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 of 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 chatting 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 wild 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. We 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 my 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 spicy 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 found 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 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 couple 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!