Heading out of Dodge for a much needed winter break to Canouan Island, in the Grenadines, didn’t require much research other than my same ol’ questions about what there is to eat for those who are kosher like me.
Sandy white beaches, quiet and friendly island, calm emerald waters to swim in, local flavors… what else did I need to know?
I was lucky to have a dependable and responsive island host, Fabion Lodge, who hangs onto his Blackberry with as much fervor as any teenager. He promptly responded to my detailed inquiries as I explained the parameters of what we eat.
“Of course there are plenty of fresh fish and some veggies grown and imported from the mainland each day,” he assured me.
For a locavore and kosher keeper like me, if veggies and fruit made a quick ferry ride from St. Vincent’s it still seemed local enough. I understood that not much was grown on Canouan, due to the poor soil conditions and rocky, mountainous terrain.
I was set for a week of fresh fish and whatever veg was available. I was thrilled to find much, much more.
Canouan is a five square mile island rising out of the archipelago of many islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It’s hilly terrain slopes down to sandy, picture perfect coves of protected warm waters teeming with brightly colored aquatic life. It sits Southwest of Barbados in the southern Antilles.
Many of the neighboring islands are uninhabited while a few are visited by sailors and yachts people seeking calm sapphire waters for snorkeling and diving. Canouan means turtle, and they are everywhere on the island and in the waters.
These curious creatures have endearing, humble qualities. Indeed, they move slowly and retreat from human presence by withdrawing to shaded foliage or retracting into their protective and fascinating camouflaged shells. We saw some that were two inches and many that were two feet. We learned their patterns of movements and celebrated each siting with a cries of YURTLE!
Fishing and a small amount of farming were the mainstays of the locals for hundreds of years. Now, most of the population hails from the mainland of St. Vincent or some of the smaller islands in the area. One resort is the major employer of construction workers,spa therapists, gardeners, drivers, chefs and kitchen staff.
Concerned about being bored to death by restaurant menus that I feared wouldn’t be inventive enough over the week, I booked a home chef and briefed him on the kosher rules. With plenty of fresh mahi mahi, snapper, and other fish in the sea, I knew that giving Chef Shabba permission to cook with local flavors and ingredients might give us a more interesting and authentic experience.
Early in the week, we encouraged Chef Shabba to cook “local” for us.
Island flavors and locally grown ingredients were what we wanted, rather than the more sophisticated preparations that this deeply experienced resort and cruise line chef thought we might prefer.
Mclean Kenneth Sampson (named Shabba by his buds cause of his love of the Jamaican reggae star by the same name) obliged and many interesting conversations ensued about his participation in Caribbean culinary competitions (Chef of the Year in 2005 St. Vincent) and his years cooking on a Disney ship (waste, cleanliness, passengers’ preferences).
Here were some of my favorites: Fresh mahi mahi was grilled and enveloped in a spicy Creole sauce that left us wanting more of these full flavors. It served us well with eggs and simple cheese sandwiches for days after. Alongside the fish, we enjoyed plantains (can’t get enough of ‘em), and coco, a Canouan prep of polenta integrated with any veg. Shabba used okra,onions and garlic.
When crisp baby bok choy was flashed in the saute pan, I wondered where that could have come from. I learned that a hydroponic farm was on the resort property, supplying all of the hotel’s kitchens with fresh veg and herbs that could not otherwise be grown in the island’s poor ,volcanic and rocky soil.
We visited the hydroponic farm and spent a couple of riveting hours with Allen Vazquez, a Cuban veterinarian and highly trained epidemiologist. His deep knowledge and education provides background for managing the entire hydroponic operation. He has assistance from two dedicated workers and the support of CCA (Caribbean Construction Company), which is building the resort property upon which this remarkable operation sits.
In 100 Sq.ft.of space, large volumes of vegetables and herbs are grown in pots of perlite (volcanic rock material providing the growing base). Plants are nurtured by sun, water and nutrients added to a carefully controlled water drip. Organic repellents are used to control insects and growth regulators are added to the solution to keep the plants healthy and strong.
Plants that require strong root systems do not grow well hydroponically, so the focus is on plants with “lazy roots” like cucumbers, butternut and zucchini squash, radishes, spinach and lettuce.
Towers of thyme, sage, basil and mint are efficient use of space as they stack up and take advantage of better air circulation, allowing for abundant growth.
On the eve of my visit to the awe inspiring hydroponic farm, Chef Shabba wow’ed us with a local fish soup, flavored with hydroponically grown chervil, basil and dasheen, a local, starchy root vegetable that has a more interesting texture than potato.
The next course was a mound of bright and variegated greens, which celebrated the dense and abundant growth facilitated by Vazquez’s deep knowledge and care of the crops.
Over the course of the next few days, we sailed to nearby islands in the Tobago Cays where we snorkeled and searched for turtles (up, up, up they went towards the surface with those sweet paws, a quick breath, and gently lowered themselves down to the soft ocean floor) in the pristine and aqua water.
One morning, a local fisherman appeared in a small dingy with an outboard motor to sell his wife’s freshly baked banana bread and offer fresh fish.
Who could say no?
Another morning, we were approached by a gent who asked if we would like to give him our order for lunch so that we could continue sailing and land on Mayreau
, just seven miles from Caouan, where B.B. has a grill and presents ice cold local beer, steamed whole fish, and plantains.
No shoes, no cover up needed, just bring your briny thirst and hearty appetite to eat with the best view one can find.
Our one haute culinary experience was in direct contrast to all of our other eating adventures. It proved to be a highlight due to the sophisticated prep and attention given to us by La Varennne’s Master Chef Eoghain O’Neill and his approachable and deeply knowledgeable Canadian sommelier, Mathieu Lemay.
A “seven course surprise tasting menu”was offered that evening at La Varenne, a magnificent dining room perched high over the sea. It had an entire wall of sliding doors allowing the cool breezes to enter the relaxed but elegantly appointed dining room.
Surprises don’t work well for those keeping the kosher rules so I asked with some hesitation, if we might speak with the chef about possible adjustments to his “surprise” tasting.
I have rarely (if ever) seen or heard of a chef who would so willingly adjust so many courses for diners. One or two courses is one thing, but Chef O’Neill took notes at our table to be sure he got all of the details. He proceeded to regale us with one magnificent course after another, all while respecting my list of what we would and would not eat!
Highlights of that seven course tasting menu were the amuse bouche consisting of a delightful trio of gazpacho infused with shado ben oil (local basil-like herb), a petite mound of ratatouile with hydroponically grown veggies, and sweet, crisp, local watermelon skewered with hearts of palm.
The main course was called “Chef O’Neill’s Present from the Sea” and was brought to the table like an aromatic sea born gift.
Locally caught salmon (unfamiliar, sweet, mild and white flesh) was enveloped in a special heat proof packet with baby veggies and wild mushrooms, topped with fennel pollen which lent a grassy uniqueness. After roasting in lime juice and olive oil, the package was presented and opened at the table like a gift from the chef. Moist, flaky and tasting of sea, it was pure delight.
Sometimes, small places yield bigger experiences and time to get to know the people and environment more intimately. I tip my hat to the efforts of the fine people who made our stay in Canouan so exceptional and delicious.