Even if we hadn't just spent a week enjoying the low-key life in Treasure Beach, we would have been wary of Montego Bay. The internet is full of warnings: "beware - hasslers and pickpockets everywhere!" "don't go downtown by yourself!" "don't even think of leaving your hotel after dark!". The hotels don't really help the impression either, most of them building foot-thick perimeter walls and hiring armed guards to stand sentry at the gates; many of them also offer all-inclusive plans to make it easy to never even leave the grounds. The guidebooks offer warnings too, telling you to avoid many areas of town and giving tips on how to cope with the army of persistent touts. But let's be frank here: even though we spent the majority of our time in the company of an experienced local guide (this being home turf for Everton), I'm sure we would have come to the same conclusion without him. Indeed, it didn't take us long to realize that this is all just a lot of scare-mongering; Montego Bay is as safe, and as fascinating, as just about anywhere we've ever been.
Montego Bay has no shortage of both world-class resort beaches (left)
and colorful local beaches (right)
We were however, as it turned out, booked into one of the most fortress-like hotels around. The Half Moon is a 400-acre resort set on the beach a few miles east of downtown - it competes with one or two others for the title of most exclusive resort in Jamaica, and regularly hosts visiting heads of state (including Queen Elizabeth, who always stays there when she's on state business in Jamaica, we were told). We were very nearly treated like royalty ourselves, given VIP status and a spectacular suite fronting onto a private beach; cleaners and butlers and doormen seemed to come by in a constant parade wanting to perform one service or another. Still, as nice as it was to have a bathroom the size of our apartment back home, I couldn't shake the feeling that everything here was too surreal; in fact, too long spent in the safe, hermetic confines of such uber-luxury left me itchy to get out and experience the dirt, traffic and noise of 'real' Jamaica again. Not to mention that most of the food at this palace of splendor was really pretty mediocre. Breakfast, for example, was almost worth skipping, as despite nearly fifty different choices on the buffet table only two or three were even remotely Jamaican; on the one day ackee and saltfish was offered during our stay it was bland and disappointing (but at least I had my hot sauce!).
A stall at the Montego Bay weekend food market offers every kind of tropical fruit
under the sun.
All of this did make me feel sorry for the people who would let this be their only taste of Jamaica. We, on the other hand, didn't stop tasting. One day we had a tour of the Appleton Rum estate where we were treated to a delicious Jamaican lunch before being presented with an open bar and 21 different bottles of rum to sample. Another day we visited the Montego Bay food market, a crowded, colourful microcosm of Caribbean life, where plump Jamaican grandmothers coaxed us over to inspect buckets of squirming crayfish while wiry young men tried to make us deals on enormous jackfruit and melons; we munched on mangoes and soursops that vendors obligingly sliced up for us, apparently pleased to see some rare tourist faces among all the local ones. And at night we wined and dined in some of Montego Bay's fanciest restaurants: The Houseboat Grill on Boque Lagoon, The Sugar Mill on the Half Moon's golf course, Nikkita's on the Hip Strip. At these places we feasted on innovative and imaginative Jamaican fusion food like Black River shrimp on callaloo mashed potato with curried ackee sauce; jerked crab parcels with salmon caviar and papaya-ginger remoulade; baked ahi tuna on banana tempura with spring vegetables and sweet-sour mango sauce; and fillet mignon with scotch bonnet béarnaise. Most of it was very good - excellent even; nonetheless, we couldn't stop comparing everything we ate to the one meal we just couldn't get out of our heads: our first taste of authentic jerk.
