by Emma Henderson, The Independent, May 1, 2017
Renowned for its meat and fish cuisine, which is also rich in rice and vegetables, the majority of the Caribbean islands import little and grow their own in a conscious bid to be self-sufficient and support local businesses. Luckily, most of them only have one season, where everything from lettuce to papaya and pumpkin can be grown all year round; it’s environmentally friendly and most is organic too.
Whether you’re island hopping via a cruise ship, aircraft or yacht meeting the locals who are part of the burgeoning food scene, from road-side street vendors to beach-front restaurants, is the best way to experience local food at its best.
“Ere, Cavell, I’ma ere for ma food,” shouts Benjamin every day. This is where Arlene and her mother, Carvell have been serving up some of the best roadside food in Antigua for almost 20 years. And Benjamin is their most loyal customer, who has been with them since the beginning. They’ve built up their business to become one of the most popular on the island and are well-known by locals and tourists, despite the lack of sign.
“Oh boy, we’ve been here too long,” says Arlene. Their small roadside hole-in-the-wall eatery sits on Crabbe Hill, just a few metres from the coast. Cooking in a tiny kitchen, Cavell – who refers to their food as home-style country cooking – is one of just two working in the kitchen. She wakes at 3am every day and goes to the market in St John’s to get the best produce, plan the menu and start cooking.
Regular slots on the menu include curry goat, conch curry and creole chicken, with added daily specials: the local favourite is pepper pot and fungee (made from cornmeal ) and crispy conch fritters (both served on a Thursday). It’s hearty food made traditionally.
Cavells, open Tuesday – Saturday from noon. Opposite Jacky O’s, St Johns; 286 779 1801
Head north-west along the coast towards Dennis’s Cocktail Bar and Restaurant, which sits on the edge of one of the islands’ best beaches, Ffryes beach.
After learning to cook from his mother, who enticed her children to learn how to cook with 25 cent incentives, he moved on to cooking for the village before beginning his cooking career from just a tiny garage. Working solo, he was the waiter, the bar tender, the chef and the pot washer, where people even believed he had a twin. He then moved a few hundred feet down the hill to his current site, which was only a few square feet in size and the kitchen was so small two people couldn’t even turn around in it. But 11 years on, he has 10 staff members and a huge restaurant and terrace overlooking the beach as well as rooms where people can stay.
Despite the amount of staff, he still heads to the market at 7.30am to stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables and fish so he can start cooking dishes such as his signature goat curry or barbecue ribs. But what he’s really known for is his hot sauce. “For me, everything has to be spicy. When I’m cooking, I’ve got to try not to put it in everything,” he says. Dennis started making it about three years ago and it’s made with scotch bonnets (from the market), mustard, green papaya and vinegar. It’s so popular it’s even made it into local supermarkets. It’s smooth, mustardy and finishes with a punchy kick and will always be on the table at his restaurant.
Dennis Cocktail Bar & Restaurant, open daily 12-9pm except Monday; dennisantigua.com
After working in hotel management at the Four Seasons in Maui and Nevis, Roger set up the Spice Mill. Although they grow their own herbs and spices on site, here’s it all about the cocktails and fresh fish. He creates them solely based on what he thinks tastes good; they’re perfectly balanced and are served in the hut bar on the sand. His Nevis Peak cocktail – made with fresh banana, kahlua, coconut rum and baileys – is dangerously easy to drink, thanks to its smooth blend of banana and rum. He manages to leave the drinking to after work, but in true Caribbean style, they only stop drinking when the sun comes up.
He (rather modestly) describes himself as a self-trained cook, and together with partner Conny they have mastered the world of Caribbean fusion cooking with a mixture of Italian, Spanish, African, French and English cooking. He travels abroad for food events and inspiration, evidently claiming “the only thing I’ve ever stolen in my life is menus”.
Sitting on Cockleshell beach, with views over the nearby island of Nevis, the food is as fresh as can be as fishermen come right into the beach with their catch of fresh tuna and mahi-mahi fish (a white tropical fish). The tuna is marinated overnight in soy sauce, wasabi and grated ginger and only seared and served medium rare. Other popular and local dishes include stewed swordfish, spicy breadfruit and coconut dumplings. The menu changes pretty regularly according to what’s available locally and practically everything comes from the local farmers such as Moses, who has farms on the other side of town.
You’ll have to get a taxi over there, but it’s worth it – namely for the food and drinks – but also for the views. The roads tumble and fall giving soaring views of the coastline. Stop off at the layby – you won’t miss it – to see the small strip of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean on the left with the softer Caribbean Sea on the right.
