exploration of nearby pristine falls and/or rafting on the Rio Grande, one of Jamaica’s largest rivers, sans the bananas the rafts formerly transported.
|A focal element of the Mockingbird Hill experience is the New Jamaica cuisine, the novel utilization of local ingredients to create artisanal meals, in an atmosphere of “we’re home in our own kitchen” sipping on a Red Stripe beer or a Ting, in the green glass, not plastic, bottle, as guests cook and chat with each other, kitchen staff, and owners. The secrets of jerk sauce revealed! Fresh snapper marinated in jerk sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled! Who would have thought that whole pimiento seeds could be placed in a pepper mill and ground just like whole peppercorns? Who knew that one could make run dung, delicious run dung without any mackerel or red herring?
Vegetarians are ecstatic! Who knew that the secret to a healthy festival is to eliminate the sugar commonly used by others and substitute ground pimiento instead? And, bread pudding with pineapple and white rum? Only a dash, right? Yum!
All satiated, the drive back down the hill offers no views of the sea, just the twinkling of stars in the darkened sky, no street lights, just the light of the silvery moon, a full moon. It’s a short drive to the place of rest, Goblin Hill, a complex of 28 one- and two-bedroom villas. Morning views show San San Beach within walking distance, aquamarine waters beckoning snorkelers, Princess Nina’s island - received as a wedding gift from her husband, hammocks, and lookout points with peeks into the bottomless Blue Lagoon, site of the Brooke Shields’ film of the same name. A personal chef for each villa, individualized menu planning daily, shopping for the ingredients together, meals enjoyed on patios opening onto wide expanses of lawns. A perfect setting for a breakfast integrating the universal omelet with the local ackee (did you know it came to the region from West Africa sometime around 1778 and is eaten almost exclusively by Jamaicans?), fried dumplings, the ever present fried plaintains, and . . . cheesecakes and pastries gifted by the pastry chef at the Wyndham Kingston and securely guarded until this moment!
Departures are from Montego Bay, so the 5 hour drive along the famously known beaches of the north coast, is made. Annotto Bay, Port Maria, Oracabessa, major towns in the parish of St. Mary known for having the fiercest freedom fighters during the enslavement period, where food markets range from open-sided buildings to the beds of pick-up trucks; St. Ann’s home to Ocho Rios, Runaway Bay, Discovery Bay where excavations are uncovering artifacts from Christopher Columbus’ two year stint at nearby Rio Bueno; Falmouth, Trelawny awakening from slumber to debut as port of call for Royal Caribbean’s megaships Oasis and Allure; and Montego Bay, St. James, really, . . . Jamaica for many visitors. The roads are in good condition, a new highway built to welcome enthusiasts to the Cricket World Cup in 2007, bordered by exclusively luxurious hotels and golf courses. Partnerships between these establishments and the less affluent communities they abut extend beyond employment, including the building of schools and support for early childhood education. Another street food day – ice-cold coconut water; lunch of patties sandwiched in light, buttery coco bread; sampling large sweet tangerines not picture-perfect orange colored as seen in the supermarkets; stopping in local markets seeing that most people are purchasing fresh, non-processed, high-fiber, complex carbohydrate foods and lots of fresh fruits. Beverages, like the sorrel are home brewed avoiding much of the preservatives and additives found in bottled purchased drinks. Do those purchases balance snacks of coconut drops (main ingredients: sugar and diced coconut), pucker powered tamarind balls (main ingredients: tamarind pulp and sugar), and the jaw-breaking bustas (main ingredients: shredded coconut and molasses)?
Humor, never far from the surface, erupts: a local entrepreneur spoofs one of the world’s major retailers and, preconceived ideas about the delivery of room service are shattered. So, tired but energized, arrival at Secrets, St. James, Jamaica’s newest all-inclusive hotel 15 minutes from the airport, 9 restaurants, is gleeful. Culinary expeditions are so much more than the food. Food items, ingredients, and preparation processes are so deeply steeped in, so deeply influencing of, culture. Yes, as they say “Once you go, you’ll know!” GO!