Small Island, Big Flavors

Most visitors to Jamaica travel to one of three places: Negril, Ocho Rios, or Montego Bay. Those seeking a 24-hour party with nude beaches and unlimited ganja happily head west to hedonistic Negril, while the older, more affluent crowd bases themselves in staid Ocho Rios; those looking for all-inclusive deals combined with a little bit of everything else prefer Montego Bay, where beautiful beaches and historical sights compete with crowds, scam-artists and touts for tourists’ attention. At least this is what we’d read on the internet, and we told the tourist board straight off the bat we weren’t interested in any of them. "How about something a little off the beaten track?" we asked, and by way of example suggested Port Antonio, the old colonial town on the northeast coast famous for its lush scenery, low-key tourism, and – most importantly – its fame for being the birthplace of jerk barbecue. After a long silence they got back to us with an apology: it so happened that Port Antonio’s tourist infrastructure hadn’t quite recovered from last year’s major hurricane, but what they could offer us was a place called Treasure Beach.

Fishing boats on Frenchman’s Cove, Treasure Beach 

Treasure Beach, situated on Jamaica’s underpopulated southwest coast, seems about as far as you can get from the rest of the island in every respect. Its landscape is flat and arid; cacti are as common as coconut palms, and the beaches are black and rough. To reach it from just about anywhere you have to navigate a long, torturous drive along potholed secondary roads that are barely wide enough for one car, let alone two passing. Treasure Beach itself isn’t even a town in the proper sense of the word; it’s a scattered settlement spread across five small coves, each one bearing its own name and unique collection of colorful fishing boats. There are a couple of cramped shops and a handful of local open-air restaurants and rum shacks dotting the beaches; the few hotels are mostly low-budget guesthouses that cater to the no-frills travelers intrepid enough to make the trip down here. Barely anyone makes a living from tourism here; still the inhabitants are friendly and curious, raising a hand in greeting from passing cars and doorways, and always finding plenty of time to engage in a leisurely chat, whether they’re giving you directions to the nearest safe swimming area, selling you groceries or just finding out how you’re enjoying life in rural Jamaica. We were in heaven.

(left) The garlic lobster at Little Ochie’s; (right) Enough scotch bonnet peppers
to incapacitate a small army 

It didn’t take us long to realize our luck in the food department either. Barely twelve hours after touching down on the island, we were met a second time by our driver Everton to engage in our only ‘official activity’ on the first week’s itinerary – a lunch at the south coast’s most famous eatery, Little Ochie. About an hour’s drive from Treasure Beach, this is the kind of place that Jamaicans plan a whole day around, driving the three hours from Kingston and Montego Bay to feast on freshly-caught lobster, shrimp and fish pulled from the sea that practically laps Little Ochie’s front steps. The restaurant itself is composed of a large concrete building where the ordering and cooking happens, and a collection of thatched-roof pavilions dotting the black-sand beach where patrons devour their seafood to the sound of the surf. We were given a whirlwind tour of their blazing-hot kitchens and grills where a massive team of cooks slice, chop, fry and grill from morning til midnight, and where we got to see our own lunch selections, two fat spiny lobsters, be transformed into Little Ochie’s most popular dish: the deceptively-named ‘garlic lobster’ (I would personally call it ‘scotch bonnet lobster’ as a warning to the unaware). Taming the delicious fire, we tried steamed bammy (a chewy cassava pancake) and festival (sweet corn fritters), and washed it down with lots and lots of Red Stripe. After eating, we had a chat with the owner, the man everyone affectionately calls ‘Blackie’. Blackie impressed me by telling me that at the age of eighteen, with no restaurant experience at all, he opened Little Ochie as a grill shack here on the beach; seventeen years later the ‘shack’ is serving up to 3000 people a week, and there is no one in Jamaica, it seems, who hasn’t eaten here. We asked Blackie if it wasn’t a shame that so few tourists make it out to his restaurant, to which he replied, "oh, they do – if they really want to."

