More to Jamaica than jerk

What about festival, Blue Mountain coffee, ackee and saltfish, ital food, and patties? And Andrew Marshall finds even more delicious morsels

  • A Scotchies regular tucks into the classic combination of jerk chicken washed down with a cold Red Stripe. Photograph by Paul Marshall
  • Beef, vegetable or chicken patties are a very popular Jamaican snack. Photograph by Paul Marshall
  • Cooking jerk chicken at Scotchies, Montego Bay. Photograph by Paul Marshall

From fiery seasoned meat and inventive seafood dishes to oak-aged rums and hearty stouts, Jamaican cuisine is an eclectic mix of African, European and Indian influences – and is surprisingly healthy and varied. Although many restaurants offer excellent dining, we soon discovered that you’re just as likely to have a great culinary experience by eating local-style – and here that means one thing: Jamaica’s signature dish of jerk chicken or pork.

Jerk chicken is believed to have been conceived when the Maroons introduced African meat-cooking techniques to Jamaica, which were combined with native Jamaican ingredients and seasonings used by the Amerindians.

The method of smoking meat for a long period of time served two practical purposes: keeping insects away from the raw meat, and preserving it for longer once it has been cooked. At most places, the recipe for jerk sauce is a closely guarded secret, but it usually contains peppers, onions, pimento, ginger and chili.

Although there are thousands of jerk centres, as they are known, in every village and town, and at almost every crossroads or street corner, there’s only one place to go, and that’s Scotchies. There’s nothing the least bit fancy about this thatched-roof joint on the outskirts of Montego Bay, where food is served in aluminium foil and everyone eats with their fingers – but the jerk dishes are the best you’ll find anywhere.

It’s late Friday afternoon and the queue at Scotchies is already a dozen long. A reggae soundtrack combines with delicious aromas that waft on the balmy tropical breeze. A cool mix of locals and visitors rub shoulders at rustic tables, opening tin-foil parcels of tasty jerk chicken pork or fish washed down with Red Stripe beer, the island’s tipple of choice.

Scotchies was started seven years ago by Tony Rerrie from the back of his pick-up truck, and has since become an institution.

“Everyone knows about the place and there’s no doubt it’s one of the best jerk centres in Jamaica,” says manager Kim Cooper. “On Sunday afternoons we usually get a big crowd of people stopping by.”

Cooper shows us round the back, where rows of chickens are splayed flat and whole backs of pig sizzle in jerk marinade over a low fire of pimento wood, which introduces a strong, distinctive, smoky flavour to the meat. Another good eating option in Montego Bay is the Native, serving up some of the finest Jamaican dishes, from divine smoked marlin to its fabulous boonoonoonoos platter, which has a little bit of everything, including spicy meats, fish and vegetables. Round off your meal with a slice of smooth creamy coconut pie, or for something more local, opt for duckanoo (sweet dumpling of cornmeal, coconut and banana, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed).
Whether it’s a top-end hotel restaurant or a roadside shack, fish and chicken are the mainstays of lunch and dinner in Jamaica. In addition to being jerked, chicken is typically fried or curried, while fish can be grilled, steamed with okra and pimento pods, brown-stewed in a tasty sauce or served in a spicy sauce of onions, hot peppers and vinegar (escovitched). Rice and peas (rice cooked with coconut, spices and red kidney beans) is the accompaniment to most meals, though you’ll sometimes come across bammy (a flat, floury cassava pancake normally eaten during breakfast hours), festival (deep-fried cornmeal dumplings), breadfruit, sweet potatoes and yam.

Other Jamaican specialities include mouth-watering curried goat, peanut porridge and ackee and saltfish – a classic and addictive breakfast dish. The soft yellow flesh of the otherwise bland ackee fruit is fried with onions, sweet and hot peppers, fresh tomatoes and boiled, flaked salted cod. It’s usually served with the delicious spinach-like callaloo, boiled green bananas and fried or boiled dumplings.

Another popular and widely available foodstuff is the vegetable, chicken or beef patty, with around a million of these Cornish pasty-like snacks being eaten by Jamaicans every day.

During our travels, we discover that the Rastafarians have their own cuisine here, known as ital. Founded on the belief that only food from the soil should be eaten, it’s essentially a vegetarian diet and excludes manufactured food. Ital food is not generally on the printed menus in the upscale tourist restaurants, but can only be found by going to smaller low-key places (often just somebody’s house). Typical dishes include vegetable stews, sweet potato pudding and omelettes.

For tasty non-alcoholic drinks, look no further than the roadside piles of coconuts in every town and village for a refreshing coconut juice. Other soft drinks include Malta (a fortifying malt drink), throat-tingling ginger beers and fresh limeade, and some more unusual fresh natural juices, such as tamarind, June plum, guava, sorrel and soursop.
When it comes to alcoholic drinks, Jamaica just wouldn’t be Jamaica without rum. Since the 15th century, when the Spanish settlers first introduced sugar cane cultivation and the art of distillation to the island, Jamaica has gained the enviable reputation of being the source of some of the world’s finest rums.

On a visit to the Appleton Estate, nestled in the fertile Nassau Valley in the parish of St Elizabeth, where rum has been produced since 1749, our tour guide walks and talks us through the various stages of rum production, in which high-quality sugar cane and Jamaican spring water are distilled and then aged in charred oak barrels.

After the tour, our guide announces, with a twinkle in his eye, that there will be a taste test and an opportunity to sample the portfolio of award-winning rums, including: Appleton Estate VX (a blend made up of 15 aged rums), Appleton Estate Extra (aged for a minimum of 12 years in oak), and a premium offering known as Appleton Estate Master Blenders’ Legacy – an exquisite 30-year-old rum that’s perfect with a splash of water or club soda.

In addition to Appleton, Myers also produce some good-quality rums, but if you’re after effect rather than taste, Wray & Nephew make a classic white overproof rum that is cheap, potent, available everywhere and best knocked back with a mixer of Ting (a refreshing sparkling local grapefruit drink).

The national beer is the excellent Red Stripe, a refreshing golden brew produced at the Hunts Bay Brewery, and another popular tipple is the locally brewed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout – different from the Guinness Draught that most Europeans will be familiar with. For starters it has a higher alcohol content, of 7.5 per cent, and is richer in flavour. The sweeter Dragon is another good stout choice to keep an eye out for.

Finally, the rich, black volcanic soil of Jamaica’s majestic Blue Mountains, rising to 2,300 metres, coupled with mist and cool temperatures, makes for the perfect environment to produce Jamaican Blue Mountain, the “King of Coffees” and the best and most expensive in the world – a wonderfully balanced brew, full-bodied with a smooth finish.

English author Ian Fleming, who spent winters on Jamaica for almost two decades (and wrote more than a dozen novels here), blessed his hero James Bond with impeccable tastes for all the fine things in life, and in the novel Live and Let Die, Bond pronounced Blue Mountain coffee “the most delicious in the world.”

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