Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trying the delights of St. Lucia

Today we were taken around the island of St. Lucia by a driver who promised to give us a taste of his homeland. Fortunately for me, he took the vow literally, stopping at roadside stands to buy us local delicacies. Here are some of the foods we sampled:

Fresh bananas: They’d been picked, probably that morning, from one of the banana plantations that once formed the main industry of the British commonwealth (bananas were known as “yellow gold”). Our guide, a character named Spencer, warned us that St. Lucian bananas taste different from the sort we eat in the United States (ours tend to come from South America, which has largely destroyed St. Lucia’s industry by undercutting it in price).

As he’d forewarned us, the bananas had more of a mineral-y, almost metallic taste—closer to a green banana in the States than the brown-spotted ripe sort. Yet there was a nice, sweet finish to it. But perhaps my judgment was biased by seeing where and how bananas are grown. Clearly these were the freshest specimens I’d ever eaten.

Creole bread: Spencer would speak of the local bread with reverence that bordered on the misty-eyed. He wasn’t over-selling it. The bread itself is not distinctive in its taste or appearance. But it’s baked in small ovens and eaten hot and fresh. And, while it may not be unique, it was delicious—as chewy as good French bread, with more of a chewy skin than a crust. And, of course, it was hot enough to make you juggle it from hand to hand. We had ours with butter and peanut butter, which are apparently the usual garnishes.

Coconut cake: Imagine a squished-down muffin packed with fresh coconut and pineapple, which provided virtually the only sweetness. The cake is far more savory than anything we’d christen cake. Spencer explained that you’d have it with a meal or as a snack, but not as a dessert. The coconut cake wasn’t my favorite among the local specialties we tried, but everyone else in the party gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. It also sold for pennies.

Johnnycake: A traditional accompaniment to jerked chicken, true St. Lucian johnnycake is cooked in a big leaf to ensure the inside stays chewy, according to Spencer. The specimen I relished was more likely pan-fried in oil. It looked like a flattened piece of dough whose edges had been rolled up to form a nearly round, half-inch-thick bread. It had a rich crusty taste and a very chewy consistency. I probably violated all kinds of local etiquette by dipping it in the hot sauce served with my jerk chicken, but the combination was delicious. So was tearing off a piece and wrapping it around a hunk of white meat.

Jerk chicken: I’ve yet to find a version in the States that comes close than what you can find anywhere in the Caribbean, cooked on a homemade grill in some roadside pull-off. Mine was so hot that I could barely eat it, yet juicy enough to risk burnt fingertips. The spicing was perfect—deep and complex, with “brown” flavors like nutmeg or cinnamon blending with the pepper. It was spicy, not fiery.

Spencer proudly announced that I was having the best jerk chicken in all of St. Lucia. I didn’t doubt him.

Local “beers”: We tried two sorts: One, a golden brew with a stronger taste than pilsner, called Piton. It had a heartier taste than the piss water that’s peddled as premium beer in the States, yet surprisingly thirst-quenching, too. Judging from the minimum buzz it provided, I’m sure it’s also lower in alcohol.

The other quaff is what Spencer termed “a lady’s beer,” called Shandi. I didn’t have it, but a member of our crew did. He described it as fruit punch in a bottle, with an undetectable level of alcohol (1.5 proof or 3%, not even enough to catch a tingle on a fiercely hot day).

Spencer was kind enough to take us to a roadside market selling local produce, so we could see a few a West Indian specialties in their raw state. He pointed out nutmeg, aki, cocoa and several types of yams, still in the form in which they’re taken from the wild. Later at a stop in a botanical garden, he plucked a leaf off a tree, snapped it, and gave us a smell. We sniffed a delightful perfume of fresh cinnamon.

Now, on to another local specialty. I do think it’s rum time here in the Caribbean.

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