From jerk chicken to vegetarian fine-dining, Jamaica’s heart lies in a surprisingly diverse cuisine.
At Scotchies in Montego Bay, the sweet-spicy smell of jerk chicken sizzling on the open-fire-grill is filling the air. Served with fried breadfruit, crisp festival (a savoury doughnut) and ice-cold Red Stripe – this is the place to come for the best ‘jerk’ in Jamaica. Little more than a roadside hut, you eat perched on revamped oil drums under a thatched-raffia umbrella, while nodding along to reggae crooner Beres Hammond on the radio. If you dare, add a dollop of the home-made pepper sauce – made liberally with marinated scotch bonnet. It’s seriously hot, and, as the locals would say, seriously irie.
Of course, jerk chicken and rice ‘n’ peas are what most people would associate with typical Jamaican food, but according to Chris Golding, the island’s leading chef – Jamaican cuisine goes far beyond this grass-roots (albeit delicious) meal. Five minutes’ drive along the coastal road, you’ll find Golding sweating over a Josper charcoal oven at The Sugar Mill. The restaurant, part of the five-star Half Moon resort in Montego Bay, has won ‘Best Restaurant in Jamaica’ for the past three years under Golding’s watch due to his unique ‘reincarnation’ of Jamaican cuisine.
While fine dining in most swanky Caribbean resorts is often a ‘take’ on the European tradition of French-classical gastronomy, served with a dollop of hushed reverence and a soupcon of formal service, Golding does not shy away from his Caribbean roots. Inspired by age-old recipes – learnt from his grandmother – the menu is a refined version of Jamaican soul food but also influenced by Italian and Asian flavours.
To start, there are ‘Green Plantain Rosti’ and ‘Smoked Marlin Rolls’ – a sort of spring roll filled with Marlin and Conch, served on a beetroot carpaccio. 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). Putting a modern spin onto Jamaican favourites, the mains feature ‘Oxtail Ravioli’ made with sweet potato instead of pasta, and the chef’s signature Wagyu Striploin cooked on the Josper.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.
“Most people think Jamaican food is simply spicy chicken,” Golding says in a quiet moment before service starts. “But what diners experience at The Sugar Mill is a completely different approach. 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.”
While there’s an atmospheric indoor dining room – with views onto the open kitchen – the best place to sample his inimitable offering is in the outside garden. Here, the historic water wheel, once integral to the 17thcentury sugar plantation that previously stood here, still slowly turns and as the sun dips down, lanterns cast yellow shadows across the laden ackee trees and crimson-red hibiscus flowers. It’s probably the lushest space you’ll ever eat in.
From the speciality Jamaican rum menu to thefresh ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen, Golding has a passion for seasonality and locality. “These are modern-day buzzwords, but, let’s face it, the concept is not new,” he says. “It’s how our grandparents would have cooked. Jamaicans are passionate about the vast array of produce that we can grow here and we have a rich connection to vegetarian food. From yam to cassava, sweet potato to cho cho – I find cooking with vegetables as interesting as meat and fish.”
Around 90 minutes away, in the parish of St Anne’s, ‘Stush in the Bush’ is also passionate about home-grown fare. The innovative culinary venture is found at the remote Zionites Farm, and is making waves due to its charming approach to vegetarianism. While Golding is putting Jamaican cuisine on the fine-dining map, owners Lisa and Christoper Binns are celebrating what they call a rustic-gourmet interpretation of the Rastafarian Ital trend (short for ‘vital’ – vitality for life – ‘Ital’ is rooted in a plant-based diet).
Here, guests book five days ahead for a dining experience which puts exotic vegetables as the focus of a multi-course, prix-fixe menu. Diners eat communally under the trees and tuck into dishes such as ‘Golden Coconut-Crusted Yam and Pineapple Croquettes’, ‘Chilled Avocado and Basil Gazpacho’, ‘Haricots Verts in Garlic and Olive Oil’ and ‘Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Gratin’.
“Stush in the Bush is the combination of Rastafari and chic,” say the duo. “It is the blending of Ital farming and exotic vegetables. It is the love of mother nature and the love of fine dining. It is sexy vegetarianism.”
Back at Half Moon, the championing of Jamaican heritage is not just exclusive to The Sugar Mill. Found on a 400-acre estate, the hotel is one of the island’s best-loved grand dames, and boasts a bulging past guest-book of royals, presidents and A-listers who have laid their heads here. While rooms and suites are grand and spacious, with colonial-style furniture, marble bathrooms and terraces with palm-tree fringed views to the ocean beyond, and service is undeniably super-slick, it’s the resort’s passion for authenticity that sets it apart.
At Lester’s Café, for instance, coffee is made from freshly-ground Blue Mountain beans, while in the exotic Fern Tree Spa, treatments tap into Jamaica’s traditional healing remedies (try the Bush Bath in which you soak in herb-infused waters in a verdant courtyard garden). Children are also entertained in their own brightly-painted Anancy Children’s Village – inspired by Jamaican folklore.
“Our guests come on holiday to experience local traditions and a vibrant approach to hospitality; it’s not about formality, here, but rather a carefree and relaxing experience. It’s about celebrating Jamaican culture,” says general manager Sandro Fabris, who joined the resort in 2015.
Found along a horseshoe bay with two miles of private beach, Half Moon offers tons of space to find this relaxing experience – as well as countless activities to keep you busy if you wish. There’s tennis on one of the 13 courts, golf on the pristine Robert Trent Jones Sr-designed course, every imaginable water sports as well as horse-riding at the equestrian centre.
This year the property has also been quietly revamping its guest rooms and public spaces as part of its US$75 million revamp. Next October, will see the final stage complete, which will include 57 new rooms and suites, new restaurants and saltwater pools.
While it’s tempting to stay put, the hotel actively encourages guests to get out and about and experience island life. Day trips to Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, night cruises around Glistening Waters (a luminous phosphorescent lagoon located in Falmouth) and trips to working plantations give a flavour of the islands’ riches.
“We don’t have problems, only situations,” our taxi driver tells us. “Yah, man,” is the only reply.
Carrier offers seven nights for the price of six, from £6,550 per family, based on two adults and two children (under 12 years of age) sharing a Junior Suite on a room only basis, including return flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick and private transfers.
This article was published in City AM Newspaper on 16 April 2018 and can also be read here