Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
From macaroni pie and pickled shrimp to dolphinfish and tuna tartare, Bajan food is surprising, hearty, and often so fresh it’s practically singing
The fish is enormous, shimmering yellow and green, its big head almost comical. “This is dolphin,” says Leo Beckles, waiting for a look of horror to cross my face. But while I’m not able to identify this amazing specimen as mahi mahi (or dolphinfish), I do know that eating dolphin on the islands of the Caribbean is not something to get your knickers in a twist over. It’s obviously not that kind of dolphin.
Chef Beckles is taking me on a tour of today’s catch, brought by boat to the fish market at the edge of Bridgetown. He introduces me to his friends, the fishmongers, and imparts knowledge that is invaluable. I’d wandered around this market on my own a few days previously, and I could hardly tell my marlin from my kingfish. “Mahi mahi is quite acidic because it’s a deep-sea fish. Chub has that taste too. Snapper is sweet, mild and creamy while barracuda has a light, refreshing taste,” explains the chef, as he points to each, stacked up on the stalls.
I tell Beckles that on my previous visit, the ladies had told me to soak the fish in lime for an hour. “Don’t do that,” he says, horrified. “It cooks the fish and takes away the flavour.”
He shows me a flying fish, pulling out the fins that act as wings and allow it to skim along the surface of the water. Women trim them all around us and I buy a bag of fillets to fry later, in a coating of a flour breadcrumbs mix spiked up with Bajan blackened seasoning. Pound for pound, they’re an expensive fish, but they’re delicate and divine — served with cou cou(cornmeal and okra), they’re Barbados’s national dish.
A chef at Cobblers Cove hotel, on the island’s ‘Platinum Coast’, Beckles clearly loves taking guests on a tour of the markets here; he’s high-fived and hi’d everywhere he goes. His eye is caught by some tuna lying on one of the stalls, dark and meaty, and as he looks closer he pronounces it ‘B grade’ — high-quality stuff often shipped out to the United States. We buy some and Beckles whips out his knives. He cuts it into logs, to be cooked later, but saves some which he quickly chops into small pieces, seasoning with orange juice and zest, olive oil and salt. Right there on the market stall. “Taste it,” he demands. “Tuna tartare. You won’t beat it.” And he’s right — it’s so fresh it’s practically singing.
We cross the street and head for Cheapside Market, where the air is filled with the smells of oregano, marjoram, bay, chives and thyme. Stalls offer local produce: yams, eddos, breadfruits, green bananas and cassavas, as well as bottles of homemade hot sauce and mauby (a drink derived from tree bark and mixed with sugar to taste).
Upstairs, we perch on high stools at Harriet’s, a hole-in-the-wall food stall serving some of the best fish cakes I taste in Barbados. Another Caribbean favourite, they’re made from salt fish, flour, herbs and spices, and we eat them with a cooling glass of fresh coconut water.
Later, we cross the island to its wilder Atlantic side, and one of the most popular lunch spots for good Bajan food: The Village Inn, also known as Lemon Arbour. The pickled shrimp is spiky, with lime zest and chilli, while the fried chicken is crunchy and comes with a kick. Saturday is pudding (steamed, grated sweet potato) and souse (bits of pork, pickled in lime) day — served with pickled cucumbers and peppers, it’s an acquired taste. Macaroni pie, known as just ‘pie’, is a staple of Barbados, eaten almost every day. Long tubes of macaroni are mixed with cheese, evaporated milk, Bajan spices and hot sauce, and baked until crisp; it’s excellent and strangely addictive.
On the balcony at Lemon Arbour, you look out across the fields in the parish of St John, planted with sugar cane, eddos and yams. The cows here are grass-fed and so too are black-belly lambs, a breed indigenous to Barbados.
I visit Andrea Power in the shed in her garden where she makes Hatchman’s Cheeses, a new range of artisan cheeses launched just under three years ago. On an island not known for the best dairy products, she’s created three fresh cheeses from goat’s milk: a Bajan brie; a blue cheese; and a number of flavoured little bombs, including a Scotch bonnet cheddar and another using fresh, local passion fruit.
Now selling to some of the island’s best restaurants, as well as to supermarkets, demand is already outstripping supply, so she’s looking forward to expanding. “I really started it as a hobby,” she laughs. “I had a point to prove; that I could make good cheese. I also wanted Barbadians to know what quality cheese was. Most of the cheese here is imported, and a lot of it isn’t very good. Now we’ve got our own island cheeses, really good ones too.”
Under the lee of some coconut trees, skirting the beach on Carlisle Bay, I find Sharky, a kind of fish middleman who buys the catch of the day direct from the small-time fishermen on the beach. He then cleans and scales his recently acquired wares on a table for a small add-on sum. There are fish of different sizes and colours, known locally as ‘pot fish’. I buy 2lb of them for five Bajan dollars (around £2), with an extra five for Sharky’s gutting services. He advises covering the fish with foil and cooking for less than 10 minutes in a hot oven. The flesh is beautiful and sweet, and works perfectly with roasted sweet potatoes from the market. Cold Banks beer (brewed on the island) in hand, I raise a toast to Sharky and Beckles, and the fish lessons they’ve bestowed. I now know my dolphin from my king, my snapper from my sword — and I know how to cook them too.
Five food finds
Cuz’s Fish Stand
First run by Cuz Snr, now run by Cuz Jnr, this trailer near Pebbles Beach sells around 500 salt bread buns (stuffed with fried blue marlin and seasoned with Bajan spices) every day.
Friday night fish fry
Fish, seafood, beer and rum are on the menu at this weekly party in the Oistin’s area, on the south coast. Stall holders flame grill the local catch, while punters hit the dance floor.
Flying fish and cou cou
Barbados’s national dish: fillets of this tasty little fish are fried until they are crisp, then served hot and spicy, along with a tasty mash of cornmeal with okra mixed through.
This baked cheesy pasta dish features evaporated milk, Bajan herbs and spices, ketchup and mustard. Served as a side dish but it is also a meal in its own right.
First produced on the island in 1703, Mount Gay Rum claims to be the world’s oldest. Available in five different varieties, such as 1703 Old Cask Selection, it’s usually drunk straight.
A taste of Barbados
Pick your own Caribbean spiny lobster from the tank, personally flown in weekly from the Grenadines by owner Art Taylor. Chef Simon Charles will cook it to your liking, and you can either dine on the beach, deck, or inside, where jazz band The Crustaceans play during Sunday lunch. Lobster features in starter spring rolls and also in bisque; in mains it can come grilled, as a thermidor, or in pasta, salads or crepes. Those with an eye on their wallet can opt for the catch of the day.
How much: Three courses without wine from £71 per person. This includes a main course of half a lobster. Without lobster, from £42.50.
Camelot Restaurant at Cobblers Cove
Since taking over as manager of Cobblers Cove, Will Oakley has turned the focus of the restaurant to fresh, seasonal island produce. Local fisherman Barker brings his catch to the door every day. Mains include olive-crusted mahi mahi with cinnamon-dusted plantains, and lamb rack marinated in local herbs.
How much: Three courses without wine from £56 per person. A market tour with chef Leo Beckles with lunch prepared poolside from the market shop, is £120.
Probably the most famous and exclusive restaurant in Barbados, The Cliff boasts a dramatic setting over a cove. Dining is on a number of decks, all with flaming torches. Popular with celebrity visitors, the menu is international but also includes local dishes such as chargrilled dolphin (mahi mahi), swordfish and seared tuna.
How much: Dinner is a set price at £106 per person for two courses and £124 for three.