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When Canadians flock to the Caribbean each winter, they’re usually fixated on white sand beaches, warm ocean waters, and the chance to drink a succession of rum cocktails while grooving to reggae tunes. But as I stand on the lush grounds of Sun Valley Plantation in Ocho Rios near Jamaica’s north shore, I don’t have any of those things in mind.
All I can think about is fruit.
Sun Valley is a commercial coconut farm, but owner Lorna Binns also tours visitors around her property where she grows several kinds of mangoes, passion fruit, plantain, breadfruit, vanilla and a range of spices. She smiles and hands me an ackee, a regional fruit that looks a bit like a blooming flower holding a mix of scrambled eggs and cherries. Ackee is a cornerstone of Jamaican cuisine, but finding a fresh one back in Canada is impossible, largely due to its toxicity when not picked and prepared properly.
“Ackee is our national fruit,” Binns explains. “We use it along with salted codfish to make our national dish but it must open naturally on the tree. If it’s not open, it has a concentration of hypoglycin acid and is not safe to eat.”
With our large Caribbean diaspora, most Canadians have tried Jamaican dishes like jerk chicken and yellow pastry-clad beef patties, but given the importance of fresh fruit, eating on the island is the only way to truly experience the full majesty of Jamaican cuisine. The food in Jamaica is inextricably tied to its geography and history. The bounty of the island can be experienced on most resorts, but getting off the beach and into communities and individual restaurants reveals a richer array of flavours. Yes, there is plenty of jerk and oxtail to be had, along with much, much more.
Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston is naturally a culinary hub, though navigating the restaurant landscape can be difficult for the uninitiated. Devon House, a retail area built around a grand historical mansion originally owned by Jamaica’s first Black millionaire is a good place to start. There you’ll find the Devon House Bakery, selling gourmet versions of Jamaican patties, filled with the traditional beef, callaloo (a leafy green ubiquitous in Jamaica), or that national dish of ackee and saltfish. Around the corner is the popular Devon House iScream, rightfully named by National Geographic as one of the best ice cream shops in the world.
For something a bit grittier, I head into downtown Kingston. This is where a good food tour like those offered by city revitalization organization Kingston Creative comes in handy. My guides not only walk our group through the maze of vibrant murals painted by local artists but also feed us along the way. We visit places that tourists would be unlikely to stop at on their own, like the sidewalk Porridge Boss cart, where proprietor Courtney Cousins hands us cups of hot porridge scooped from a giant metal pot (once the pot is empty, Cousins is done for the day). The bland-looking cornmeal mixture is shockingly delicious, with flavours of coconut, peanuts, plantain, and cinnamon. Cousins tops each cup with condensed milk or molasses for a genuinely Jamaican breakfast treat. It’s simple, but one of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever eaten.
Just outside of Kingston are the Blue Mountains, famous as the home of Jamaica’s most prized coffee beans. A stop at the Craighton Estate coffee farm is a must, but I’m even more drawn to interesting eateries like the outdoor Pretty Close 876, tucked amongst a series of mountain waterfalls just a half hour from the city. Ramo, the soft-spoken owner and chef, specializes in Ital cuisine, the Jamaican equivalent to kosher or halal cooking. There is no salt, oil, or processed flavouring on the plate of vegetables, rice, and fish I’m handed shortly after arriving (“I don’t need salt because I cook with love,” Ramo explains with a wide smile), but the food is extraordinarily tasty, thanks to the freshness and the passion of the chef.
While something magical happens when someone like Ramo or Cousins proudly prepares food rooted in Jamaica’s complex history, modernized takes on Jamaican fare also speak to the country’s culture. This is well illustrated at Summerhouse, consistently named as one of the country’s best restaurants.
Run by sisters/celebrity chefs Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau, Summerhouse sits in the palatial Harmony Hall estate near Ocho Rios. Billed as a “gastropub,” Summerhouse proves to be much more by taking local breadfruit and dressing it up with charred garlic and chives, using callaloo in a creamy cheese spread that mimics a classic artichoke dip, and turning the national dish into crispy salt-fish fritters with spiced tartar sauce. After traipsing through the streets of Kingston and the Blue Mountains, dining at Summerhouse may feel fancy, but it still encapsulates two things about Jamaican cuisine that cannot be replicated off island: those ingredients and the joy of the people creating meals from food grown, sometimes literally (as is the case of a mango dessert the Rousseaus serve at Summerhouse), in their backyards.
“We work with traditional ingredients of the region but present them with different preparations,” Michelle says. “You can come and see an aspect of the Jamaican lifestyle that you might not be used to seeing in the traditional rustic and street-side restaurants.”
The rustic, the modern, the fruit, the patties and the jerk are all essential elements of a Jamaican experience. Don’t ignore the beaches – those are incredible, too – but make sure to also savour the flavours of the island this winter if you go chasing that Caribbean sun.