by BILL & BARBARA SCARDUZZIO
Mention Jamaica and your mind travels with the sounds of reggae and steel drums to images of all-inclusive getaways, packed with couples and honeymooners. The island’s
cuisine and its culinary treasures are often an afterthought.
With an invitation and guided tour from Sandals Resorts, we had the opportunity to expand our horizons and explore Jamaica’s rich culinary heritage. What a way to go.
It all began at Sandals Whitehouse and European Village and Spa, the newest Sandals resort in the chain. It’s situated on the almost virgin terrain of the south coast. With its distinctive continental village design, you’re surrounded by “the sophistication of France, the passion of Italy, and the charm of Holland.” In a word—magnificent!
At a reception hosted by General Manager Jeremy Jones, we were introduced to our culinary tour guides. Armando Pizzuti, a native of Naples, Italy and graduate of Kansas University, is the Director of Food and Beverage for Sandals Resorts International, overseeing 142 incredible restaurants in the chain.
And then there was Walter Staib, chef, author, owner of Philadelphia’s famous City Tavern, and Culinary Ambassador to Sandals Resorts International. A strange fit? Think again.
Staib was introduced to the Caribbean in the Bahamas in the mid 1970’s. Ten years later, as Vice President of Operations for Omni Hotels, he was sent to the prestigious Round Hill Resort near Montego Bay and fell in love with food, flavors and local culture. He spent months in Jamaica working side by side with real Jamaican cooks in jerk huts and the food stalls at Faith’s Pen, in the Blue Mountains and
St. Elizabeth, out in the remote bush with Miss Betty. Staib researched the roots of Jamaican cuisine at the University of the West Indies in Kingston and was the first inductee into the Caribbean Culinary Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy from Philly.
Sunday morning featured a classic turn-of-the-century plantation breakfast and a Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee tasting a Eleanor’s, the Whitehouse restaurant patterned after the old Jamaican plantation houses—complete with a turning waterwheel and a stone-enclosed fireplace.
A well presented spread featured local dishes like ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, escoveitch fish, bammy, a deep fried bread, callaloo, a leafy steamed vegetable and straight-from-the-oven banana bread. It would set the mood for what was to come.
That evening, we enjoyed a six-course Vineyard Dinner, set in the magnificent Sandals Whitehouse courtyard. The theme here was the pairing of wines from Napa Valley’s Beringer Vineyards with Caribbean cuisine. Beringer has created five varietals of house wines exclusively for Sandals and Beaches Resorts. With Walter doing the narration, we were treated to stories and traditions on each course, including Miss Betty’s Pepperpot soup. This centuries-old Jamaican recipe comes from Miss Betty, a woman of undetermined age who makes traditional Jamaican cuisine on the banks of the Rio Grande in Port Antonio, Jamaica.
According to Staib, a similar version was served to George Washington’s troops after his renowned crossing of the Delaware, a turning point in the American Revolution. Today, it’s the most popular soup on the menu at Walter’s City Tavern.
On Monday, we took to the road. First stop: Billy’s Roadside Pepper Shrimp, Middle Quarters, St Elizabeth. We feasted on curry shrimp, rice and peas, copious amounts of pepper shrimp and washed it all down with coconut water. It was like old home week for Walter, who earned his Caribbean cuisine stripes at places like Billy’s.
Forty-five minutes later we were turning into Alligator Pond, home to Little Ochi and that culinary whiz Evrol ‘Blackie’ Christian. What began as every seafood lover’s secret place, is now an internationally known destination. Blackie set each table with platters of festival, bammy, stone crab, calamari, octopus, shrimp, escoveitch fish and incredible jerk lobster. Check it out on the web at littleochi.com and get ready to jump on the plane.
Tuesday we packed up and moved on to Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio Golf Resort and Spa—with a stop for lunch at Sandals Royal Caribbean’s Royal Thai restaurant, on the resort’s unique private island.
The view was breathtaking and the meal a departure from the Jamaican food fest we were enjoying for the past three days. Thai chefs created masterful presentations while traditional costumed dancers performed. An unforgettable experience.
We moved on to the hotel at Dunn’s River and the Sandals experience continued to impress. Inspired by the Italian Renaissance and named after the famous waterfall, Mediterranean elegance combines with Jamaican charm. A lobby with soaring columns and a winding staircase, reminiscent of an Italian palazzo, and Jamaica’s largest freshwater pool with cascading waterfall mirrors its famous namesake.
Dinner that evening at Il Capitano, hosted by Hotel Manager Theo Duffus, was a gourmet delight of regional Italian cuisine.
Wednesday found us on the road again with a tour of Walkerwood Caribbean Foods, maker of an innovative line of traditional cooking sauces, spices, seasonings, preserves and canned vegetables. Started as a rural community effort to create employment, it was the first company to export jerk
seasoning from Jamaica. After samplings and a traditional Walkerwood lunch, we met Virginia Burke, Marketing Director and author of Walkerwood Caribbean Kitchen and Eat Caribbean.
After a sunset cruise aboard The Katt, Sandals’ own 65-foot catamaran, we partied on the private beach at Sandals Grande Ocho Rios Beach and Villa Resort. Walter Staib again did his thing as we experienced a Jamaican fruit and vegetable “market” and patty tasting—filled pastries seasoned with a variety of beef and spices baked inside its flaky shell. “Irie!”
The Sandals experience was indeed a unique way to see, taste and feel the true flavors of Jamaica. Combining the elegance of resorts like Sandals Whitehouse and Dunn’s River Villagio with the spice of life found in local communities, it offered us an opportunity to explore and discover the country’s rich culinary heritage. It was well worth discovering.
Sandals Whitehouse and
European Village and Spa