The Spice Mill, Cockleshell Beach, St Kitts; spicemillrestaurant.com
Back near Basseterre, just a 10-minute walk from town, one of the newest places to eat on the island is the food court. It is home to 10 fast-food shipping containers, where Alex Duggins has his dedicated soup stall. It may seem an odd choice in a country where temperatures soar into the mid-30s and beyond but it surprisingly popular and eaten at weekends.
Some of Alex’s recipes have been passed down from his family. He was inspired to cook by Italian chefs and went on to study at a culinary school in New York. His lentil soup is known for its health benefits as it’s made with ginger and garlic and he also serves up a local drink of fermented tree bark form a native tree, called mauby. You can drink it neat, or mix it with sparkling water and tastes rather like a root beer – slightly sweet with an earthy, bitter taste. Other popular dishes include chicken soup, pork soup and his cook-up, which resembles a jambalaya, and is reserved for socialising Saturdays and makes the most of indigenous food.
Mexican, Indian, Jerk meat and kebabs make up just a few of the other options – which are each brightly coloured and sit around the edge of a large concrete square with picnic benches, where locals hang out. Set up by Ram’s trading general manager, Hamir Sabnani, who took inspiration from Trinidad and who ran a similar project, it’s become an institution for people to gather, eat and socialise.
The Food Court, next to Ram’s Cash and Carry, open daily 11am-11pm
“Although I don’t look the part, I am born and bred Bajan,” says chef Damien Lynch. He trained at Cordon Bleu in Canada and his modern Bajan food is incredible. He’s won basically every accolade there is to take in Barbados including Barbados Chef of the Year and Caribbean Chef of the Year and has since jointly opened Cocktail Kitchen in July, in the famed area called The Gap, on the south side of the island, known as a casual place to eat out.
But at school, he was the “nuisance” kid and a terror, until he fell in love with cooking at 13. And now there’s nothing else he’d rather do. He cooks pretty classic dishes, loves smoking different types of food such as plantain and salt fish and uses cuts that are slowly coming back, such as braised oxtail, which he serves with local goat’s cheese.
He calls it casual fine dining. It is high-end restaurant quality, but in a laid back setting and without the hefty price tag that comes with the west of the island. One of his favourite things to eat is pudding and souse, made of pickled pork, pickled cucumber, picked breadfruit and scotch bonnet. But his real passion is meat. “I like meat, I need meat – there is no meat I don’t like,” Damien explains. There’s a local variety – black belly lamb, which looks more like a goat, but he says it’s not as nice as the lamb from Wales or New Zealand.
On his menu, he loves the pork tenderloin roulade. It’s stuffed with plantain and bacon and is delectable. The whole dish looks like a work of art. But if you’re looking for something meat free, your only choice is the mushroom poppers, stuffed with cream cheese and gorgonzola, which are fried. He thinks vegetarianism is just a fad. “I’m not that happy about vegan and vegetarianism,” he says laughing. But his wife, who has her own bakery, runs Yummy Mummies, a healthy lunch delivery business where everything is vegan.
The Cocktail Kitchen, St. Lawrence Gap, Bridgetown;open daily from 5pm; ckbarbados.com
Roger's passion pineapple caprioska
Use fresh pineapple pulp and passion fruit concentrate or fresh passion fruit.
1 half of lime muddled
5oz fresh passion and pineapple blended into pulp
3 oz white rum
Add ice to shaker. Muddle lime and juices together. Add rum and fill the shaker glass with ice and shake and pour into tall glass
Spiced pumpkin and coconut soup by Niki Webster
2 medium onions chopped
1 tbsp coconut oil
2 cloves garlic sliced
Thumb size knob of ginger grated
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp Thyme
¼ tsp All spice
¼ tsp Fenugreek
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 medium pumpkin peeled (or squash)
1 can organic coconut milk
1 pint organic veg stock
1 tsp sea salt
Twist black pepper
In a large saucepan fry the onions on a medium heat in the coconut oil for 8-10 minutes until soft, add the garlic and ginger and cook for a further minute. Add the spices and stir for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Add the veg stock, coconut milk and pumpkin and simmer on a low to medium heat for aprox 15 minutes or until the pumpkin in tender. Blitz the soup with a hand blender until you have the consistency you like. Season and add a squeeze of lime then stir to combine. Lovely topped with more chili flakes, coriander and toasted cashews.
The author travelled whit Thomson Cruises, which offers itineraries ranging from the Canary Islands, Eastern and Western Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caribbean. To discover more about the Cruise Mates,and the people you can meet, visit cruise-mates.co.uk