(left) Our suite at Half Moon; (right) The rum aging room at Appleton Estate
Jerk was probably what we had most been looking forward to on our Jamaican odyssey. After all, we originally put in a request for Port Antonio because of its proximity to Boston Beach, the birthplace of jerk. The term 'jerk' actually describes a type of barbecue that originated with Maroons, a group of escaped slaves who set up a community in the remote hills of Cockpit country in the 17th century. The etymology of the word itself supposedly refers to the way the meat was jerked about and poked with a stick as it cooked, though there are some sources that claim the root is the Spanish word 'charqui', which incidentally is where our term 'jerky' originated. Traditional jerking requires a fire of young pimento wood (from the tree that bears the allspice berry), a large dugout pit or oil-barrel barbecue for slow, moist cooking, and a fiery marinade based on the hellishly hot scotch bonnet pepper. Although jerk makers vary their recipes (and guard their exact ingredient lists like the treasures they are), the same basic trinity of allspice, scallions and thyme forms the foundation of all of them. And while whole pigs are the traditional meat to jerk, chicken, fish, shrimp and lobster are now just as popular.
(left) Goats are a common sight in Jamaica as many rural families raise their own
for food; (right) Sea grapes grow in abundance near beaches and are used
to make preserves
Everyone in Montego Bay told us that the gold standard in jerk is set by Scotchies, a rough thatched hut just off the main road west of the airport. To find the place you just have to follow the plume of smoke, leading like a rainbow to a pot of gold, which in this case consists of large slabs of pork shoulder, spatchcocked chickens and slippery whole snapper. Everything here is jerked to Scotchies closely-guarded recipe (I know this since I begged and pleaded for the recipe to no avail!), smouldering on aromatic pimento branches for up to four hours before being weighed, chopped up and wrapped in a foil packet to be enjoyed at one of their shaded wooden tables. We decided to try a bit of everything on the grill and ordered some festivals to accompany it (those slightly sweet cornmeal fritters we had developed an intense passion for at Little Ochie's), passing up on the roasted breadfruit and sweet potatoes that formed the only other menu options. We helped ourselves to extra cups of jerk sauce, too, just to have the full experience.
(left) The menu at Scotchies; (right) Festivals frying
That jerk did not disappoint, but it did give us quite a shock. Despite thinking that we'd pretty well acclimatized ourselves to the level of heat in Jamaican food, Scotchies put us right back in our place. This was the hottest thing I had ever eaten. Luckily, it was also one of the most delicious – the smoky, succulent meat (the pork was our favorite), fiery sauce and sweet, crunchy festivals were nearly addictive together, and we discovered that as long as we kept our mouths busy, we barely felt the pain. That is, until there was nothing more to eat! But even in the midst of all the agony, I felt vindicated - out of three cups of jerk sauce on our table, mine, Manuel's and our partner-in-jerk-crime Everton's, mine was the only one to be emptied. I had beaten a Jamaican at his own game! Once I'd recovered enough to talk, I had only one question: "when can we come back?"
'Daddy Lou', as he is affectionately called by staff and customers, is the pit master at
Scotchies and guardian of the secret sauce recipe.
Come back we did on our last afternoon in Jamaica, just hours before our flight, and again we filled our bellies to bursting with as much of that heavenly manna as we could, the fire still snaking from our throats to our stomachs long after the last bone had been picked clean. It was a good thing, too, because when Air Jamaica delayed our flight again, and finally deposited us without apology in London so late that we'd missed our connection to Edinburgh and had no other affordable option than to rent a car and drive the seven hours home, we needed a nice last memory to cling to - something to remind us that despite the discomfort, hardship and frustration of getting there and back, Jamaica itself had been so worth every minute of it.
Jamaican Jerk Pork
Source: Adapted from Lucinda's Authentic Jamaican Kitchen (see below)
Notes: This recipe is the closest I have been able to come to Scotchies jerk. Part of the problem, I know, is that I don't have a fire of pimento wood to smoke the meat over - in fact, I don't even have a barbecue at all! If you do, you can certainly adapt this recipe for barbecue cooking; keep the heat low and the grill covered, positioning the coals so that they are not directly underneath the meat to prevent flare-ups, and throwing on some soaked wood chips at periodic intervals for extra flavor. You can also do the first 3 hours in the oven and finish the meat off on the grill to get it crispy and slightly smoky. Also, please adjust the number of scotch bonnets to suit your own taste - while one is probably mild enough for children, three will start to challenge most non-thrill-seeking adults, and from there the sky's the limit. I do suggest you err on the side of caution, at least the first time you make this - they pack quite a punch...
