Last week, our close friends joined us for a week at a beautiful home perched on the cliffs overlooking a generous curve of beach on the French side of St. Martin.
There was an intro by Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz, the Chabad Rabbi who came to St. Martin with his wife in 2009 to serve 300 Jewish residents who live there full time. During the winter months, the number swells to 1000 Jewish residents, many of whom now turn to Chabad for Shabbat, holiday services and classes.
Their 1200 square foot office space, appointed as shul, is the first synagogue to open on the island in 230 years.
Jews came to numerous Caribbean islands as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries. Many fled Spain for more tolerant European countries, like Holland, until those countries were no longer hospitable. The islands of Curacao, St. Thomas, Aruba, Jamaica, Barbados and Suriname all have well documented and existing architecture from that period.
This synagogue in Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, was established as Mikve Israel-Emanuel, in 1674. Their current building dates from 1730 and houses an active community with roots in Sephardic traditions. The sand floor is typical of the island synagogues and is a subject of much speculation. Some say it was meant to refer to the desert we wandered in for 40 years. Others say that it refers to the original Jewish settlers’ concern for muffling the sounds of their prayers as they had done while being persecuted.
A historic Jewish cemetery, possibly the oldest in the new world, still exists on Barbados, where some of the graves date back to the 1660’s.
St. Martin had one synagogue dating back to that era which was abandoned in 1781 and later destroyed in a hurricane. Fragments from a Jewish cemetery were recently discovered but there is little historic evidence to see on the island now.
With zero interest in sightseeing,we frolicked and swam like dolphins, dodged the scorching sun in the deep shade of palapas and covered porches while devouring countless good reads and shared tidbits of articles pulled from our I-Pads. In between, we planned our meals. Just as you expected.
What did we eat?
With our host’s help, we hired the talented and lovely chef Angie Chandler of Angie’s Island Flavors for an evening. After a few e-mails discussing options, she coordinated the perfect menu for us, using all veg stocks and focusing on Creole dishes and flavors learned from her Mom and grandmother.
We began with lentil soup, thickened by the addition of pumpkin chunks and delicious with potato fritters. Angie’s fritters involved a puree of potatoes, different from the grated potatoes we use for latkes. As she dropped the batter into bubbling oil we had a flurry of conversations about our own Chanukah recipes and traditions as the house filled with the familiar aromas we associate with our next celebration.
Angie grilled mango over hot coals, heightening the natural sweetness. She combined the warm slabs of orange fruit with crispy, fuscia cabbage, chopped greens, creamy over-sized avocado and tomato with a honey mustard sauce. The flavors were tropical and wonderfully bold.
Typical island rice includes pigeon peas (her Mom grows them), coconut milk, garlic, tomato paste and rice sauteed before the liquid is added.
It was the perfect accompaniment to delicate snapper fillet bathed in Creole sauce, a tomatoey combo of chopped garlic and onion, veg broth, thyme, cilantro and salt and pepper. Nothing fancy here, but the flavors were rich and satisfying and “of “ the island.
Dessert was simple cake with a jammy guava filling. We parked it on the counter and we nibbled away at it each day as the flavors became more pronounced. It was the perfect accompaniment to strong French coffee in the morning.
A refreshing fruit plate with sweet and juicy pineapple and melons topped it off.
There are many fantastic restaurants on the island and last time we were there we ate out a lot. On this trip, we spent more time on our glorious patio eating S’s preparations.
If you are comfy eating fish or veg out, I encourage you to explore the French side, in particular.
Our best restaurant meal was eaten at La Cigale, on the way into Marigot. We had eaten there last season and will surely return next time. This understated bistro has three tables on the beach and another dozen on an adjacent covered patio. Palm trees anchor sailcloth swags that delineate each table’s space under the star lit Caribbean sky. Tiny lights and larger lanterns sway in the still warm evening breezes.
This is the real island deal, with haute French preparations prepared by one amazing chef, his assistant plus one pastry chef.
For appetizers we enjoyed goat cheese wrapped in house made puff pasty with crushed nuts and a honey drizzle. It was, simply put: ambrosia.
