Jamaica has a landscape so lush that vegetables and fruits tempt the passerby from a constant colorful parade of roadside stands. Smoke from spicy jerk pork wafts through open windows. Every cook in every house has a backyard garden, and knows how to make such delicious dishes as a pungent oxtail stew, served with a rich mélange of calaloo (Jamaican greens) and onions and followed by a creamy, freshly grated coconut pie.
But my favorite home cook in Jamaica is Sharon Miller of the Rio Vista Resorts in Port Antonio. Surrounded by an orchard of pimento (allspice) trees, her lovely house overlooks the Rio Grande River, down which bamboo rafts float, proffering Red Stripe beer.
One night she took me on a tour of her garden, an open-air larder of thyme, scotch bonnet peppers, papaya, lemon grass, peppermint, thyme, tomatoes, and a whole orchard of pimento trees, whose fragrant leaves she uses to line the bottom of the pot when she steams fish. She uses the native pimento berry in many of her dishes. Thinking of it only a spice for baking, I was astonished by its depth of flavor. Holding hints of nutmeg, black pepper, and yes, perhaps cloves and cinnamon, it adds an exotic tang to many Jamaican dishes. Sharon uses 12 whole pimento berries along with a ¼ teaspoon of the ground allspice in her Island gumbo. With all the other ingredients, which include scallions and peppers, fresh herbs, coconut milk and okra, conch, lime, and crayfish tails, it’s a complicated tapestry of flavors that bedazzle the eater. Jamaican home-cooking at its best!
Sharon also has several cottages for rent where you can stay after eating her food, and have breakfast served while you watch the sun rise over the Blue Mountains.
If you would rather find your own favorite home cook, call the Jamaican Tourist Board at 800-233-4582 and ask about their Meet the People program. You might even get an entire mountain village to throw you a bash! They’ll cook you a curry goat with mannish water (goat soup) and then everyone from 18 months to 80 years old will gyrate to reggae well into the midnight hours!