From pepperpot soup to salt fish and ackee, this isle is a foodie haven
"A white man can jerk!" chef Walter Staib says with glee, a grin spreading across his bearded face at the launch of our four-day culinary tour of Jamaica.
At first, the stocky, white-haired, German-born restaurateur, who speaks with a thick accent, even though he has long resided in Philadelphia, seems an odd choice to lead a group of foodies around this verdant Caribbean island, best known for its fiery jerk, not wiener schnitzel.
However, we soon learn that Staib, culinary ambassador to Sandals Resorts International, is an expert in Jamaican cuisine. So much so, he was the first inductee into the Caribbean Culinary Hall of Fame.
To learn his craft, Staib donned an apron and spent months in the mid-'80s, working alongside Jamaican cooks in smoky jerk huts and food stalls, in remote bush and in their homes. At the University of the West Indies, he researched the roots of Jamaican cuisine and scoured the country visiting markets, fruit and spice orchards, coffee plantations and rum distilleries.
In 1992, Jamaican entrepreneur Butch Stewart, Sandals' founder and chairman, contracted Staib, by now one of the country's foremost cuisine experts, to reconceive food and beverage at all Sandals and Beaches resorts.
Many years have passed, but Staib's passion has not waned. Over the coming days, his mission is clear: to show - and get us to taste - why he loves the food, flavours, people and culture of this vibrant tropical isle.
From our base at Sandals Whitehouse on the remote south coast, then later from Sandals Dunn's River in popular Ocho Rios, we visit some of his favourite haunts and discover the diversity in Jamaican cuisine, from roadside staples to fine dining.
Our eating adventure begins at Billy's Grassy Park in tiny Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth Parish, the isle's shrimp capital.
Here, over a long hearth fronting the busy road, more than a dozen big black pots bubble from the heat of a crackling wood fire below. Ladle in hand, Bilroy "Billy" Kerr lifts lids and stirs their fragrant contents, dishing up heaping portions for the steady stream of mostly Jamaican customers.
Badgered with questions, he shyly conveys that he learned this traditional Jamaican cookery from his grandmother. Like generations before, she passed on the recipes orally.
Mouths watering, we pull shells off the large, spicy freshwater shrimp for which he is famous. Usually five types of shrimp sizzle over the flames, but today Kerr just has three:curried, fried, and peppered.
Insisting we sample from every pot, Billy hands spoons of creamy porridge made from fresh ground peanuts grown, like plenty of other produce, here in St. Elizabeth, which, along with neighbouring Westmoreland, are the country's breadbaskets.
Tummies warmed up, we head for lunch at Little Ochie in seaside Alligator Pond, also in St. Elizabeth. A local institution that draws weekend crowds all the way from Kingston, this unassuming wooden establishment is a seafood lover's delight (sans alligators).
Fish does not get fresher. Two boats pulling into the beach deliver their catch straight into the arms of Evrol "Blackie" Christian, who, in 1989, single-handedly founded the restaurant that now employs more than 30 locals.
A pail of Caribbean lobster shortly reappears, dressed in steaming garlic butter sauce, the house specialty. Soon it's joined by groaning platters of jerk crab, grilled fish and conch, shrimp in coconut sauce, festivals (fried dough) and bammies (made from cassava). We feast seaside at a palapa-shaded picnic table atop a brightly painted canoe on stilts, washing it all down with frosty Red Stripe beer.
It's too early for Jamaica's fine rum. If, however, the "it's 12-o'clock somewhere" mindset kicks in, Appleton Estate, Jamaica's oldest rum distillery, dating to 1749, is located nearby.
Time does not permit a visit now, but later, we partake in Rum 101 at Bluefield Beach Club, the Whitehouse's sandy, seaside restaurant specializing in traditional Jamaican food. Like Whitehouse, all 16 Sandals/Beaches resorts have at least one authentic island restaurant, reflecting guests' increasing interest in trying local dishes, explains Staib.
Although culinary highlights, and firsts, liberally pepper our four-day food fest - Blue Mountain coffee, scrambled ackee with salt fish, red snapper in coconut, tomato thyme rundown, and spicy Jam-Asian (Chinese-Jamaican fusion) cuisine - the standout is Miss Betty's Riverside Canteen. Not just for honest home cookin' in an unusual setting, but for the lady herself.
First, though, you have to get there.
This requires a lengthy journey aboard a bamboo raft, poled by a barefoot - and possibly toothless - captain, down the muddy Rio Grande from just outside Port Antonio on the northeast coast. The "ankle express," a 40-minute downhill trek through dense Blue Mountain bush is the less desirable option. This is how Miss Betty Wilson has travelled to work for 30 years, laden with heavy pots and pans, vegetables, chickens, and all the other fixings for a hearty Jamaican lunch.
Getting on in years, her daughter Miss Wissy (Belinda) now runs the "canteen," little more than a wooden stand on the riverbank near a large open fire, catering primarily to rafters.
Simple though it may be, the food is delicious: her renowned river-shrimp pepperpot soup, curried goat on a bed of rice, mackerel rundown, mannish water (a dish for the most adventurous eaters), roasted breadfruit, steamed callaloo, and so much more.
Standing, beaming, beside Miss Betty is her most unlikely protege:Walter Staib.
• Getting there: Air Canada has weekly service Mondays from Calgary to Montego Bay non-stop. Daily flights via Toronto. www.aircanada.com or aircanadavacations.com for all-inclusive packages. WestJet via Toronto: www.westjet.com
• Staying and dining: Sandals has seven resorts in Jamaica, 13 total in the Caribbean. Beaches has three resorts in Jamaica and one in Turks and Caicos. Each resort has at least one authentic island restaurant. Tours can be arranged for guests to explore the local culinary scene and taste island foods. www.sandals.com, 1-800-SANDALS or www.beaches.com.
Billy's Grassy Park:Main Street, Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth parish, 876-366-4182
Little Ochie:Alligator Pond, Manchester, St. Elizabeth, 876-610-6566 or www.littleochie.com
Miss Betty's Riverside Canteen (or may be called Miss Wissy's now) - maintains no regular hours so it's best to call in advance: 876-389-8826.
For more information: Jamaica Tourist Board, Canadian office, www.visitjamaica.com, (800)465-2624.