An elegant chilled wrap (asiette) surrounding neatly arranged raw, shredded vegetables and tuna carpaccio was a refreshing dish on that warm eve. Nuanced flavors of fennel and celery added vegetal notes.
Perfect little blinis topped with salmon rillettes and house gravlax were delicate and decadent. Flavors and textures of the country mousse against the sliced salmon would have sufficed for dinner.
The amuse bouche was a bite of smoked salmon (made in house) wrapped around goat cheese with almonds and dusting of parsley. Another bite of ambrosia.
A simple mixed salad with tomatoes and avocado was seasoned with fresh herbs and provided a lovely light intro to the next course.
Orange roughy, sea bass and sole were all on the menu and three of the four of us chose to eat fish. Our waiter told us that all fish and many of the ingredients are flown in from France each day. Usually I try to eat local but in this case, the fish tasted as fresh as anything I’ve tasted and the true French preparations were a wonderful experience.
The desserts were so intensely flavored, so elegant and so utterly French that I had to meet the pastry chef to let him know how much we enjoyed his work. American blogger that I am, I made my way into the tiny kitchen, congratulated the chef and pastry chef and shot some more pics before needing to escape the steamy, tiny kitchen.
Our ambitious and remarkably resourceful guest, S. insisted on being our cook for the rest of the week.
Twist my arm and see if I squeal if someone else wants to take the lead.
He was full of surprises, buying cans of beans and pickles, sardines and tuna, spicy mysterious sauces of all hues. He spent a good deal of time coaxing flavors out of ingredients that we haven’t bought since we were in college.
St. Martin is not a fertile island and fruits and veggies are surprisingly limited. S. turned to canned ingredients for some variety.
Le Grand Marche, located in both Cole Bay and Phillipsburg, carries a variety of kosher products including chicken and meat (sometimes), OU bread and milk and some other basic OU canned products. For assistance and questions about kosher food products email Rabbi Moishe at kosher@Jewishsxm.com.
The early risers in our home headed to the small outdoor food market on the harbor in Marigot around 7:30 on Wednesday morning to source fish and whatever else looked good for dinner. S. was working the market like a real chef, surveying the whole scene carefully before committing to his purchases.
Fishermen and young boys were cleaning fish and readying them for customers.The scene was a mix of locals, French residents and tourists. Photography is discouraged. I am not sure if it is superstition or simply a dislike of the camera clad tourists. A few purchases and smiles seemed to do the trick, though.
We dubbed S’s veritable feast “Four Fishes” . He was determined to explore a variety of fish of different sizes and flavors while using every cooking surface in and outside the home.
Exploring the local markets is always an adventure and we never miss the opportunity to do so.
We were sure to stop at the Patisserie across the street from the harbor and purchase some lovely breads and dessert on the way out of town.
Rabbi Moishe finally received his shipment of kosher chickens late in the week, just on time for Shabbat. On Thursday we were able to purchase 3 chickens he had put aside for us, along with 18 wings. We invited out host, islander Steven Calder and his lady, Chloe for dinner. We are so grateful for his constant smile, gentle ways and endless series of tips and assistance.
This is how much Scott loves his ingredients. Here is what he cooked:
We started with bruschetta of smashed white beans, simmered in veg stock and seasoned with with garlic, EVOO and thyme. Whole roasted chicken with aromatic herbs accompanied by roasted potatoes was a big hit. We enjoyed grilled veggies including asparagus, fennel, eggplant and onion . Eighteen wings marinated in EVOO , paprika, onion and garlic and grilled, tasted like heaven after a week of fish.
S. packed leftovers for the plane home and we enjoyed chicken sandwiches with those marinated grilled veggies as a great reminder of our many meals together.
In addition to many wonderful French restaurants (le Pressoir is my other fave), there is a surprising opportunity to enjoy a five course Glatt kosher dinner with wine pairing at the magnificent La Samanna resort on the French side. The resort chef will prepare a dinner for you and your guests in La Cave, surrounded by 12,000 bottles to temp you.
If the scenery along the cliffs at La Samanna has not wow’ed you, the scene underground surely will.