My first experience with St. Lucian food began before I’d even unpacked.
On the way from the airport to Rodney Bay, my friend and I stopped at Pointe Seraphine for an exhibition celebrating the 25th anniversary of St. Lucia’s independence. Not knowing what to order from the open-air food stand, I let him choose for me: salt fish, fried green bananas, coleslaw, macaroni pie, banana cake. We ate on plastic chairs under a tree overlooking the port in Castries. The food was unpretentious, filling, and delicious. And it pretty much set the standard for my holiday eating.
I ate very well all week.
There is much to enjoy about St. Lucian cuisine. It is a delicious celebration of flavours, textures, colours and aromas; eating in St. Lucia literally engages each of your senses. Although the variety of spicy and exotic foods was delightful, my most memorable eating experiences are surprisingly simple: fresh fruit and barbequed chicken.
Coming from a Northern climate, most of the fruit I usually consume is imported. It's picked unripe, transported, gassed, and sold as though it were "fresh." Needless to say, the flavours I'm used to are but a pale approximation of the fruit's genuine flavour. Was I in for a treat in St. Lucia! The mangoes were unbelievably sweet, the flesh richer and creamier than in any mango I'd eaten before. The bananas tasted like bananas injected with extra banana flavour. The grapefruit had a pleasingly mouth-puckering sweetness. And the enormous avocados -- at least four times the size of any I'd seen -- opened to reveal lavish amounts of buttery-smooth flesh in the loveliest shade of green imaginable.
The barbequed chicken was as astonishing as the fruit.
During one week in St. Lucia, I ate more chicken than I'd eaten during all of last year. The plate-filling drumsticks and thighs from the Gros Islet jump-up were, by far, my favourite. Biting through the spicy and tender skin yielded juicy and flavourful meat underneath, which I ripped off the bone with my teeth. Then I picked the bones clean. My appetite startled me. I rarely eat meat while at home, but no St. Lucian chicken was safe with me around.
Fish were also in serious trouble.
Keenly aware that I was vacationing on an island, I opted for fresh seafood whenever I ate in restaurants: potato-crusted dorado (unnervingly referred to as "dolphin") from Buzz Seafood & Grill, grilled snapper with shrimp from The Eagles Inn, salt cod fritters called "accras" from Cafe Claude, stuffed crab back followed by grilled tuna steak with creole sauce from The Coal Pot. I also tried a skewer of grilled conch at the jump up, but found the morsels a little rubbery for my liking. Perhaps they would have seemed less rubbery had I not eaten them directly after polishing off a plate of that velvety-tender barbequed chicken ...
Side dishes included such exotic delicacies as christophene, dasheen, corn cooked in cinnamon-scented coconut milk, and grilled plantain. Other favourite culinary discoveries were a delicately spiced pumpkin soup from Cafe Claude, a brandied ginger cheesecake from Buzz that I still dream about, gelato from Elena's Italian Ice Cream, almond yoghurt, and the store-bought nutmeg jelly I'd spread on my muesli bread every morning.
Did I mention that I ate very well all week?!
Not surprisingly, most of my souvenirs from St. Lucia were food-related. At the farmers' market in Castries, I bought mounds of spices, bottles of extract (vanilla, almond, and banana), cocoa sticks, a fistful of nutmeg with each fragrant nut still hidden in its chocolate-brown shell, and the freshest, plumpest vanilla beans I've ever seen. My only regret is that I was parsimonious with my funds and bought only a small handful of those precious beans. Now I find myself approaching a recipe guardedly, thinking "Is this going to be worth a St. Lucian vanilla bean, or should I just use a regular one?"
I also bought a cookbook (My Secrets of Caribbean Cooking and Cocktails by Chef Fernando) in Castries. Even while paying for it, though, I already knew nothing I make at home will taste quite as good as it did in St. Lucia, when I ate it with a joyful heart in the brilliant tropical sunshine, or beneath a star-dotted Caribbean sky.