(left) A scoop of Devon House I Scream; (right) The best way to pass a lazy afternoon 

One of the places we stayed in Treasure Beach represented another major reason to plan a gastronomic tour to the south coast. Marblue Domicil is a small boutique hotel, open at full capacity for only two years but already reeling in awards and recognition in local and international press. Not only have they been featured in several international travel magazines, but they’ve just won an award from the main Jamaican daily newspaper for being the island’s ‘best kept secret’, and more importantly, the hotel’s chef Axel (who is also the architect and owner along with his wife Andrea) won the award from the same newspaper for the ‘most innovative dish’ of any restaurant in the country. The winning dish? Fillet of snapper on deboned merlot-braised oxtails with iced goat-cheese praline. Wow! Unfortunately it wasn’t on the menu while we were there, nor was the equally famous poached lobster on ‘vanilla snow’, but we did drool over coconut-pumpkin soup, pasta with tropical cashew pesto, smoked blue marlin salad, crab-pepper bisque and guava-mascarpone ice cream. Marblue’s breakfasts were also the stuff of dreams, with some of the best french toast I’ve ever had (drenched with a homemade syrup containing honey, vanilla, and spices). We had a marvelous time at Marblue; it was low season and we were practically the only guests around, and with nothing more to do than take a few photos, stare awestruck at the sea crashing meters from our balcony and admire Axel’s culinary acrobatics in the kitchen every night, this combination of luxury and gastronomy seemed like it would be hard to beat anywhere else on the island.

(left) A typical Jamaican breakfast consisting of (clockwise from top) sliced breadfruit,
bammy (cassava pancake), fried plantains, ackee and saltfish, steamed callaloo
and sweet potato (middle); (right) The famous french toast at Marblue

Without a doubt the greatest culinary revelation to be had in Treasure Beach, however, was just eating local. We quickly learned that although tourist-oriented restaurants varied greatly in quality, in places that catered to Jamaicans the food was sensational. The flavors were big and rich and hearty; I was reminded of New Orleans’ great Creole cooking and the deep, robust flavors of southern soul food. Although I’m normally quite a light breakf
aster, traditional Jamaican breakfasts were so good that I found myself eating sparingly at night sometimes just so I’d be hungry in the morning. Ackee and saltfish, one of the icons of Jamaican cuisine, is indeed served just about everywhere, and I don’t know who could ever turn it down. It is indescribably good, with the tender, savory curds of ackee resembling perfectly-scrambled eggs but much lighter and creamier, absorbing and balancing the intense flavors of the salty fish flakes, the sauteed onions, the tomatoes and peppers. It is, of course, accompanied by plenty of hot sauce, which is de rigueur on every breakfast table. Also ready to mop up that hot sauce are steamed callaloo (a hearty chard-like green also spiced up with plenty of aromatics), fried plantains, and a myriad of starchy options: johnnycakes (deep fried dumplings), sweet potato, boiled green banana (not unlike unripe plantains), bammies and/or roasted breadfruit (which I have always wanted to try ever since seeing Mutiny on the Bounty with Mel Gibson, though the bland taste and mealy texture did not convince me it had been worth the wait).

(left) The menu at Jack Sprat’s, a beachside cafe in Treasure Beach; (right) "Fabulous",
a local reggae musician 

For dinner (lunch usually having been sacrificed in order to enjoy a proper island breakfast) a few dollars at any one of the humble local eateries got us a huge plate of succulent goat curry (really much better than it sounds!), brown stew fish or chicken (stewed in a curious sauce containing soy sauce and ketchup, and surprisingly very tasty), or escoveitched fish (fried and left to marinate with spiced vinegar, onions and peppers). If we were extremely hungry, there was soup as well, which Jamaicans adore: thick, rich pumpkin; mannish water made with goat heads (!); or fish tea, a clear broth with chunks of sweet fish, peppers and potatoes. A side of salad and a big plate of rice and peas (aka rice cooked with kidney beans and coconut milk) rounded out just about every meal, and a sky juice (shaved ice with fruit syrup) or a scoop of Devon House "I Scream" was never far away for dessert.

Jamaican refreshments of choice: the ubiquitous Red Stripe or the adorably-named
sky juice

It’s not for nothing, though, that scotch bonnet peppers are the other icon of Jamaican cuisine – food here is spicy. Of course it’s not the Jamaicans’ fault that scotch bonnets are among the hottest chilies in the world, scoring as they do a tongue-scorching 325,000 on the Scoville heat scale (by comparison, a jalapeño scores only 5-8,000). I didn’t imagine we’d have a problem, being seasoned chile-heads ourselves, but even we were surprised by the fire in our food. Luckily, though, even the ability to enjoy scotch bonnets seems to be just a matter of practice, and each day that went by I found myself minding the pain a little bit less and enjoying the release of the mood-enhancing endorphins a little bit more. By the time we left I believe I was on the road to full-fledged chile addiction; for example, after eating breakfast at one restaurant that had no scotch bonnet sauce to drizzle on my ackee, I was so distraught that I bought myself an emergency bottle to carry around in my bag just in case I should be so unfortunate again! And on another occasion, we shared a meal with our driver in which we played the culinary version of a game of ‘chicken’, downing cups of a sauce so hot it could have singed the fur off a small animal. Needless to say, I won by a long shot. But I’m getting ahead of myself – that’s for the next post.

