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I should have known that when visiting Jamaica, I would love the island. I knew it when, for the first time, I saw Jamaicans’ faces. When I caught sight of their welcoming smiles. When I heard the way they spoke. I loved the melody of their accent, and the way the intonation marking their words made their voice go up at the end of each sentence. It sounded like a happy melody.
“I like how you pronounce the word “questions”“, I said one day to our local guide at Prospect Plantation in Ocho Rios. Thin and not looking his age, he liked to share deadpan jokes which were irresistibly funny.
Before October, I had never visited Jamaica, but I had always wanted to.
It started when, at the age of seventeen, I traveled to Canada with a teenager group, and we met Nikki.
Nikki’s mother was French, his father Jamaican, but Nikki lived in Toronto, which made him Canadian too. Nikki was tall and skinny, with long dark curly hair and glasses too wide for his face. He was funny too. He was also always hungry and eating, and at night, after we’d slip inside our sleeping bags under the tent, he loved to tell us stories about Jamaica. Which, despite the fact that I was still young, piqued my curiosity and made me promise that, one day, I’d visit the island.
I finally did when, two months ago, I was invited with a small group of food writers to participate to a culinary tour of Jamaica.
It was exotic. Colorful and inspiring.
I took me a fair amount of time to gather my thoughts and decide what stories I’d share with you. So much was packed within five days. There were so many picture opportunities.
Perhaps, I thought, I should start with the story that happened the day we traveled to the Blue Mountains and our bus got stuck in one of the many sharp curves on the road leading to a coffee farm. It was irresistibly funny! And scary too.
Or maybe instead, I should write about the magnificent house and gardens that Robin keeps at Belcour Preserves, and how I adored sitting on the porch of her house to taste delicate foods and drinks she had kindly prepared for us–all of this while watching with delight a heavy downpour surrounding us. No wonder, I thought, that the trees and flowers look so happy here!
I learned that Jamaica has a strong food culture that deserves to be seen and tasted. I learned that, unlike other Caribbean islands I’ve visited before, locals grow various types of fruit and vegetables.
Thankfully, two months later, I am now finally ready to share the highlights from my culinary trip.
It starts with:
–Traveling the winding road which revealed magnificent views of the Yallahs Valley and led to Clifton Mount Estate, located at an elevation of 4300 feet above sea level. From it, we embraced the majestic view of the Grand Ridge and Blue Mountain Peak at 7402 feet which, as is often the case, hid behind a layer of dense mountain mist. I could not help but love the different local scenes we witnessed on the way: school children wearing dark blue school uniforms; colorful tin-roofed grocery shacks; local bars; clouds hanging around the pointy steeple of a white church perched on the flank of the mountains; lush dark green vegetation which witnessed of the heavy downpours the area receives regularly.
Lawrence and Richard Sharp, the friendly owners of the coffee farm who welcomed us to morning coffee with homemade baked sweets–hello banana bread!–taught us that, because of its location, Clifton Mount Estate is a premium coffee growing territory. With its carefully maintained garden, a paradise to playful hummingbirds, the old house–one of the few remaining Jamaican Great Houses–looks beautiful, somehow reminiscent of another era.
I learned that Lawrence’s farm is 75 percent organic, which means that only a few crops are sprayed with pesticides. Because Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is heavily regulated by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica –assuring the trademarked “Jamaica Blue Mountain” designation, much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)–Blue Mountain coffee is fairly expensive in comparison to other coffees grown elsewhere in the world.
–Sampling a humble and delicious lunch at EITS Café. EITS (short for Europe in the summer) is a charming open-air café located on the hillside town of Newcastle in the Blue Mountains. The eatery is run by the petite and lovely Robyn Fox and her father. Together, they operate the café, run Mount Edge guesthouse, and Food Basket, an enterprise selling to select supermarkets around Kingston (and by special order) herbs and vegetables they proudly grow on the farm.
There, I learned about French thyme (a variety I had never seen before), which Robin’s father was proud to have me taste. We also sampled Scotch bonnet pepper, an extremely spicy pepper that is traditionally used to season jerk chicken, giving the traditional Jamaican dish its unique flavor.
