NOT THAT I want to make you jealous at all, but I do have to report back from my recent holiday in the Caribbean.
You’ll doubtless not want to hear about the temperatures in the 30s, the clear blue skies, the swaying palm trees and the warm, gently-lapping waters kissing the white coral sand beaches, so I’ll spare you that particular torture on this occasion. What I’m here for is, of course, food. And in the Caribbean, there’s a lot of it about.
Everywhere you look there are trees heavily-laden with all manner of tropical treats. Mango trees grow almost everywhere, their delightfully-scented fruits warm and juicy. Bananas and plantains grow fast and plentifully in the heat and humidity, and driving about the islands one sees the bunches, hanging from their palm-like trees, wrapped in blue plastic bags, to stave off over-ripening until market day.
Mile upon mile of sugar cane, for many islands the major export, waves in the warm breeze. Obscure fruit, like papaya, soursop and ackee grow abundantly here, and are mainly consumed ‘on-island’, though some does find its way here on export. We are particularly blessed here in the West Riding, as there are many long-established local Caribbean families and businesses, so it’s not quite so difficult to find salt fish, plantains and the like.
As well as this bounty of flora, there is also a cornucopia of fauna to exploit. The deep waters of the Atlantic provide the big ‘steak’ fish, such as marlin, swordfish and tuna, while the shallower, warmer waters are home to the equally-delicious groupers, flying fish and the native spiny lobsters. Add to this the large number of goats, sheep, cattle and poultry, and you’ve got the most amazing basket of ingredients on your doorstep.
The Caribbean is truly multi-cultural, with many culinary influences. The slave trade’s odious reign did introduce African cooking to the islands, and the proximity to South America yielded an altogether different style of cuisine. Add to this the European colonial influences and the arrival of cheap global travel and you’ve got a rich and colourful palette.
I visited Tobago and Barbados, two very different islands. Tobago, mountainous and lushly-rainforested is stunning. I recommend hitting the roads there and exploring. Right at the top of the island lies the pretty little town of Charlotteville, and there, on a cool terrace overlooking the bay, sits a fine local restaurant, Sharon & Pheb’s. The girls put on an amazing lunch full of local dishes like creole fish, stewed pork, goat curry, callalloo (a kind of spinach), macaroni pie, pigeon peas and rice and fried plantains.
Service is charming, and the food tastes superb. The callalloo especially, cooked in coconut milk, was to die for. Our hotel was very good indeed, although I was taken slightly aback one morning by the presence of a large owl in the dining room, sitting quite calmly by the breakfast buffet!
It was used to scare away the local birds, which can be a real nuisance, pinching bread rolls and eating the sugar!
Barbados is less leafy, but still achingly beautiful, with wonderful beaches, cane fields and forests. It’s not often you have to stop your round of golf to allow a few dozen monkeys across the fairway, but this happens frequently!
There are some stunning hotels and restaurants up and down the West coast, from the very opulent (Sandy Lane’s ‘Acajou’ is world-class) to the plentiful little rum shops and roadside fish grills. There’s nothing like a flying fish sandwich for a quick snack on the hoof! The eastern coast is much less developed, and has some amazing surfing beaches and stunning views, and the south of the island caters for the ‘livelier’ market – pubs and clubs abound. You’ll no doubt be seething with jealousy by now, so I’ll get on with my recipe: Johnny cakes with grilled fish and fried plantains
I found myself having this for breakfast most mornings; it made such a refreshing change from eggs and bacon!
These ‘creole scones’ are popular as a quick snack or picnic staple in the Caribbean. Often served piping hot with lashings of butter, they can be baked, but are better fried. If you can’t find plantains, just use the greenest bananas you can find.
225g plain flour, 2 tbsps butter, cubed and chilled, ½ tsp salt, 2 tsp baking powder, 2 tsp sugar, 150ml milk
4 8oz. pieces of firm white fish (coley, pollack, haddock, swordfish or halibut), S&P, the juice of 1 fresh lime
4 large green bananas or plantains, a pinch of flour, 1 egg, beaten, fine breadcrumbs, oil for deep-frying
Sift the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder into a bowl, then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Pour in enough milk to make a soft dough. Knead well, and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. Heat some oil in a pan, and roll ping-pong-ball-sized pieces of the dough, then flatten them to ½ inch thickness. Fry the cakes until golden and keep warm.
For the bananas, heat a pan with enough oil to deep-fry the bananas. Peel the fruit, cut into thick slices and roll in a little flour, then dip in the egg and finally the breadcrumbs. Repeat the egg and breadcrumbs stage. Deep fry the bananas until golden and crunchy, and keep warm.
To finish, season your fish steaks well, and simply fry or grill them until just cooked through. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice and serve with the cakes and plantains. See if you can find a nice fiery pepper sauce to go with this, too. Approach with caution!