What’s not to love about the warm, tropical breezes of the Caribbean and the beautiful produce that the islands bring forth? As a farm-to-table advocate (and student of sustainable agriculture), I have been overwhelmed this season by how fresh and seasonal the Caribbean diet is. Grilled fish, peas and rice, roasted yams and plantains, okra, tomatoes, kale – and most grown on small farms with little chemical intervention.
I recently had occasion to visit two Saturday markets, one in Roseau, Dominica, and the other in St. John’s, Antigua. After wandering through the markets of Nice, Crete, Livorno and Tangier last summer, I was curious how the islands’ most revered street markets would compare.
Our Saturday in Roseau coincided with a street festival celebrating Mardi Gras, so the town was electric even in the early hours. Before shopping, I fueled up with a fish cake (and hot sauce) from my favorite island spot, Pearl. I know from experience that if I stop in any later than 9 am, I risk missing these succulent treasures.
The market sits right on the water and encompasses three city blocks with small stalls and truck-based vendors. Men with gigantic machetes cut open coconuts in their flatbeds with the trimmings piling up along the way.
Watermelons, the largest of the sweet summer melons, were bright green and the pineapples a caramel-yellow color signifying their sweet ripeness. The myriad root vegetables – yams, yucca, sweet potatoes, taro and carrots – were brightly colored and so tempting. I brought bags full back to the ship to fry, mash and roast!
The lettuces, watercress and greens were crisp and fresh and tasted like they came right from the garden that very Saturday morning.
After a morning of shopping, I headed back to Pearl for a bowl of their Saturday special, callaloo soup. Callaloo is a wild spinach that is abundant in the Caribbean. The soup is made with salt pork, onion and garlic with seasonal vegetables added in. Today okra and red peppers laced the soup, along with a hint of coconut milk and fresh coconut. One-pot soups are common for lunch, especially on Saturday, and many restaurants feature only “one-pots,” such as vegetarian peas and rice, bull’s foot and root vegetables, or a fish stew. This is a seasonal eating paradise.
Later that day the parade began. Brightly colored and festive dancers, steel drum bands and floats came one by one for over an hour. We were teaching a class in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center and had a birds-eye view of the festivities.
The island residents welcomed our cruise ship tourists into the parade, and some even marched along. But sail away was at 5:30, so we waved good-bye to our friends in Roseau while they continued to party, sing and celebrate.
The next Saturday we were in St John’s, where the market is touted as one of the weekend highlights on Antigua. From the pier we followed Market Street to the enormous statue of Sir Vere Cornwall Bird, the “Father of the Nation,” and the giant black pineapple.
The public meat market is immediately to the north of the entrance to this lively street market. And much like the fish market in Roseau, it was “slim pickins,” as my grandmother would have said. These markets are mostly about produce and housewares.
But despite the lack of meat and fresh fish, the pineapples, eggplant, bananas and root vegetables were out in abundance.
I have a serious weakness for fried green tomatoes, so when I saw hundreds of luscious specimens in stall after stall, I could not resist. And if you add the temptation of homemade hot sauce from this street food vendor, how could I say no to my grandmother’s favorite side dish?
That afternoon in our Asian cooking class, we sampled these fried green tomatoes. Maybe we created the next culinary wave – Asian-Southern fusion!
The okra was a standout, and the papayas were so plentiful they were almost giving them away. Local limes were the size of grapefruit so I took a bag back to the ship, and we made deliciously tart margaritas in our Mexican Fiesta class later in the week.
The biggest find of the day was fresh sorrel, the hibiscus flower. It is a beautiful purplish scarlet, and when I inquired about them, I was told to soak them in warm water and make them into a tea with ginger, lemongrass, honey and lime. The ginger was so abundant we put it in almost everything (including the sorrel tea) throughout the remainder of the cruise. The tea was fabulous – a big hit with our students in the culinary center, some of whom thought the addition of a splash of vodka would make this a good Oceania Cruises happy hour cocktail. It’s not hard to see why this antioxidant-rich flower is treasured on the islands for its medicinal purposes.
The amazing flavors, colors and textures of Caribbean cuisine are to be treasured. The appreciation for home-grown, seasonal produce is not a fad here – it is a way of life. Who knew such healthy eating could be so seductive and satisfying?