(left) The local flora; (right) The pool at Marblue Domicil 

Treasure Beach in many ways embodies the very best Jamaica has to offer: the slow pace of life, the friendliness of the locals and the abundant and delicious food. We hadn’t even been there a few days when we started declaring our love for it to whoever would listen; we would have been happy remaining there for the full two weeks if the Tourist Board hadn’t had other plans for us. Yet they thought it was important that we see another side of Jamaica too, an urban, modern and more tourist-oriented side. And there were, after all, only so many dining options to be had in such a small place. So after seven blissful nights with nothing but the sound of the southern waves lulling us to sleep, we packed up and were taken back to Montego Bay, where we saw and tasted a whole different side of Jamaica.

Eating local in Treasure Beach

Coming up next: Montego Bay, our favorite foods of the trip and recipes!

Little Ochie
Alligator Pond

Calabash Bay P.A.
Treasure Beach
St. Elizabeth

  All photos in this post copyright ©2006 Manuel Meyer.

Jamaica No Problem


"Let’s walk! We’ll get there faster on foot!" A cackle erupted from the wrinkled face of a woman peering down at us through thick glasses. Manuel and I nodded in agreement and exchanged bemused glances as the sharp-tongued Jamaican grandmother ambled off to join the crowds clustered around the information desk. We were sprawled out on an empty patch of carpet at a departure gate at Heathrow Airport, the very gate that was supposed to have been the embarkation point for Air Jamaica Flight JM002, 19 hours earlier. Around us families had staked out little patches of floor for themselves, napping, snacking and stopping airline employees to harass them for updates. Children careened around this human obstacle course, diving under chairs and tumbling into strangers’ laps. Young Jamaican women in tight skirts and impossibly high heels (how do you survive a long flight in those?) strutted up and down the rows of people, deliberately catching the eye of every man under 80, while plump grandmothers clucked and shook their heads disapprovingly. This was human theater at its finest, the spectacle suspending itself at periodic intervals so that the tinny voice of the departure gate agent could be heard expressing regret at the latest extension to the flight delay. From the looks of it, we weren’t going anywhere soon, but at least we weren’t starved for entertainment.

We had arrived at Heathrow the previous afternoon in plenty of time to make our connection to Montego Bay.  A one-hour flight from Edinburgh and the ten hour flight to Jamaica had been supposed to deposit us at our destination by early evening. We would have a driver meetings us there to take us down to the South coast, where hopefully a shower, a late dinner and a relaxing night in a room directly on the beach were waiting. But on our arrival at Heathrow we had been informed that due to mechanical faults, one of the two Air Jamaica planes used to fly to London was out of service, and our flight had been postponed until the next morning. We were handed a hotel voucher, free dinner and breakfast slips for the hotel restaurant, and the news that we would be picked up at 6am sharp for a 7am departure. We were dismayed, but not crushed – by our calculations we would be arriving early the next afternoon and still have the better part of a Caribbean day to soothe our delay-frazzled nerves. I just hoped our driver would stick around.

After dumping our bags at the airport hotel, we assessed the situation. We were in London for a night, we weren’t paying for it, and there were dozens of restaurants a short tube ride away that I was dying to try. "We’re not going to eat dinner in the hotel, are we?" Manuel asked, eyeing the vouchers warily. I laughed and shook my head. "Okay, but do you have any specific place in mind?" Surprised by my own decisiveness, I replied: "Moro".

