Going Locavore in Jamaica

Jamaica Inn 2 Mary Jo here to talk about my winter vacation! 

Jamaica has a rich and varied history, not to mention an abundance of warmth and sunshine which makes it a pleasing winter destination for pale, shivering Northerners.  The island is also large enough to have a well developed culture–and cuisine.  

Which brings me to the weekly farmers' market in Ocho Rios.  A couple of years ago, we stayed at the Jamaica Inn, a laidback boutique hotel with a lovely little beach, and a history of hosting famous people like Winston  Churchill, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe on their honeymoon, among others.  On the previous visit, I ate up the history.  

On this return visit, I went right to the food.  <G>  Once a week, the executive chef Farmers Market viewof the Jamaica Inn, Chef Maurice, takes a group of inn guests to the nearby Ocho Rios farmers' market to show the quality and variety of local produce.  With tasting, and a cooking demonstration back at the inn.  <G>  

Having grown up on a farm, I love all farmers' markets for the freshness of the offerings and the direct connection between producers and consumers.  Since Jamaica is a lush tropical paradise, there are many kinds of produce, some native as well as many crops that were imported and found the island good.  The market itself looked just as it ought: a number of trucks and simple booths displaying produce and vendors Farmers Market 1chatting in a friendly way.  

Some items were familiar: carrots and onions and tomatoes.  Things I've read about but seldom seen, like breadfruit.  Lots of citrus, including small, intensely flavorful limes that once grew Veggieswild all over Jamaica and are an essential element of their cuisine, from fish to salads to drinks.  They were so common they were taken for granted until suddenly there weren't enough and now they must be cultivated.  

Lots of members of the banana family: regular bananas like we see in the US, the larger plantains that are cooked in a variety of ways (including plantain chips), and delicious little apple bananas, ripe and sweet.  Apple bananasWe all got to eat one of those last.  Yum! <G>  

There were also fruits I'd never seen before, some of which grow wild in Jamaica and may never been cultivated.  The custard apple is related to the pawpaw, we were told, and the soft white interior was tasty and looked like vanilla yogurt,  My favorite was a plum sized oval that looked rather like a small kiwi fruit.  It had a sweet, juicy interior with a flavor that reminded me of cloves.  I'd buy them if they were in Coconutmy store!  We tasted a variety of things, and concluded with a drink of coconut water right from the source.  

Chef Maurice also showed us Scotch Bonnet peppers, which are famously the hottest food in the world.  To quote Wikipedia, "Most Scotch bonnets have a heat rating of 100,000–350,000 Scoville units.  For comparison, most jalapeño peppers have a heat rating of 2,500 to 8,000 on the Scoville scale."  !!!! 

However, the chef explained that there are also sweet varieties and some that are only somewhat hot.  He asked if anyone wanted a taste and got no takers. (Though the Mayhem Consultant considered volunteering. <G>)

In researching, I found that some of the local products have multiple names.  A Scotchbonnetpepperspicy and wonderfully scented leaf that looked like a bay leaf was called pimenta, but I found later it was the fresh leaf of the all spice plant.  It's used in local cooking when fresh but doesn't dry well, so only the seeds have entered our spice shelves.

There was also sorrel, a blossom that can be steeped to makes a deep red drink.  Fortified with ginger, spices, and dark rum, it's a popular Christmas drink.  I'd have willingly sampled that! Later on the internet, I Sorrelfound that the blossoms are hibiscus and used in many countries in a range of beverages.  In the US, Celestial Seasonings uses hibiscus for its popular Red Zinger tea.

All in all, it was a delightful experience, but the best was yet to come.  Back at the inn, Chef Maurice gave us a cooking demonstration of ackee and saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica.  We'd seen ackee at the market.  It's the fruit of a tree native to West Africa which is now grown throughout the Caribbean.

Chef MauriceChef Maurice sautéed onions and peppers, including one of the milder Scotch Bonnet peppers to give a bit of bite.  He added the precooked ackee and sautéed some more, then lastly added soaked and chopped salt cod.

Sometimes used as ship ballast, salt cod became an important part of the diet in Jamaica and elsewhere.  The resulting ackee and saltfish looks surprisingly like scrambled eggs and made a delicious lunch with a Ackee and Salt Fishcouple of tasty side items.  

