TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Like cocoa drying in the sun: A chef lives off of the land in Grenada

in Ark Weekender/Caribbean/Culinary Traditions & Food Ways by

The further from it, the nearer to sea appeared
To scoop with both hands
Drink.
Salty, Alive
Be with me always
prose by Leigh-Ann Martin

My taxi driver seemed used to the routine tourist playfulness. Of conversations painted with a real interest in hearing the personal viewpoint of the pride of a people and excitement of escaping winter temperatures.

By holding my smartphone out the car’s window, I took pictures and videos to later update social media statuses, giving my followers a tease of what’s coming on my travels. We rode up hilly roads taking us further away from the expansive salt water, yet nearer the sea appeared.

As the cabbie drove slowly through the country’s town, St George’s, we came upon its small bustling bus hub. White coaches, colorfully stamped with large circled numbers, show the designated villages within the country’s parishes each bus line services. I saw buses, numbered one-through-eight, skillfully driving in-and-out of the crowds, street vendors and large concrete barriers that separate this busy two-lane main road.

At the time we drove through town, a small tour my driver says every tourist loves as they make their way from the airport, the buses that zigzag through traffic transport everyday people from school and work to home.  Picking up speed, we drove faster once more, leaving the crawling city to make our way back into the views of the Caribbean Sea.

Gouyave village sits off the coast of Grenada.

I captured the glistening waters with my phone. It’s late afternoon glitter peeking through bougainvillea brushes guarded by prickly stems, planted alongside many a guest house along the road’s beach view. A beautiful interchangeable mix of the sparkling blue water, shades of pinks and purples of the country’s national flower and off-white rental homes.

This scene greeted my arrival to the island and appeared to bid me farewell as we worked our way higher up through the narrow winding roads and out of the views of Grand Anse beach and Grenada’s capital, St. George’s. We headed west from the southern lands to a small and lively fishing village where I’d spend the beginning months of 2019.

Leaving US, returning home

Sunset in Gouyave, Grenada

Gouyave, pronounced ‘goo-yahv,’ the French designation for guava fruit, is said to be named by French settlers who sighted endless guava trees here on their early voyages. Like its namesake, this tiny village is sweet with a smooth and gritty after taste. And just as the pink meat of the tropical fruit I ate first as a child in Trinidad and Tobago, I loved when my Gramma Lou made jars and jars of dark thick jam with it.

When I decided to put my accounting job on hold so that I could travel through the Caribbean to cook while learning local foods, cuisines and customs, Gouyave would be the first of many homes to play a part in me redefining the region of which I grew up.

Chef Leigh-Ann Martin

Before leaving the United States to start travels in the Caribbean, I researched regional foodways for understanding. Like a good traveler, I read as much as I could on the country, from its food to the remote parts where I decided to spend time.

I was looking forward to acquainting myself to the spices Grenada famously harvests, like nutmeg, clove, local turmeric and fragrant bay leaf. Being a Caribbean woman with a great appreciation for its foodways and recognizing what makes a country unique through scenes of everyday life is a key ingredient in my travels back to a chain of islands I call home.

Spices of Grenada.

If I’ve picked up anything so far on my travels back home to the Caribbean, one thing is for sure — fishing villages have nuff vibes, nuff nice people and good fresh food. Like Dennery, St. Lucia and Oistins, Barbados, the village of Gouyave is mostly known for its lively Fish Friday. The fete is a weekly outdoor celebration of a fisherman’s catch mixed with rum and music.

While in the Grenadian hamlet, not being around tall buildings and sunbathers is also a plus. My time spent in the accounting industry made me recognize that the more specialized the corporation or state tax, the less you know until you get in it. For no amount of studying and flipping through pages of travel books and online pictures of this three-island state: Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique could ever ready me for this true experience of being there. Fully immersed to know it. To know me.

Patio view from Rumboat Retreat

Rum and chocolate. Do I need to say more?

On the morning of my first day at The Rumboat Retreat, a ten-minute drive away from Gouyave’s main roads, a pandemonium of parrots woke me early to start. My residency at the four-guestroom, bed-and-breakfast hidden between valleys and a sea of tinted green would concentrate on learning about local produce and how people live and love off of the land.

Cataloguing and cooking with rum; chocolate-making from micro bean-to-bar, understanding complex spices and having an opportunity to hold intimate dinners is where I spend most of my time.

Jovay chocalate

Day one starts off with a walk up a path not far off the back of the house to pick oranges. Later that morning, these same oranges will be hand squeezed in time for the 7:30 am breakfast.

Orange slices

Surrounding me is vegetation in and beyond the property’s sloping edges.  I squat to pick lemongrass or fever grass, as my old man called it, to prepare tea only to raise up into the sweet, damp of the dawn’s dew on plant blossoms. Sights of blue sea water and mountain peaks, mixed with fresh air . . . Yes Lawd! I am not missing New York City.