French Thyme at EITS
–Walking through the lush green gardens at Belcour Preserves where owners Robin Lumsden and her husband Michael treated us to homemade local foods and refreshments. Dating back to the 1700s, the lodge was originally a coffee farm. Today, Robin and Michael use it to grow tropical fruit and keep bees. The Lumsden’s 75 bee colonies produce Belcour’s Tropical Honey, a delicate, multiflora amber honey. They also make jams, relishes, condiments, and hot pepper sauce–all using the local produce available.
–Sampling street food–like pumpkin and crawfish soup, corn on the cob and freshly cut open exotic fruit–bought at street stalls found everywhere along the way. Hello avocado pear, guavas, guinep, June plum, jackfruit, papaya (Paw Paw), sorrel, sweetsop, soursop, and Jamaican mangoes, I loved you all. I am so thankful that you educated me to many varieties of fruit unknown to me before.
–Eating a lot of soups. Spicy soups. Pumpkin soups. I was surprised to learn that in Jamaica, pumpkin is common and eaten all year round. I was also delighted to find out that for Jamaicans, Saturday means Soup day. What’s not to love about a gathering of friends and family around a large pot of homemade soup?
–Visiting Irish Rover near Ochos Rios, the first authentic Irish Pub on the island. After working as a musician in Ireland for over 40 years, owner Winston Samuels decides to retire to his homeland where he eventually opens this surprising pub. Unique and well worth the visit.
–Watching how, at Scotchies (a rustic thatched-roof outdoors joint located in Coral Gardens near Montego Bay), the best jerk you can find on the island is made. In fact, I had never seen anything like this before: dozens of pimiento-seasoned chickens and slabs of pork grilling on open flames. I learned that it’s the smoke which gives the flavor to the meat. With jerk, we enjoyed sides like sliced, roasted breadfruit and yam; rice and peas (incidentally I learned that this translates as rice and beans) and festival (deep-fried cornmeal dumplings).
–Eating a piece of freshly cut-open coconut sprinkled with brown sugar. So simple. So good.
–Traveling to Ochos Rios to discover exquisite beaches and swim in crystal clear turquoise waters by late afternoon before heading out for dinner.
–Watching a beautiful rainbow from my room at Sandals resort in Ochos Rios.
–Enjoying a traditional Jamaican breakfast. Who knew I would enjoy eating ackee and salted fish (from ackee fruit and salt cod), with rice and Callaloo, and boiled green bananas so early in the morning? I really did!
Ackee and Salted Fish/Callaloo–
–Meeting lots of goats along the way.
–Sampling rum. Bananas. Banana bread.
And, with the head filled with delicious memories (and the suitcase with local treats), return home inspired to prepare seasonal pumpkin soup. And bake my own banana bread.
To celebrate the foods I sampled, and prolong the many special moments I was lucky to spent amongst Jamaicans.
Invariably, that’s always what traveling to new places does to me.
To you too?
- 1/2 cup (70 g) millet flour
- 1/2 cup (60 g) pecan and almond meal (half/half)
- 1/4 cup (30 g) unsweetened grated coconut
- 1/4 cup (40 g) cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons chia gel**
- 1 large egg
- 3 bananas, ripe and mashed with a fork
- 1/4 cup blond cane sugar
- 1/4 cup light Muscovado sugar
- 7 tablespoons (100 g) unsalted butter, melted
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon rum
**To make chia gel, combine 1/3 cup chia seeds with 2 cups water. Stir well, stirring once in a while. You can use the gel after 10 minutes but it’s even better to let it rest for 12 hours in the fridge in a closed container. Use as needed. It keeps for 2 weeks refrigerated. Thank you Irvin for the suggestion you made in my post here. That piqued my curiosity, so I had to try. And I loved the result. Alors voilà !
- Preheat your oven at 350 F and prepare an 11 by 5-inch loaf pan; set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the millet flour, pecan and almond meals, cornstarch, grated coconut, baking powder and baking soda; set aside.
- In another bowl, stir together the bananas with the butter. Stir in the sugar, egg, vanilla, rum and chia gel. Add a pinch of salt.
- Stir in the mixture of flours until combined.
- Pour the cake batter in the pan and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the blade of a knife inserted in the middle comes out dry. Let cool for a few minutes before unmolding.
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