Moro is a restaurant I knew mainly from its two cookbooks. Unlike many restaurant books I own which are geared more for the coffee table than the kitchen, both Moro cookbooks appear in my (albeit imagined) dinner plans often not only because they offer interpretations of the cuisines I love best – Spanish, North African and Middle Eastern – but also because the dishes they contain are simultaneously imaginative and unpretentious.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve managed only one recipe from the books (though I’ve admired othersefforts) but I knew that this was food I had to try at the source if ever given the chance. Still, I was well aware of the risk involved – I’ve learned to be wary of celebrity restaurants as fame has been known to dilute the very characteristics that made the restaurant great (not to mention inflate the prices), so it was with some trepidation that I called and wrangled us a table for that night.

As it turned out, my fears were completely ungrounded: the meal we had there qualified as one of the best I have ever eaten (not to mention offering astonishingly good value for money). The restaurant itself was warm and intimate but also relaxed enough to instantly dispel our concerns that we were a little underdressed (long-haul flight attire proving to not exactly translate into the best option for elegant dining). But most importantly, the food was exquisite. From my sauteed calves liver with cumin sauce, crispy lavash shards and cold yogurt to Manuel’s meltingly tender pork belly with tangy green mojo verde, to the waitress-recommended Malaga raisin and sherry ice cream that had these self-confessed raisin-phobes fighting to lick the bowl, everything was a perfectly executed harmony of texture, temperature and flavor. There was also delicious fresh sheep’s milk ricotta with baby fava beans and anchovies, wood-grilled Moroccan chicken with pine nuts, braised zucchini and caramelized-onion pilaf, and a silky and sour pistachio-yogurt-pomegranate cake. And there was bread, rough-hewn chunks of it, without a doubt among the finest specimens I have ever encountered: dense, brown, chewy, slightly sour and kissed with a breath of smoke from their wood-fired oven, it was bread that would have brought me to my knees had I been standing. We ate three baskets of it before our first courses even arrived, soaking it like a sponge in a dish of peppery Spanish olive oil. By the time we left, we were so full and happy that all we could murmur on our ride back to the hotel was how happy we were to trade a night in Jamaica for this.

At 7am the next morning, however, when no plane was at the gate, our optimism was starting to fade. And five hours later, it had all but disappeared. First there was the very late arrival of the inbound aircraft (a charter plane flown in from Atlanta on short notice), and then there was the problem of catering – I’m not sure what exactly the problem was, but it took several hours to resolve. We were hungry, tired and restless; we finished our light airport reading and had moved onto the heavy in-flight stuff. But much to our own surprise, we found we just couldn’t get too despondent – we were, after all, surrounded by Jamaicans. Laughing and joking and facing this inconvenience with indefatigable optimism, they seduced us into sharing their simple outlook: if you can’t change things, why get upset?  And somehow we found ourselves not minding quite so much, even when our plane took off 23 hours later than originally scheduled, or even when they deposited us in Kingston instead of Montego Bay, or even when they made us all wait another five hours for the twenty-minute flight across the island.

But when we finally stumbled out into the humid night air at Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a hand-lettered sign bearing my name. It was our Tourist Board-appointed driver, a smiling and gracious young man who introduced himself as Everton, packed us safely into his air-conditioned van, and whisked us away for the final leg of our journey.

Just before nodding off in the backseat I learned that the airline had given him nothing but misinformation for
the better part of two days. Despite the fact that he had been dutifully waiting for us all that time, however, he wouldn’t let me even begin to apologize. Instead he shrugged, flashed us a wide smile and said, "Hey, no problem. I knew you would get here eventually."

It was a good omen – after all, the last thing we needed was more problems.

To be continued…



Next Stop: Jamaica



This picture is my not-so-subtle attempt to let you know what the next two weeks will consist of chez the Traveler’s Lunchbox. Those of you who have been reading since last December might recall some particularly good news I received shortly before Christmas that involved a magazine, a competition, and a sun-drenched Caribbean island. After six long months of arrangements and negotiations, the time has finally come to jet off to Jamaica! As guilty as I feel about abandoning you yet again, I hope you’ll forgive me since, after all, this time it’s all about the food!

We’ll be spending two weeks experiencing the different faces of Jamaica – the first week soaking in the slow life of the rural south coast (Treasure Beach, to be exact), and the second in Montego Bay, the main tourist enclave. Along the way we’ll see some rum-making in action, attend cooking classes, visit markets and eat in a lot of restaurants. Oh, and of course we’ll try our hand at lounging on as many beaches as we can find in an attempt to make up for years of accumulated sun deficit from living in Scotland. In fact, by the time this is published, we’ll probably be doing exactly that.

See you soon!