There’s a mini food revolution happening in one corner of Jamaica – and it’s putting vegetarian food at its heart. It’s hot, hot, hot…
You eat under an ackee fruit tree as the sun dips down. The night is balmy, and Ella Fitzgerald – along with a few hundred crickets – is singing the blues. The historic water mill still turns –giving a soupçon of charm that is far removed from the site’s actual history as part of the 17th-century Rose Hall Sugar Plantation. Soaring palm trees and the odd hopping frog, darting among the leaves, add to the exotic feel. This is The Sugar Mill, Jamaica’s leading restaurant, and the lushest open-air dining room you’ll probably ever eat in.
“The beauty here will delight you, but the menu should surprise you,’ says head chef Christopher Golding, with a glint in his eye. “It goes way beyond jerk chicken,” he smiles. The restaurant, part of the five-star Half Moon resort in Montego Bay, has already won Best Restaurant in Jamaica for the past three years, but Golding is on a mission to put Jamaican fine dining on the world’s culinary stage.
“Most people think Jamaican food is simply spicy chicken and rice and peas,” he continues with evident passion. “That’s all here, of course, but what diners experience at The Sugar Mill is what I call the ‘reincarnation’ of Jamaican cuisine. I want to expose the soul of our island through the bounty of natural ingredients that we have, but presented in a sophisticated, innovative fashion. We have so many fruits and vegetables – so many flavours – but yet Caribbean food is not recognized in the same way that European or American food is. I want to change that.”
The menu is inspired. While its roots lie in traditional recipes and techniques, Golding is also inspired by Italian and Asian flavours – with fresh pasta (such as the genius ‘Oxtail Ravioli’) and oriental salads part of the menu. There is also a focus on offering a farm-to-table experience with fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen, and herbs picked daily from the kitchen garden.
Starters include ‘Crayfish Bisque’ and ‘Smoked Marlin Rolls’ – a sort of spring roll filled with Marlin and Conch, served on a beetroot carpaccio with a tangelo fruit vinaigrette. To follow, there’s ‘Coconut-Dusted Grouper Fillet with Steamed Cassava Bammy’ (the latter is akin to a deep-fried potato-cake yet much lighter). There’s also a real focus on vegetarian dishes with ‘Breadfruit Gnocci in a Coconut-Tomato sauce’ and ‘Jerk Tofu and Quinoa Cake’ being two stand-out dishes.
“Jamaicans have a rich connection to vegetarian and vegan food,” explains Golding. “It’s rooted in the Rastafarian movement but also in the vast array of produce that we can grow here. From yam to cassava, sweet potato to cho cho – I find cooking with vegetables as interesting as meat and fish. I think in the main, vegetarianism is too often sidelined and not given the respect it deserves.”
Drive around the coastline of Jamaica, and you’ll discover that many of the bare-foot beach stalls and huts, have a similar – albeit more basic – approach. A short drive away, for instance, in Long Bay, is the Chill Out Hut, where inspired veggie dishes are given equal pegging to the island’s better known specialities, such as curry goat and jerk chicken. With a menu featuring, ackee, curry tofu, bammy and dumplings, you sit in carved-out barrels overlooking the ocean, listening to the rhythms of calypso and reggae.
Explore further inland, and the Rastafarian influence is stronger, with many places influenced by the Ital trend. Short for ‘vital’ – vitality for life – ‘Ital’ is rooted in a plant-based diet – from spiced chickpea burgers to roasted breadfruit. Stush in the Bush, in the parish of St Ann (around 90 minutes from Montego Bay) is one of the leading exponents of the trend. Tagged as ‘sexy vegetarianism’, the unique dining experience is found on a rustic-chic farm and puts exotic vegetables as the focus of its multi-course, seasonal menu. “It is rustic and it is gourmet,” say owners Lisa and Christopher Binns.
Back at Half Moon, adding to the inimitable experience, is a stellar wine list and a speciality rum menu, including Jamaica’s own highly-prized 50-year-old Appleton Estate Rum, said to be the oldest available rum, of which only 800 bottles were made. It all adds up to be a uniquely modern-Caribbean experience.
The rest of the resort is just as impressive and continues its nod to Jamaica’s heritage married with a contemporary bent. The 63-year-old hotel is one of the island’s most iconic grand-dames and is found on a 400-acre estate, beautifully landscaped with an abundance of scarlet hibiscus flowers, coconut palms and blue mahoe trees. Like many of the world’s best hotels, it boasts an impressive past guest-list of countless royals, presidents and dignitaries – not to mention a glittering cast of modern A-listers, such as Venus Williams and Rhianna.
While all are welcome to mingle at the Friday-night beach BBQ, try their hand at the extensive water sports on offer and to dip into the tropical breakfast buffet (think: artisan breads, fresh fruits and plantain and codfish), privacy remains the hotel’s speciality. Accommodation is spread along two-miles of crescent-shaped, pristine beaches, reached by zipping around in your own golf cart or by working up a sweat on the baby-blue bicycles. From expansive suites to super-luxe villas (all of which come with their own pools, butlers and chefs) – the hotel offers an elevated guest experience for a modern-day traveller, with slick service at its heart.
In the al fresco lobby, for instance, complete with its dark-wood cabinets, ikat-covered armchairs and marble floors – you’ll find Lester’s Café. Here, baristas serve cappuccino made from Blue Mountain coffee beans, freshly made pastries and mini bagels – it’s a “Yeah, man” way to start the day. The coffee bar is named after the world-renowned artist, Michael Lester Leszczynski – whose bright, naïve works are dotted around the property and who was once the hotel’s artist in residence.
At the Fern Tree Spa, meanwhile, the nod to the island’s culture continues. Choose to be pampered in either a garden treatment room or one of the two over-water bungalows – the latter open out to give heart-soaring views of the ocean beyond. Treatments tap into Jamaica’s traditional healing remedies with many products being freshly mixed by an in-house specialist using ingredients grown in the spa’s gardens. There’s lemongrass oil used in the golfer’s massage, for instance, and coconut and sugar used in the Jamaica Allspice Sugar Scrub treatment. Meanwhile, for one of the most enlightening ways to spend an hour or two, opt for the Fern Tree Signature Massage (which uses allspice compresses and finishes with a rum body splash) – the sound of the crashing waves outside is the blissful soundtrack.
At the al-fresco Seagrape Terrace, there’s red snapper on the menu – it’s served with cho cho (part of the squash family), pak choi and snow peas in a miso broth. The menu is wide and varied – with shrimp, lobster tail, Jamaican spiced chicken and fresh salads, all served in an imaginative way. You eat next to the ocean, fairy lights twinkling in the palm trees above you, and breathe in the salty scent on the air. As the Jamaicans say, it’s truly irie.
Soon there will be an additional two restaurants opening their doors at the resort – one focusing on seafood and the other on local Jamaican specialities. They are part of Half Moon’s continued $75m renovation, which is set to complete at the end of 2018, and which will also include 57 new rooms and two more pools.
“We are embarking on a journey here,” chef Christopher Golding said, referring to his own culinary quest. But so is Half Moon. It’s a slice of the Caribbean, but not as you know it. Book your tickets now and join the ride.
This article was also published in The Jewish Chronicle on 13 October 2017 and can also be read here