Ready for a delicious taste of island cuisine? Try this Bajan buffet!
One day last November, I stood under the hot Bajan sun and watched Chef Craig Greenidge whip up coconut-milk dumplings topped with salt fish and paired with fresh slaw at an outdoor cooking station in the shade of a pretty gazebo overlooking the sea. We were at Bougainvillea, a beautifully landscaped resort with a gorgeous strip of white sand, on the comparatively quiet southern shore.
It was a peak vacation food experience: A local chef in a beautiful place cooking with traditional ingredients and taking the time, all the while, to explain how his food is rooted in the culture. And these are exactly the kinds of experiences that Barbados’ increasingly popular Food & Rum Festival—a multi-day event that takes place every autumn—offers in abundance.
Barbados has branded 2018 the “Year of Culinary Experiences.” As the Caribbean continues to diversify its brand beyond simple sun and sand, food is becoming a clear selling feature and point of difference. And Barbados – which self-identifies as the “culinary capital of the Caribbean” – has a uniquely varied spectrum of excellent options that tourists are newly encouraged to discover.
The island’s top chefs are increasingly moving towards both food localism and showcasing Barbados’ rich culinary heritage— and without a doubt, the highlight of the annual culinary calendar is generally agreed to be the Food and Rum Festival that runs every fall.
From the comfort of the air-conditioned minibuses that ferry visitors from place to place, it’s impossible to not stare out the window hungrily at the locals lining up for fresh jam puffs at the island’s many traditional bakeries, or for fish cutters (grilled fish sandwiches made with fluffy white buns) at beachside trucks, and for pudding and souse (a traditional Saturday dish comprised of pickled pork and steamed cassava) at roadside stands.
The Food & Rum Festival really reflects Barbados’ remarkable variety. It draws both locals and international visitors to indulge in activities that range from a midday polo match with glasses of chilled bubbly and waiters carrying canapés to a seaside fish fry where patrons dine on grilled Caribbean lobster served with local mac and cheese when they’re not dancing to a very energetic live band. There are celebrity chef appearances, too, with big names like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English hosting multi-course tasting menus at some of the island’s top five-star resorts.
Last year, Canadian-Trinidadian caterer and cookbook author Chris de la Rosa—a frequent presence at the Food & Rum Festival—took over the kitchen of the famous Crane Resort, offering a full night of cocktails and fine dining that was dubbed a “Gourmet Safari.” We mingled poolside with glasses of rum punch while looking out over the Crane’s famous cliff to the pristine beach and white-capped waves below.
When we moved inside to take our places at white-linen topped tables, the food that arrived was an homage to the island’s culinary culture—from curried lobster bisque with chickpea dumplings and rum-infused fried seacat salad to Creole red snapper with coconut milk rice and steamed callaloo. And for dessert, more island treasures: cassava and coconut cheesecake and hot conkies (coconut, sweet potato and pumpkin steamed in banana leaves) with bay leaf and nutmeg ice creams.
Even with the Food & Rum Festival’s full roster of activities, there is still plenty of time (between eating events) to explore other elements of the island. I liked waking up early at my hotel, the picturesque Colony Club, and taking some fresh papaya slices and a cappuccino down to the pristine, quiet beach. Even simply walking the grounds in the afternoon, checking out the hotel’s organic garden or the small waterfall that feeds the pool that winds through the beautifully landscaped property was wonderful. For a change of pace, the hotel was just a short walk from Holetown, a quaint commercial area offering international luxury brands, small local restaurants and other businesses.
Beyond the resort, I explored Animal Flower Cave—an oddly named but entirely worthwhile destination on the dramatic northeast coast, where I explored seaside caves full of “animal flowers” (sea anemones), marveled at the rocky shoreline and enjoyed a meal at the newly renovated cliffside restaurant— possibly the most dramatically beautiful place to dine on the island. I also strolled the spectacular grounds of St. Nicholas Abbey, the historic sugar plantation house and birthplace of Bajan rum, where I saw the distillery and sampled a variety of rums, and then stopped to take in the spectacular view of the verdant coastline from the top of Cherry Hill.
One night, I joined in the touristy fun at the Harbour Lights Dinner Show in downtown Bridgetown, right at the water’s edge. There was live entertainment, including a band, costumed dancers, many glasses of rum punch and a fairly decent meal of blackened fish, fried fish cakes and wilted greens.
On my last night in Barbados, I saw Chef Craig again—this time at the Festival’s Taste the Exotic event at the Concorde Museum, where I mingled and sampled under the shadow of an actual retired Concorde airplane. To a chorus of live music, I snacked on tender conch ceviche and braised local black belly lamb while sipping on infused rum cocktails. I stopped in between savory items to sample a spread of desserts that represented a range of tropical flavors.
Chef Craig stepped out from behind his station, where he was plating a dish of tender pig’s tail, to pose for selfies with fans. Taste of the Exotic was a huge party, completely different in character from the cooking demo I’d enjoyed with Chef Craig the afternoon before. But much like every other event I attended during the Food & Rum Festival, it still retained an intimate and friendly vibe. Chef Craig saw me and immediately came over to put the hat he was wearing on my head, wishing me a safe trip home. I left Barbados full of terrific food, awash in many happy new memories and carrying the perfect beach hat for the next time I return.