Travel

October 17, 2016

Eat Your Way Round Jamaica

Roadside, riverside and mountain high: the best food and drink on the island

  • Written by Stuart Brumfitt

“You want chaos? Give a Jamaican unseasoned food!” says Cherée, my guide on a week-long trip around Jamaica’s best food spots. Most non-Jamaicans who claim to love the country’s cooking rarely know much more than jerk chicken, rice and peas, and whilst that’s delicious (an essential Sunday at-home meal in Jamaica and best enjoyed at Boston in Port Antonio and the various Scotchies restaurants across the country), a trip here shocks you with the breadth of fruits, vegetables, spices and styles you can get on the island.

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Not unlike the Italians, the Jamaicans are instinctively aware of seasonality, home-grown produce and an unfussy approach to all things organic. Mercifully, they’ve avoided mass-marketed food, for the most part. Rastafarianism has bred a widespread “ital” vegan and vegetarian culture and since the land is so fertile, many people have gardens bursting with produce and give each other peppers, avocado pears or whatever’s good and ripe.

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Most Jamaicans seem to know how to season and stew and what foodstuffs are good for which health issues (tellingly, many, like Irish moss, are natural Viagras and there’s a different leaf for every beneficial bush tea you can imagine). Here’s how and where to eat on the island, from Montego Bay to Kingston and Negril to Port Antonio.

Head to the hills
Many people just think of the beaches and blue waters of the coast, but Jamaica’s true magic lies in its hills and mountains, where it gets cooler and mistier the higher you climb. Head to a plantation or farm like Sun Valley (near Ocho Rios and the Goldeneye Hotel, owned by Island Records local, Chris Blackwell) where you can see the source of all your delicious dishes. Learn about wild Caribbean cherries, sleep-inducing cinnamon leaf teas and how eating brown sugar crystals can put out a mouth-fire if you eat too much spice.

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You might need a driver (I recommend the wonderful Jermain from Paradise Travels), or some serious sat nav to find the 100% off-the-grid Zimbali Retreat, but if you do, it’s worth bouncing up the bumpy country roads near Negril to find their tranquil little spot. There are 2000 banana trees, fields of sugar cane (if you’re lucky, Clifford will chop one with his machete and you can suck on it) and wild ginger, hot peppers and plantain in abundance.

Local-born owner Alecia uses what she learnt from her Rastafarian father to make fresh juices, oil from coconuts and dishes including grated coconut and banana sushi, chicken cooked on a cedar wood block (with a vanilla and tomato sauce) and green plantain hash browns.

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In the Blue Mountains near Kingston, take the road up to The Old Tavern Coffee Estate, where David Twyman greets you at 4,000ft with a cup of the black stuff (take it without milk or sugar), some “bun and cheese” (a fruit bread with cheese on top) and home-baked banana bread before telling you all about how the coffee is grown, processed and packed by the same family-run business.

On the way up or back down, stop at Café Blue, Eit or the Strawberry Hill Hotel for snacks, booze, teas and chill.

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Stush in the Bush, near Ocho Rios is another joyous farm-to-table joint. Rasta Chris will pick you up from the nearest paved road to take you down the track in his 4×4 to his home, where you’ll meet his partner, chef Lisa, their hilarious daughters and trio of dogs. Drink lemongrass tea and rum, then a bottle of red with some plaintain chips and homemade guacamole, chimichurri and their own “blow fyah” Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce.

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Next up at Stush is a refresher with their green leaf salad and beetroot carpaccio, before you have pizzas that would take on anything in Napoli and finish with a bread cake that you can smother in banana preserves or organic chocolate spreads. It’s almost worth arriving with a sprained ankle (like a friend), so you can get Chris to whip out his potion of crushed centipedes and marijuana and massage it into the injury (it healed within hours).

Roadside
Unlike the depressing service stations in the UK and the US, Jamaica’s roadside food is bang-on. At one bizarre pirate-themed stop, they were serving up stout and butter almond ice creams and a young chef was tearing a whole steamed pig apart, getting ready to make some jerk pork. Hire a car if you can, because it means you can cruise around and pull up when you see the smoke from a grill or like the look of a bar (I will forever regret not stopping for a drink at the “Chantilly Rosé Bar” in a little curbside shack).

The Ultimate Jerk Centre on the road from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios does festival dumplings that you dip in chicken gravy, which is really a perfectly spiced chicken soup or stew that’s been made with true bones stock. The most authentic Jamaican food can be found in little places like this.

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If you’re gonna do a chain drive-thru, make sure you pick up something from Juicy Patties and wash it down with some sweet Soursop juice. Island Delight by Halfway Tree Transport Centre in Kingston is Cherée’s choice for some takeaway rice and peas and jerk chicken. And though it’s not strictly roadside, it does take a big long drive from Kingston centre to get to Jermain’s favourite spot, Gloria’s, a mega popular restaurant in Port Royal where you should try the steamed red snapper and bammy (a cassava flatbread). She’s had to open a second branch to cope with the demand.

Riverside
Head to Berrydale in Port Antonio not only to enjoy rafting down the Rio Grande, but also for a crayfish stew cooked by Belinda on the riverbank. She treks for kilometres to come cook lunches on hot stones and casually makes the best dish in the whole of Jamaica. A regular national test of good food here is how much a dish can resemble home-cooking and this is essentially home-cooking from a mum who happens to be the best chef in the world.

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Fancy
The Pegasus hotel in Kingston has hosted Barack Obama, David Cameron and, while we were there, the English women’s cricket team. It’s mostly a commercial hotel, but people (including Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness) come here for the breakfast, lunch and dinner from head chef Mark Cole.

A famous brunch spot in the capital is the fancy Terra Nova, where Insta It kids and old skool society heads gather on a Sunday. For an afternoon sweet treat, head to Devon House (the home of the first black millionaire in Jamaica) and try their I-Scream ice cream, which has been voted Best in Jamaica and 4th Best in the World by National Geographic.

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Another chef making a name for himself is Christopher Golding at the Sugar Mill restaurant at the chic Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay. His epic taster menu makes a spiced-up chocho fruit coleslaw with saltfish and is the perfect example of cooks in the country staying true to Jamaican flavours, but also taking them to new places.

Likewise, Barbara at the incredible, eco Mockingbird Hill Hotel is still working with jerk flavours, but using different methods to cook the meat, since she thinks much jerk chicken and pork is singed within an inch of its life. If you stay over, the morning breakfast of fresh fruits, baked breads and muffins, home-made jams and killer coffee go down a treat as you look over gardens and miles of coastline.

Celebrity spots
Wisely, Jamaicans aren’t too fussed about celebrity, so there’s a high chance that if you head to sprinter Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records or bad boy cricketer Chris Gayle’s Triple Century bar-restaurants, that you’ll see some of the island’s biggest sporting heroes just hanging out. Hellshire Beach is the Sunday hangout, and Vybz Kartel’s favourite spot there is Prendy’s, where you can pick your fish for grilling.

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The Redbones Blues Café in Kingston has a whole wall of visiting celebs, including Lennox Lewis, Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell, but ultimately, it’s more bothered about making the best dishes it can, including calaloo strudel with feta, smoked marlin and papaya salad, shrimp coconut curry and sweet potato pudding.

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