5-6 lbs (2.5-3kg) boneless pork shoulder (the fattier the better)
5 bunches scallions/spring onions, white and 2 inches green, chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup (60ml) ground allspice
2 tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper
1-6 scotch bonnet chilies, stems removed
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons distilled vinegar
Place the pork in a large bowl or non-reactive pan that is just big enough to accommodate it (or a big heavy-duty plastic bag, if you like). Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a blender or food processor and process to a thick paste, adding water as needed to get it moving. Remove 2/3 of this paste and smear it all over the meat, rubbing it into all the crevices. Cover the meat and refrigerate, turning occasionally, for 24 hours. Refrigerate the remaining 1/3 of the marinade.
Preheat the oven to 325F/160C, or prepare your barbecue (see note above). Lay the meat out in a roasting pan fat side up, reserving any excess marinade for basting. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and roast for 3 hours, or until the pork is tender, basting occasionally with pan juices and any reserved marinade. Remove the foil, raise the heat to 400F/200C and continue roasting for another 30 minutes, or until the outside of the pork is sizzling and charred in places. Remove to a large cutting board and chop into large bite-sized pieces for serving (you can remove most of the fat at this point if you like). Arrange the pieces on a platter for serving, with the festival and sauce on the side.
While the meat is roasting, make the sauce: combine the leftover spice paste in a saucepan with the sugar, vinegar, and enough water to make a thin sauce. Bring to a boil and let cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, just until the raw taste of onions and garlic has mellowed. The sauce should be of thin drizzling consistency, particularly if you've made it incendiary, so add more water if necessary. Taste for salt, adding more if necessary, and let cool completely.
Yield: about 20
2 cups (250g) flour
2 cups (250g) coarse cornmeal
1/4 cup (60g) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 eggs, lightly beaten
about 1 cup (250ml) water
vegetable oil, for deep frying
Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Make a well in the center and add the eggs; with your hands, knead in enough water to make a dough that is moist but firm. Be careful not to over-mix or the festivals will be tough. In a large, heavy pot pour the oil to a depth of three inches and heat to 370F/180C. Form cigar shapes by pinching off pieces of dough about the size of a golf ball, dipping them in flour and rolling them into logs between your palms - make them a little thinner in the middle than the ends because they will puff up most here. Carefully add each one to the oil and fry until puffed and golden (try not to overcook or they'll get very hard). Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Eat as soon as possible.
Want to learn more about Jamaican food? I recommend:
Lucinda's Authentic Jamaican Kitchen by Lucinda Quinn
This small book has gorgeous photography and a good selection of some of the most common Jamaican dishes. While not as exhaustive as the others, the recipes are excellent.
The Food of Jamaica by John DeMers
This book has a bit more depth and provides a nice balance between comprehensiveness and informativeness, with an illustrated section on Jamaican produce and plenty of detailed information on food culture, history and traditional dishes.
The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson
A real 'home cooking' kind of book - if my grandmother were Jamaican, she would have put together a cookbook like this one. Comprehensive and authentic, if not exactly stylish.
Eat Caribbean by Virginia Burke
This beautiful volume covers more than just Jamaica, but as the author comes from here it is represented heavily. I have mixed feelings about some of the recipes which seem to have been over-simplified, but there are definitely enough in here to provide some real gems. Besides, this is just pure food porn.
and last but not least...
The Marblue Cookbook by Axel Wichterich (not yet published)
Axel is currently working on a cookbook with food writer Judy Bastyra and photographer Cookie Kinkaid (both of whom contributed to Eat Caribbean, above). No publication date is yet scheduled, but it'll definitely be worth getting ahold of when it is, so keep checking!
All photos in this post copyright ©2006 Manuel Meyer.