Explore Jamaica's Culinary Scene and the NyamJam Festival
You know you’ve reached Jamaica when your first stop in the country is for jerk chicken at Scotchie’s, a small chain of roadside restaurants with tin roofs where jerk is still marinated and slow-roasted over pimento wood the old-fashioned Jamaican way. Feeling that familiar burn on my lips from the Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce always brings me back to Jamaica in my mind. We were here, thanks to the Jamaica Tourist Board, for a four-day eating spree, from places like a marbled all-inclusive resort to an open-air dining room with driftwood tables out in the bush. It was all topped off by a visit to NyamJam, an inaugural open-air festival of food and music.
Our first overnight stay was at the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston, a city which, like its food, is fiery, tasty, and dense with flavors. Out at the airport, women in church hats waited for family. Free-range goats still nibbled at the sides of the roads, a soft breeze caressed everyone, and puffy clouds looking like whipped cream presided over the Blue Mountains. The streets were packed. Graffiti decorated empty walls. A row of schoolgirls chattered, their pink and green uniforms as vivid as seashells in seagrass. Outside our hotel, a long line of young men in pressed jeans and starched shirts waited for interviews for possible jobs at Guantanamo. Though tourism is a significant source of revenue for Jamaica’s economy, Kingston is a proud city for locals and stays true to itself in every way.
From my room on the sixth floor, I watched the sun race down across a golden harbor, its flat surface scratched with passing freighters. Clouds floated down the green flanks of the Blue Mountains. We walked to the the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel for dinner. The downtown hotels of Kingston are popular at night. There’s a dignity and formality here that belies people’s notions of laid-back island life. Floors of shining marble, pots of orchids, decked-out locals, and the tall and lanky female Prime Minister, surrounded by burly bodyguards, sweeping through the lobby with a dignified “Namasté” to all of us watching. At dinner, a waiter gently interjected every time he brought us a new dish, “I hate to interrupt your lovely conversation, but…” as he bowed low to offer us a spicy pepperpot soup with crispy fried calaloo sprinkled across its creamy surface, sweet curried shrimp, or lamb chops in a reduction sauce served over a potpourri of fresh vegetables. But the best was a succulent pastry tart with caramelized coconut and ginger. Outside, frogs let out shrill chirps in the bushes lining the parking lot.
The next morning, craving more ginger, I walked around the block to the Hot Pot where ginger beer is made with fresh-cut ginger blended with honey and lime. It scorched my throat in a good way. Back at the hotel for breakfast, we had escovitch fish, smothered with onions, spices, carrots, and peppers. The national breakfast food of saltfish and ackee was tasty, but the braised calaloo, as green and leafy as spinach but far more tender and flavorful, was so fresh that it tasted as if it had just been washed in a mountain stream.
We hopped into a van to make our way through the congested streets, winding our way high up into the Blue Mountains to where Belcour Estate lies nestled deep down in a valley, surrounded by a thick canopy of jungle. Since 1998, the enchanting Robin Lin Lumsden and her handsome husband Michael have been bottling and preserving sauces and marmalade under the label Belcour Preserves. Their first product, a five-fruit marmalade medley, was developed from an old family recipe and perfected by Robin using the citrus growing on their seven-acre estate, which started off as a coffee-buying station back in the 1700s. Their product line now includes three savories, three pepper sauces, and four marmalades. They hope to be soon displayed in gourmet stores in the United States.
Late that afternoon, we headed higher up to the very top of the mountain range where, at the Creighton Estate and Great House, we learned all about the extremely refined and rare Blue Mountain coffee. Our guide Junior assured us that coffee runs the world, that we should always order medium roast, and that he can smell a moldy coffee bean a block away. At sunset, we hiked up through a vast orchard of high mountain coffee plants while the sunset rolled down to the sea behind a bank of silver clouds.
The following day we drove up over the spine of the island, partially by way of a shortcut to Ocho Rios that saved us almost two hours and 15 minutes. Our first stop was Stush in the Bush, which was high up in the hills overlooking the North shore. There, Chris and Lisa Binns celebrate life and welcome guests to their small but charming cottage. “To live, you must eat,” says Lisa. “To live well, you must eat well.” Their food is all fresh from the earth, not using animal products. Chris forages and farms while Lisa comes up with delicious dishes, all served on a rough-hewn table alongside a view that stretches all the way down to where the sky and water meet in a seamless sea of blue. They also bottle their sauces. I bought a honey and ginger lime marinade and a jar of passion fruit butter.
After a soul-satisfying lunch, we glided down the hills, blaring our horn at every gut-wrenching hairpin turn. We finally arrived to check in to the newly refurbished and reinvented Moon Palace Jamaica Grande, an exquisitely polished all-inclusive resort, which was quite the contrast to the rustic but elegant simplicity we had been enjoying. Minutes later, we dashed off for a sit-down dinner for 250 guests at Goldeneye Hotel, once the home of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Now, it’s the heart of one of the chains of fabulous eco-resorts called Island Outpost developed by Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame and discoverer of Bob Marley.
Overarching Banyan trees and peeping tree frogs greeted us as we entered the garden that was gloriously lit by golden hanging lanterns and thousands of candles. It was an elegant local crowd mixed with famed chefs — Mario Batali was Chris Blackwell’s co-host. While Chris Blackwell kindly greeted guests, Mario Batali offered a bit of tart contrast. Corpulent rappers with ornate tattoos chatted with lovely ladies in flowing gowns. A very cool Busha Browne, one of the top distributors of jerk sauces, chatted with a food scientist. Two local Kingston ladies complained Mario Batali was rude to them. A rock star chatted up a public relations representative with long black hair and a short dress. In fact, the people-watching was far more memorable than the food. But I was thrilled to meet Chris Blackwell, who has long been a hero of mine.
The following day, we explored the powder-soft beaches at Moon Palace Jamaica Grande, were stunned by the size and complexity of the spa (it even has a cool room with ice for after the sauna), and laughed at the people falling while trying to surf the waves at the Flow Rider. I went paddleboarding, ordered drinks, and ate delicious food, all with a flick of my Moon Palace bracelet.
That afternoon, back at Goldeneye Hotel, right by the turquoise ocean, we explored the two large tents of the NyamJam Festival. Vendors awaited us with bits of delicious food, which varied from homemade chocolate cake to coconut fritters, plantain chips, and jerk pork. Other vendors sold cookbooks, jewelry, and colorful dresses. And all the while, a reggae beat filled the air while men wearing stilts jammed to the music. Behind the stage, Goldeneye Hotel’s beach bar overlooked a stunning wade-in pool and, beyond, one lovely lady wallowed in the shallows of the ocean.
On the way to the airport the next day, we stopped once more at another Scotchie’s for a last serving of rice and peas, jerk pork, and roasted yam, which we washed down with ginger beer and Red Stripe beer. I overhead one man say, “When I reach Jamaica, I be very happy.” Yes, indeed.