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.

24 thoughts on “Small Island, Big Flavors

  1. Melissa, that sounds like a delicious week! Particularly the creamy ackee…and the fish dishes, and the kick of chiles… Sounds like there are a lot of good bold flavors. (By the way, I’ve been lurking on your site for a couple months now…I love your posts. This is my new favorite website.) Can’t wait to hear about week two in Jamaica!

  2. What a wonderful taste of Jamaica you’ve given us. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, partly because I’m mad about Reggae music, especially Jimmy Cliff! Can’t wait to see the next part.

  3. You said: "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!" ….which definitely is one of the hallmarks of the wonderful chile addiction. I’ve got it bad here in New Mexico – finding stuff hot enough to even register on my tongue is difficult, and ordering "non-whitey THAI hot" at Thai restaurants doesn’t even always work.*sigh* Guess I’ll have to visit Jamaica. πŸ™‚

  4. I once read somewhere that people are most susceptible to new ideas and and experiences when they are traveling because they are forced out of their comfort zones. Your trip to Jamaica sounds like one you fully embraced and enjoyed thoroughly. I too had planned on going to Jamaica this summer only to be thwarted because of conflicting schedules. However, reading your blog is almost as good as being there myself. Now only if I can taste some of that french toast at Marblue…

  5. Mmmm…I want Jamaican breakfast. Thanks for the great photos. I love Red Stripe. Isn’t it great to drink the beer of a particular country in that country? It always tastes just perfect to me.Julie

  6. Wow- I really want to go to Jamaica now!!! Thanks for the brilliant post, it made my stomach grumble and my feet itchy πŸ˜›

  7. What a wonderful post, Melissa – everything looks so beautiful and makes me want to visit the island one day… (have you been to Cuba by the way?)Can’t wait to read the next post (and the article in F&T) πŸ™‚

  8. I love your post! Your holidays must have been wonderful and your experimenting with local foods as well!!! It really makes me want to discover that place myself…

  9. Melissa,What a journey! I was so glad to read that you chose to explore the side of Jamaica that we never hear about. We’re so familiar with the more publicized, "touristy" areas. It’s lovely to read about Treasure Beach.Your description of the food is incredible. I don’t blame you for wanting to skip an evening meal in order to fully enjoy breakfast! And the photos are gorgeous. I can feel the warmth all the way here in Toronto!

  10. I am working on my envy problem, but I must say I am glad to see that this terrific treat has gone to someone who knows how to fully appreciate and enjoy it.I’m getting my vicarious kicks from your posts.The photos are really excellent and seriously enticing. I’m looking forward to more of everything.

  11. Melissa – what a wonderful travelogue! I find my taste buds curling up in imaginary pain as I’m reading about the chili peppers. Glad you’re having a wonderful time!

  12. Travel and dinning, what a combo. As always, your writing is as beautiful as your photos. You are so in the perfect spot.

  13. Negril… nude beaches and lots of ganja? ooh…Take me there!!! Now!!!seriosuly though… the food sounds good, and I do like spicy food. however being that jalapeno slices in adobo (there’s a canned variety that’s sliced jalapenos and carrots in that sauce… mmmm….) are enough to make me sweat I’m not sure I’d survive a head-on collision with a scotch-bonnet.The writing is wonderful, and I hope you get sent on more trips like those just for the pleasure of reading and seeing all your impressions of those places.Marblue seems like a place for a honeymoon…*sigh* maybe one day…Ever considered Mali and Senegal? those are wonderful places for music and culture, and I was wondering about the food…

  14. Hi Melissa, i’ve already read your post a long time ago but my daily work on a farm (80 goats are like 80 3-year old asking questions and running everywhere) restrained me from letting you a comment.__________________________After reading that post i can say that you and Manuel from the perfect couple – the talented writer and the great photographer.Indeed the pictures are so beautiful they make me fell like i was i Jamaica and you’re writting is lovely.xoxoFanny

  15. hi melissa, you & manuel are an impossibly talented couple – your fabulously evocative writing paired with his fabulously evocative pictures…just amazing! this post makes me feel like i’m right there swigging a red stripe and sousing ackee with hot sauce (ps: i too would have brought my own secret stash had i been in your shoes!)

  16. welcome back! glad you had fun & nice to read about your fabulous adventures…once you got there, that is!

  17. What a great trip. You’re making the rest of us jealous! I love, love, love Manuel’s photos. You two are a killer combination that should be selling travel stories to all the world’s best publications.

  18. Wow. Wow. Wow. Gorgeous photos and fabulous stories as always. Thank you so much for putting such time and effort into both.

  19. Thank you everyone, for such incredible compliments. We’re both thrilled to bits that you’re enjoying the results of our first ‘joint assignment’ so much! Kalyn – Would you believe we didn’t hear Jimmy Cliff played anywhere? Bob Marley, on the other hand, was coming out our ears…Miss Tenacity – I feel your (lack of?) pain… Jamaica sounds like it would be right up your culinary alley. If that’s not an option, maybe a stash of scotch bonnet sauce in YOUR bag would do the trick! ;)Anne – I’m sorry to hear that a trip fell through for you. I’m glad to be able to give you a little vicarious taste, but I hope you’ll have the chance to experience the real thing someday!Julie – I’m definitely a convert to the ‘experience the world through beer’ travel philosophy! (influenced in no small part, I’m sure, by being married to a German…)Keiko – We’d love to go to Cuba, but we’ve never been. One day in Jamaica I actually imagined I could see it, standing on a north-facing beach and squinting my eyes… It was probably just a heat-fuelled delusion, though!Malka – Somehow I knew Negril would be your kind of place… πŸ˜‰ As for Mali and Senegal, I am familiar with some of the music, but unfortunately not the food. Are you? So many places, so little time!

  20. wow, that’s definitely one great holiday in jamaica! i’ve never considered it for as a destination to visit, so perhaps it’s time i change my mind… πŸ™‚

  21. Tanna and I spent some time in the BVI’s and your post reminded me of those great times! Keep on enoying life!

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