Charlotte Ellis discovers the heart and soul of Jamaica on a gourmet escape to the Caribbean
Think Jamaican food and, no doubt, jerk chicken, rice and peas is one of the first dishes to pop into your head. And while that national treasure is the islanders’ go-to favourite, Jamaica’s cuisine has so much more to offer.
As land of the Rastafari, who follow a strict ‘ital’ (vegan) diet, Jamaica was championing vegan cuisine long before the rise of today’s insta-famous #eatclean tribes. The lusciously green country quite literally bursts with delicious organic produce; bananas and plantain, avocados (known as pears), ackee, almonds, coconuts, mangoes, pawpaw, yams, lemongrass, peppers – and that’s just scratching the surface.
Making vegetables sexy
Lisa and her husband Chris, the duo behind Stush in the Bush have made ‘sexy vegetarianism’ into a near art. At their impressive home in the hills, Zionites Farm in the parish of Saint Ann, they offer a must-try farm-to-table dining experience.
The pair’s hilarious daughters – and front- of-house team – greet us with a rum and lemongrass iced tea. With the pet dogs also present, it’s like turning up at a family home for Christmas. The vibe is super relaxed, with breathtaking views of the north of the island.
Seasonal menus are determined by what’s ripe on the 15-acre organic farm. Our lunch begins with guacamole, chimichurri with plantain chips and spicy pumpkin soup with focaccia. Impressive platters of freshly-picked leaves, green beans tossed in garlic, beetroot carpaccio, and baby fennel in passionfruit dressing are complemented by delicious wine.
And that’s just for starters. Vegan pizzas arrive, topped with callaloo – Jamaica’s most Burwood Beach in Trelawny popular greens – aubergines and plantain, made exceptional with the addition of
Lisa’s infamous Blow Fyah Gourmet Pepper Sauce. Coconut bread and Lisa’s home-made preserves wrap up the feast.
Chris tells us how the daily swallowing of a minuscule pepper that he grows has lowered his high blood pressure and, when my friend presents a recently-twisted ankle, he massages in a potion containing huge centipedes soaked in rum and hemp. Over the course of the next few hours, the ankle returns to normal – as if by magic. Definitely nothing to do with the Malbec.
Bustling Ocho Rios lies a 45-minute drive over the hill. Set back from the street vendors, crowds and honking car horns is Miss T’s, a favourite haunt of Jamaicans island-wide.
Visit this shack-style restaurant for a taste of very good home-style cooking – ‘all of our favourite food, cooked just like mama’s’ says Cheree, our guide. Rich oxtail stew with butterbeans and dumplings melts in the mouth. Whole jerked snapper is fiery. Succulent coconut lobster is packed with flavour, as is ‘barbie-fry’ chicken in a tomato and pepper sauce. On the side, we dig into copious quantities of plantains and rice and peas. There’s no fear of ever going hungry.
East of the island, over yet more hills – you can’t get far without conquering hills and windy roads – is Port Antonio Bay. Hop on a raft (about $72US for two) and sail 45 minutes down the spellbinding Rio Grande to Belinda’s, where Belinda herself prepares exceptional food over a big open fire.
Ask your raft captain to call ahead to place your order – we chose cray fish coconut rundown, featuring gargantuan, river-fresh cray fish in a secret coconut and pepper sauce served with bammy (a dense type of fried bread), and savoury-doughnut-like festival. We’ve never been so happy to get our hands (and faces) dirty: this is an absolute taste sensation, and a chilled bottle of Red Stripe offers the perfect accompaniment.
Traditional with a twist
A 30-minute drive from the Rio Grande in Port Antonio, you’ll find eco-friendly, hilltop hideaway Mockingbird Hill Hotel, owned and run by Shireen Aga and keen chef Barbara Walker.
Before dinner, we enjoy a Mockingbird Mojito and the blissful ocean views. Barbara’s sophisticated adaptation of typical Jamaican dishes is peppered with inspirations from her extensive travels; we try a dense, delicious shcake, jerk chicken skewers with the lightest, coconut milk-soaked bammy, local sh in Italian-style pomodoro sauce. We think we have room for nothing else, then devour bananas baked in rum and coconut.
The luxurious Half Moon Hotel is yet another great place to stay in Montego Bay – and one of Prince Harry’s favourites. Head chef Christopher Golding serves finely-crafted dishes; oxtail is stuffed into elegant ravioli, jerk chicken takes on the guise of bite-sized arancini, and smoked local fish is served as ceviche. It’s all wonderful. Like a rock star, finish your meal with a glass of Appleton Rum on the rocks.
For a taste of Kingston, do as the Obamas and the Camerons do, and stay at the retro high-rise Pegasus Hotel, where the amazing ice cream was voted fourth best in the world. After (or, indeed, before) that sweet treat, dine on steamed snapper with lime and caper sauce and sweet potato pudding at Red Bones, a favourite of both the Rolling Stones and Grace Jones.
Make it real
- The best time to visit is December – April.
- Fly with Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) from London Gatwick direct to Montego Bay. \
- To see the best of the island, hire a car – or a driver. Jermaine from Paradise Travels (paradisetravelsinjamaica. com) knows every nook, cranny, bend and hotspot in Jamaica. He also has an excellent reggae collection.
- Head up the picturesque Blue Mountains to Old Tavern Coffee Estate, the wonderful home of David and Christine Twyman, whose plantation produces beans that are a favourite of our Queen. On a tour, you’ll see beans being picked and roasted. Christine and David have grand plans to build an eco-village where guests can stay – watch this space.
- While in the mountains, watch helicopters shuttling the likes of Beyoncé and Jay Z from the airport to the luxurious, eco-conscious Strawberry Hill hotel. Visit Eits Cafe – this hotspot offers great fusion farm-to- table organic food.
- Keen rum drinker? Take a trip to the 18th- century Hampden Estate for a tour, tasting, and meal at Jerk Kitchen.
- For more information, see here.