When visiting the Caribbean on his trip to write The Traveller’s Tree, Patrick Leigh Fermor decided that: ‘Hotel cooking in the island is so appalling that a stretcher may profitably be ordered at the same time as dinner’. Admittedly this was in the late 1940s (and generally food in Trinidad, the island he was referring to, is not so bad anyway nowadays), but until quite recently the Caribbean was renowned for awful food. It was unadventurous and had a universal and lacklustre ‘international’ style, particularly in hotels and the restaurants intended for tourists. A former British colonial influence in many of the islands might just have something to do with it, but responsibility should probably be shared by the Americans, who make up the majority of visitors and who happy to put up with it.
Things began to improve in the 1990s, with more reliable sources of supply of (mainly imported) ingredients and looser immigration patterns allowing more foreign chefs to come in, and nowadays you can expect to eat pretty well. You will usually find a choice of good restaurants to eat out in in any but the smallest islands and the hotels have made great improvements. There are examples of chefs of international renown working in the islands and designing menus under licence. Among the many styles that have appeared – Italian, French, continental, Asian (there was even a case of ‘Thairibbean’ food a while ago), some chefs have taken the best of West Indian traditions and applied continental or Asian techniques to produce a sophisticated and satisfying Caribbean cuisine.
Have no doubt, running a restaurant in the Caribbean is hard work. Even if international sources of supply have improved, ingredients you might expect to be available can be hard to come by – for example if the fishermen decide that they just don’t want to go out that day, or if Customs decides that they’re holding onto the week’s delivery of food for inspection. Then there is a certain ‘island inertia’ (chefs who travel abroad for training are often just as frustrated by this when they return home as metropolitan visitors). Mostly they have managed to persuade West Indians out of their habit of boiling vegetables to death.
Restaurants on some islands manage to import their food fresh on a near-daily basis (in St Barts there are cases of fish that are caught in the Mediterranean at 4 am being on a plate at dinner 20 hours later, but in most good restaurants food arrives chilled twice a week by air, or on a weekly delivery by boat. In mid-range hotel dining rooms and in simpler local restaurants, expect to be served imported frozen food (people will tell you jokingly that the lengthy delays are because they only start unfreezing it when you place your order; it’s often true). Finally, staff and service can also be an issue. It is one of the hardest things to get right and often the most noticeable difference between the islands and home. In addition, some islands are highly unionized and managers then find it hard to persuade the water waiter to serve the food.
Islands with the finest cuisine include – St Barts and French St Martin for their French heritage and their ingredients which come daily from France and America into Dutch Sint Maarten. Classic French cuisine is generally ‘lightened’ (ie fewer heavy sauces, clarified rather than regular butter) and tailored with local spices and other ingredients including tropical fruits. Of the former British islands, Anguilla is unexpectedly the best (as a barren island with a small population) and it has some superb restaurants, but then it enjoys the spin-off of the nearby French islands and their excellent source of supply.
Barbados is still in form with a string of good restaurants down the west coast particularly (there are even wine bars there, serving such unlikely Caribbean fare as deep-fried Camembert). Martinique and Guadeloupe stand in their own right for their indigenous creole food, and Trinidad is interesting for its Indian influences. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has a growing number of restaurants run by a crop of innovative young chefs. Even Nevis, Tortola and St Lucia have improved their offer lately, while Jamaica continues to suffer the scourge of the all-inclusives – because people have paid for all their meals in advance, there isn’t much incentive to go out and so (outside Kingston and a few good hotels) there are sadly very few good restaurants, though you can get good reliable local Jamaican fare.
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