It’s home to the oldest operating rum distillery in the New World — Mount Gay, opened in 1703 — so it’s not surprising that Barbados has finally launched an international culinary event that celebrates the unique spirit (and spirits) of the island.
Last month marked the very first Barbados Food, Wine and Rum Festival with a series of events all over the former British colony.
As Barbados Tourism Minister Richard Sealy told us at the opening ceremony, “Barbados has the most exciting array of eating experiences in the Caribbean — and, of course, the best rum — so we’re aiming for a world-class food and spirits event.”
He added that he hoped the festival would someday reach the high profile of annual culinary events in South Beach, Aspen or New York.
Like many Canadians, we discovered that Barbados is not just another laid-back Caribbean island with great beaches and posh resorts. It certainly has those in abundance, but what really shines is the cuisine — especially fish dishes — the rum and the friendly people.
We knew Barbados had world-class restaurants like The Cliff, a torch-lit, surfside masterpiece (a favourite haunt of Elton John’s).
But this small southern Caribbean island of 300,000 (just 430 square kilometres) boasts more than 1,000 rum shops — small, often dilapidated shacks where locals and visitors gather for potent rum drinks, dollar-fifty Banks beer (the local favourite) and tasty Bajan food like chicken and macaroni pie.
At the tiny John Moore Bar on the resort-heavy west coast, we sat on rough benches enjoying outstanding rum punch while watching fishermen clean their catch a few steps away and a table of local men debating the affairs of the day.
Another tradition in this friendly nation is the nightly or weekly fish-fry, a casual, highly entertaining gathering where vendors offer cheap and generous portions of the freshest possible seafood plus unique local side dishes.
The best known fish-fry is in Oistins, near Bridgetown, where dozens of local cooks provide tasty dolphin, snapper, kingfish or flying fish (the national dish) with accompaniments like cou-cou (cornmeal and okra), breadfruit or peas and rice.
We headed for Oistins on a busy Friday evening when it seemed the whole community was in high spirits. The heavy smoke from scores of barbecues mingled with the frenzied dancers, music and karaoke as hundreds of diners and revellers enjoyed the warm evening and pulsing energy.
But even with exquisite cuisine ranging from “fillet of mahi mahi on mushroom duxelle” at the top-tier Cliff restaurant to $3 tangy fish sandwiches at tiny beachside joints like Cuzz (near the Hilton Barbados), rum is still king on Barbados.
The festival, which will be repeated next year, invited half a dozen Food Network celebrity chefs to prepare dishes and give seminars. Their influence will have a lasting effect on island cuisine throughout the coming winter travel season.
Among those chefs was Canadian Rob Feenie (Cactus Club and Lumiere restaurants in Vancouver and a Food Network “Iron Chef” champion).
“I love working with the local chefs,” he told us. “The standard of cuisine on Barbados is very high and getting higher.”
For one of the showcase events (Savour Barbados, with a dozen top chefs and sampler food stations), Feenie used local butternut squash for a squash and mascarpone ravioli with black truffle beurre blanc sauce. It was the hit of the evening, with everyone commenting on the talent of this Canadian import.
Many of the visiting chefs were American, the best-known being restaurateur and Emmy-winner Ming Tsai (Boston’s Blue Ginger, “Simply Ming” on PBS and another “Iron Chef” champion). His food presentation at the upscale Sandy Lane Hotel featured mussels from Prince Edward Island. (“I use P.E.I. mussels all the time,” he said. “They are the very best.”)
Trained as an engineer, Ming switched to cooking because, “at the end of the day, I can make people happy through food. What other job has that payoff almost instantly?”
Tsai admitted that the plethora of food shows on television has raised quality standards in many parts of the world.
“People are travelling more and demanding more,” he told us. “Exotics like lemongrass are much more available now. Even cruise ships have changed. On Crystal recently I’ve had some of the best sushi I’ve ever enjoyed.”
Another Emmy-winning chef at the festival was Tom Colicchio (co-founder of New York’s Gramercy Tavern and chief judge on TV’s “Top Chef”). Along with a cooking demonstration at Sandy Lane and preparing a featured dinner at The Cliff, he brought a political message about the connection between poverty and obesity and the need for governments to help provide better food in schools.
“It’s a myth that kids want cardboard pizza and burgers,” he told us. “We did a TV show with healthy, tasty cafeteria food for kids and they went crazy for it.”
Other celebrity chefs who wowed packed houses of locals and tourists were Tim Love of Fort Worth, Texas (an “Iron Chef” champion with an Eastern Canada connection — his father and two siblings were born in Nova Scotia), New Yorker Marcus Samuelsson (a “Top Chef” master on Bravo TV and chef of the first Obama White House state dinner), Michelin Star chef Fergus Henderson of England and the Caribbean’s most celebrated chef, Peter Edey of Barbados (host of several highly rated TV series).
With rum as a central theme to this event (wine, all imported, played a secondary role), the sugar cane spirit was available at all of the culinary venues.
We sampled several island brands — all outstanding — but packed a litre of Mount Gay Extra Old for our return to Canada. The aroma was woody, nutty and smoky and the ultra-smooth, peppery caramel taste matched the sipping quality of many single-malt Scotches. It’s a rum to savour straight.
We regretted not having more time to enjoy Barbados and its safe, welcoming environment and attractions.
One tip: leave enough time at the airport to visit the Concorde Experience next door (a two-minute walk from the check-in counter).
Barbados was one of only four regular Concorde destinations (along with London, Paris and New York) and one of the sleek, supersonic planes is now preserved in a modern hangar. Visitors can roam through the narrow cabin and even pilot the craft though a clever simulation.
It was another happy surprise in a tropical paradise that’s full of treats for winter-weary Canadians.
John and Sandra Nowlan are freelance travel and food writers based in Halifax.