While ‘living off the land’ a straightforward term, Grenadians can justly say that this has been their way of life. Growing and honoring their toils with the fruits birthed by the land, that is the real true heart of that pride in the country’s food.

Sugar cane and green figs. Turmeric, chadon beni and thyme. Julie mango trees, orange trees. Dasheen bush patches. Butterfly pea flowers used to make jeweled colored pots of blue tea.

More plants. Some added to boiling water for tea, others used to marinade Barracuda or as aromatics to braise octopus. Edible flowers for plate garnishes that I have never seen or known by name seem to spring up every time I take a walk in the yard for ingredients to maintain the farm-to-table menus Rumboat Retreat received its popularity for. Originally set to give visitors and rum enthusiast master classes, Rumboat Retreat blossomed into a culinary gem.

Rumboat Retreat rum drink.

Choosing from a valuable collection, I’ve catalogued over one hundred and thirty bottles of matured, white, dark, golden, blond and flavored rums combined. But, the nightly four-course prix fixe menu that the bed-and-breakfast owner who is also a chocolatier, cooks up herself, has gained such a reputation that many guests book rooms just to eat her food.

Whether for reserved dinners, pre-fish Friday nibbles, family meal or at times when there was no real reason for us to cook and eat, I am surprised and delighted to know that to ‘bubble ah pot’, a local saying that means to cook foods ranging from soups, stews and one-pot dishes, was as natural as walking outside for its essential ingredients.

I only left Rumboat for trips to the local produce markets for what I prefer to call the Caribbean holy trio — onions, garlic and seasoning peppers. Like the French mirepoix or holy trio in Cajun and Creole cooking, these three starter ingredients, found in most kitchens across the Caribbean, are allowed to sweat or be sautéed before adding other ingredients to create flavorful dishes. Together with dried spices like nutmeg, mace, wood spice, locally made coconut oil and Saturday market must-haves of doughy fried bakes and saltfish, these trips were necessary to complete even the simplest of menus.

“Doh look for rain unless you have cocoa drying in the sun”

According to whom you speak and get the translation, this saying, passed down by the ole people and can take on more than one interpretation. I first heard the adage from a local ‘Gouyave man’ known for being a good truck and taxi driver. He also gives locals controversial cheer with his seasonal parang tunes at Christmas time.

His easiness made our conversation have a natural course in-and-out of subjects varying from the socioeconomic and academic constraints of the public while we hiked to the beach. Correlating stories of ‘island life’ he gave candid views on food, its traditions and how the people use it to throw off the blues, be it personal or political.

Mount Nesbit, Grenada

Before heading down the cliffs to see the beachfront of black sands, we briskly walked the hills through rows of soursop trees. I listened to my new friend list the ingredients and methods he used to cook a Grenadian Tania log, a sweet porridge prepared with local spices, aromatic bay leaf and a tuber ground vegetable available across the Caribbean. The Tania log sounded delightful,just what I needed for energy for something like the hike I was on.

In this time here, I understand that life for Grenadians is not a complicated one. Nor do the inhabitants accept complications easily from outsiders. People I meet, pride themselves to tell stories of accepting what the land and sea give them. Masterfully hand grating coconut meat for rich milk or sustainable fishing where seafood is caught then sold at the market brought an understanding to “doh look for rain unless you have cocoa drying in the sun.”

“As one people, one family,” a line in this small country’s anthem, Grenada shows it might with the enormous shipments of nutmeg that reach places I’m sure children only see in geography textbooks.  Islanders’ sharing of vegetables, like hands of young green figs and starchy filling breadfruits, with their neighbors to be treated with invites of Friday night libations over huge vessels of steamy soups furnished with head-to-tail chewy pieces of meat cooked over wood fires, one can’t help but respect, adhere and join in the fundamental values the people live by.

Picking fresh herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables.

Though able to start my days with pleasant morning rocks in the hammock, a drink of coffee and an occasional serenade from hungry cats, my time passes fast in Grenada. But not before forming lasting friendships: walking and talking amongst people that look like me with stories like mine while cooking and eating delicious country food. I also continue to learn so much about myself and making tangible my cooking style through scenes of Caribbean life.

So, like cocoa drying in the sun, I’m going to continue traveling that allows an inside look into what really makes our food Caribbean food. Keeping an eye out for the inevitable rain cloud to hamper my next steps or next country, I will remember the lessons passed to me by the Grenada people and cuisine.

Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Chef Leigh-Ann Martin lives in the New York City area creating dishes merging her Trini upbringing with NYC’s culinary landscape. She has worked at events from the James Beard House to the Bowery Residents’ Committee, teaching healthy eating.

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