Malcolm Jolley finds out how Barbados is putting itself on the culinary tourism map.
On November 30th the Commonwealth of Barbados will celebrate 50 years of independence. I won’t be at the party, but I got a taste of what might go down last week when I attended the 2016 edition of the Barbados Food and Rum Festival. The festival kicked off last Thursday night with a demonstration stage set up in the fish market at Oistins, on the South Shore of the island, east of Bridgetown. Oistins is the main fishing port, and that was the gastronomic focus of the evening, which I wrote about for GFR here. It was a fitting launch, since fresh fish is such an integral part of eating well in Barbados.
A more formal launch for the Barbados Food & Rum Festival happened the next evening at the luxurious Crane Resort. At a rum cocktail event on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, The Crane’s Carriage House is a historic building made out of grey corral limestone. On a stage by one of the pools, Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.’s president, William ‘Billy’ Griffith talked about the evolution of the festival. He explained that, “This year we put our emphasis on rum, the first of which was made in Barbados.” Griffith also explained the purpose of the festival is to remind both Barbadians and visitors from abroad that the island is “a year round epicurean escape” and the Barbados travel industry is embracing culinary tourism.
Barbados’ Minister of Tourism, The Honourable Richard L. Sealy followed Griffith’s address. Sealy welcomed, among others, the bloggers and internet journalists in attendance. Mirroring Griffith, Sealy also made it clear that Barbados intends to use it’s reputation as a culinary star in the Caribbean to help attract tourists. Sealy claimed there was a “high ceiling for the epicurean tourist market,” and he praised the growing interest on the island in “local farmers, organic markets and Slow Food.” Sealy also explained that the festival had been re-branded to focus on rum, and praised the high profile that mixologists enjoyed this year since they reminded us that “Barbados is the home of rum, invented right here on this rock.”
Minister Sealy’s claim that Barbados is the “home of rum” was rather successfully put to the test at festival event that began right after The Crane Resort reception: a walk around dinner featuring fancy cocktails to pair with each dish, The Signature Rum Event. It was held next to Grantley Adams International Airport at The Concorde Experience, a hanger in which rests G-BOAE, a British Airways Concorde that was in service from 1977 to 2003 and once flew the Heathrow-Barbados route. At the event, the island’s distilleries put on quite mixology show, including established brands like Mount Gay (the oldest rum distillery in the world, having begun making rum in 1703), Cockspur and relative newcomer St. Nicholas Abbey. (Watch GFR for coverage of my subsequent visit to the spectacular St. Nicholas Abbey facility.)
The next Barbados Food & Rum Festival event was on the following day, in the afternoon: The Polo Rum Spirits featured an actual polo match on the west side of the island and half a dozen or so local chefs making canapés.
The food at the polo event, as at all the Food & Rum Festival events, had a definite local, Barbadian, theme. There was salt fish, local fresh fish like mahi-mahi and shrimp, well-marbled pork and Caribbean vegetables like cassava, plantain. That evening, the festival switched focus to fine dining, with sit-down dinners with two visiting chefs. The first featured New York City’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who cooked at The Cliff restaurant on the west side of the island. And the second, held at The Crane, featured Toronto’s own Craig Harding from Campagnolo. I attended the latter, which was an interesting and fun mash-up of Caribbean and Italian cuisines. It deserves its own GFR post: stay tuned.
The last official Barbados Food & Rum event I attended was on the beach, Sunday evening, at the Hilton Hotel. The Feet in the Sand Beach Party cook was a decidedly casual affair. Like all the other events, the attendees were an even mix (by my guess) of locals and tourists, drinking Banks beer or Mount Gay rum on the rocks. As I approached the main cooking area I saw a big BBQ smoker and wondered if there was a big animal inside. Chef Anthlone McCollin let me have a look and where instead of a beast on a spit there were dozens of carefully banana leaf wrapped fillets of local mahi-mahi getting the smoky treatment: a delicate and delicious surprise. I joined the line to get my portion, with a dark rum on the rocks and the sun setting over the sea behind me.
I ate a lot and I ate well in Barbados, watch for my next post on the interesting foods (and a few rum drinks) I found.
Full disclosure: I traveled to Barbados as a guest of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.