I think the moral is that it's fun to visit other places and taste local specialties.  This can be done without leaving the country, of course! 

Swan close upWhen you travel, do you try new things?  If so, which ones have you liked and which ones did you abandon after a single bite?  <G>

Mary Jo

Jamaica Dreams

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I've long believed that much of the impetus behind the British empire was a desire to own lots of warm, sunny real estate.  And very successful they were, too!  Jamaica was one of the earliest possessions, taken from the Spanish in 1655.  

The island is rich and fertile and beautiful, and it became the world's greatest producer of sugar for a very long time.  (With all the evils of the slave system that produced that sugar, but that's not the subject for the day.)  

For this year's winter sunshine break, the Mayhem Consultant and I wanted to go Pina Coladasomewhere easy: only one flight so we wouldn't experience the many colorful transportation problems that can happen.  (Once we emerged from Tortola to find that our airline carrier had declared bankruptcy and stopped flying.  Exciting times!)

On the advice of an excellent travel agent, we rather warily decided to try Jamaica.  Warily because long ago we spent a week in Jamaica, and no sooner did we start our first beach walk when a local poled up his boat and offered us drugs.  ("No, thank you," we said politely.)

The low point of that trip was when I took an over the counter drug for an upset stomach, and half an hour later passed out on the breakfast table.  The MC thought I'd died and the restaurant owner thought I must have drunk way too much the night before.  

Neither of these things were true.  I discovered that the fifth listed ingredient was laudanum, which is how I learned I was hypersensitive to even the faintest trace of opium.  So much for being a Regency lady quaffing bottles of laudanum!

Our VerandaBut the Jamaica Inn looked gorgeous and the agent assured us that all her clients loved the place, so we decided to give it a try. 

Indeed it was wonderful (that's our veranda on the left)–and very, very British.  What better place for a Regency historical writer to relax?  Because not only is Jamaica beautiful, warm, and sunny, but it's lavish with history.

Built in 1950 and presumably named after the Daphne DuMaurier novel, the Jamaica Inn quickly became an elite destination.  As in, Arthur Miller brought Marilyn Monroe to the Jamiaca Inn for their honeymoon. (!!!)

Even more, it became a hangout for other distinguished Britons.  Our room was right next to the White Winston ChurchillSuite, the best suite in the inn–and Winston Churchill had stayed there.  

WINSTON CHURCHILL!!!  I had some serious fangirl moments.  It was easy to imagine him lounging on the veranda, smoking a cigar and drinking, though I'm having trouble imaging him in shorts and a polo shirt.  And I'm pretty sure he didn't go for rum drinks with fruit on sticks.  <G>

Churchill, Noel Coward, and Ian Fleming all drank at the bar there, quite possibly at the same time. Churchill, an accomplished artist, taught Coward how to paint.  

Captain Morgan rumOn a visit to his pal Ian Fleming's estate Goldeneye (where Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel), Noel Coward fell in love with a ruined limestone building with a magnificent view.  It had once View from Firefly estatebelonged to Henry Morgan, the seventeenth century privateer, pirate, and later lieutenant-governor of Jamaica.  He used the property as a lookout, and you can see why.   

Morgan was to some extent the inspiration for Captain Blood, the Sabatini novel and movie that made Errol Flynn a star.  Forbes magazine rated Morgan as the 9th richest of historical pirates.  These days, a romanticized image of him is used to sell that fine Jamaican product, Captain Morgan Rum.  As I said, history is everywhere!  

Noel Coward statue at FireflyNoel Coward bought his piece of paradise for £150 and built the Firefly Estate as his winter vacation home. It's a surprisingly simple hilltop house with amazing views.  Despite the simplicity, he had A-list guests, from the Queen Mother to QEII herself and Sophia Loren.  In fact, he died at Firefly and is buried on a hill looking over the bay.  A wryly amused bronze statue of him sits on the lawn and contemplates the view he loved.

Luckily, it isn't necessary to be rich and famous to visit Jamaica, or the other islands of the Caribbean.  But I must say that I like visiting a place that has some history.  Do you enjoy that, too?  What unexpected pieces of history have you found while traveling?

Sea SwansMary Jo, showing the lovely towels swans the maids left on the railing of our veranda.  Do you blame us for heading south?  <G>