Imagine you've just runaway from a sugar plantation on the British colony of Jamaica, having escaped with the help of a complex language of drumming that signaled that the time was right. The natives are long gone, having been exterminated by European colonials. You and the other ex-slaves are among the first generations of West Africans to a have carved out your independence here, in the mountainous interior. You've brought with you some knowledge of your native tongue, mixed with bits of English and Spanish, and the know-how to grow crops on the plantation.
This is the environment in which Jamaican culture, as we know it, came into being, among these runaways known as the Maroons. Jamaica has, since early after colonization, been populated almost entirely by slaves and now ex-slaves. The language is a delirious mix of British, Spanish and West African dialects along with the remnants of the native Taino. It's culture is too, and perhaps as a result, locals and tourism boosters like to point out that Jamaica has a cultural influence wholly out of proportion to its size. Its reggae, especially its master songster, Bob Marley. Its rum, long the most recognizable export, is desired widely. And Jamaica is, after all, the place that invented the all-inclusive resort.
Then there is its food. If you live in a town Brooklyn and Miami, most notably with a large Jamaican immigrant population, then you know something about Jamaican cuisine. Jerk chicken, saltfish and ackee, and other staples were cooked up in the same melting pot of Maroon culture. Ackee is an African fruit (poisonous if not cooked properly, and delicious if cooked just right), for instance, and jerking is a process derived from Taino meat preservation techniques and perfected in Maroon camps, where a smoke-free method of curing meat was valuable for obvious reasons. (Pictured here are the jerk spices.) Jamaican cuisine reaches its most recognizable form in "road food," the ubiquitous cheap staple of Jamaica and its Diaspora.
"Every roadside stand you stop at is going to be great," said Michelle Rousseau, chairman and CEO of the Bellefield Great House, an estate where actors dress in period costumes to demonstrate life on an early 19th century Jamaican sugar plantation. (Try the plantation's recipes for banana fritters or Bucky Master's rum punch.) "We have a good palate."
In this sense, on an island whose economy is fueled largely by tourism, where white people suffering from liberal guilt will squirm when served by the black waiters, maids and cooks, the cultivation of Jamaican cuisine as an art form is a profound expression of independence. Think oxtail consommé with vanilla royale and orange biscotti, paired with a green tea and pimento rum martini. Think jerk chicken with its distinctive blend of black pepper, clove, bay leaf, garlic, scallion, pimento, thyme, ginger and Scotch bonnet pepper but rolled with fresh organic fingerling greens into rice paper spring rolls and served with spicy mango and mint sauce.
These are the creations of Jamaica's food revolutionary, Chef Martin Maginley, of the historic Round Hill Hotel and Villas on Montego Bay. Named a top chef in the Caribbean on more than one occasion, Maginley is on a mission to elevate Jamaican cuisine, and do it sustainably, with local ingredients. (Pictured here: Jerk-rubbed pork loin, with orange zest and molasses-bitters sauce, paired with an Appleton Ortanique.)
Expect a fine Jamaican cuisine restaurant to find its place in every culturally diverse culinary city. It's Jamaica's next cultural expression, ripe for export. Expect it to catch on like reggae music. If you don't want to wait, you can do worse much worse, than a stay at the luxurious Round Hill Hotel and Villas, the Green Globe-certified resort where JFK and Jackie O. honeymooned, where Paul McCartney visits, and where Chef Maginley serves up distinctive food nightly even in your personal villa. If you're vacationing elsewhere on Montego Bay, stop by for his Jamaican dinner on Friday.
"We try to take the local ingredients, and take it to the next level," Maginley said. "There's a saying: Grow what you eat, eat what you grow. That's very important to us."
Maginley is at the center of Jamaica's culinary revolution, but he's not alone. Among the revolutionaries are Bill Moore, chairman of the Culinary Federation of Jamaica, Joy Spence, master rum blender for Appleton Estate (which is making serious efforts to go green) and Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, who has founded Jamaica's first organic CSA on his estate.
Each is aiming for the same basic goal for Jamaican cuisine and culture: To take the extraordinarily rich tastes and agricultural abundance, and heighten the cuisine for the global palate. If you don't believe rum is for sipping, try Appleton Estate's 21-year-old rum, which is as smooth as Cognac. Of course, it also cost about $100 a bottle, even at the airport's duty-free shop. (Don't even ask about the 30-year-old, which is closer to $300.) So go for the 12-year (about $30, pictured here), which is also a surprisingly good sipping rum. (It isn't half bad poured over salted pineapple, either).
"Who says you have to drink wine with your meal? When you're here, you drink rum," said Josef Forstmayr, managing director at Round Hill and president-elect of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. "In 200 years are we going to drink only rum with our meals? I don't know." In the meantime, in expert hands, rum drinks and not the typical tropical fare poured all over the Caribbean can enhance a meal in surprisingly complex ways.
But Jamaica has centuries of experience with rum. Not so, arugula.
For Adam Miller, the resident farm manager at Blackewell's Pantrepant Farm (Welsh for "House in the Hollow"), farming means not only developing a market for community supported agriculture and working with the Jamaican Organic Agriculture Movement to evangelize organic growing methods and boost the quality at Jamaica's myriad small farms, but also figuring out how to grow crops on the outskirts of Jamaica's rugged Cockpit Country. (Miller is pictured here with his vegetable grower, Tony Henry.) Last year, they lost a field to deluge during rainy season that swamped his crops under 10 feet of water for weeks at a time. He's learned that yams may grow well, but carrots are a lost cause in the heavy clay soil. Okra may thrive in 98% humidity, but tomatoes do not.
"It's a massive group effort," Miller said. "It's a ridiculous amount of work."
How long will it take for all this work to pay off? It already is, in Chef Maginley's kitchen, but he has bigger goals. He wants to transform the island's cuisine, elevate its culture and educate the global citizenry who visit his home. Maginley, who celebrates the Jamaican terroir and its influence on the Scotch bonnet pepper, and who counts Maroon culture among his influences, says things are simmering.
The movement is slow," he said. "But the movement is happening."
But let's be serious. All this is prelude to the menus. Here's a look at some memorable meals created by Chef Maginley on a recent tour organized and paid for by Round Hill. Enjoy!
Round Hill Daiquiri
with apricot brandy, lime and pineapple
Oxtail Consommé with Vanilla Royale and Orange Biscotti
paired with an Appleton Reserve Rum "Tranquility" Green Tea and Pimento Martini
Oven Roasted Ocean Grouper with Seasoned Bammy Chips over Wilted Greens
paired with an Appleton Estate Extra rum roasted fig infusion with aged Parmesan cheese
Orange Zest-Rubbed Pork Loin "Boston Style" with Cane Molasses and Angostura
paired with Appleton Master Blenders' Legacy Rum "Ortanique," with orange juice and bitters
Molten Chocolate Cake (pictured here)
paired with Appleton 21-year-old rum
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