The night is young, the air is warm, and laughter, calypso music and broad white smiles are everywhere. The tiny side-streets in Gouyave, a small village on the west coast of Grenada, are filled with makeshift stools and wooden tables piled high with fish. I take a glass of rum from an old man, his face weathered by the sun, and nod in thanks. Then I tuck into a delicious serving of fish and chips made with local red snapper. It’s my introduction to Fish Friday — a fun time, Grenada-style.
The Caribbean isn’t generally regarded as a gourmet destination, but I’m discovering that Grenada is different. This is a foodie paradise where, every day of the week, streetside vendors tempt passers-by with home-cooked specialties such as jerk chicken with passion fruit sauce and mango-glazed pork ribs. Fish Friday in Gouyave, a weekly celebration of the island’s incredible seafood, is best enjoyed in shorts and sandals. But not to be outdone, gourmet restaurants such as Oliver’s, Laluna and Rhodes offer well-heeled tourists a unique fusion of local produce with international cuisine. All of this mouth-watering fare makes abundant use of the island’s incredible variety of spices. “We don’t need to put huge amounts of pasty sauces on our meats and fish here in Grenada,” explains Roger, my driver. “Just a bit of fresh nutmeg with a couple of hand-picked bay leaves on your chicken is enough to give you a wonderful meal.”
My first meal on the island is with Edwin, my guide for the day. He insists that drinking a small glass of local rum before lunch “opens up the senses.” So after carefully downing a small glass of Westerhall Plantation Rum (70 proof and made locally on the island since 1758), I devour a heaping plateful of nutmeg chicken, pan-fried swordfish, cinnamon pumpkin and christofen (a type of squash usually served with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and cloves). The pungent smell of fresh spices is intoxicating.
As I eat, Edwin tells me that Grenada, a tiny nation off the coast of Venezuela, provides 20% of the world’s supply of nutmeg. It also exports cinnamon, cloves, mace, bay leaves, curry and saffron. A cook interested in experimenting with new flavor combinations can literally step outside his or her door and pluck spices off the bush. The stunning profusion of local fruits — avocados, guava, passion fruit, papaya, mango and grapefruit — open up even more gustatory possibilities.
Grenada’s cooks have been experimenting with those raw materials for more than 500 years. The main island was first sighted in 1498 by Christopher Columbus, who dubbed it Concepcion Island. Spanish sailors found its lush green hills so evocative of Andalusia that they renamed it Granada, which the British later changed to Grenada. The island changed hands 17 times between the English and the French until 1783, when Grenada was given to the British as part of the Treaty of Versailles. Today, English is the official language, but the locals still lace their everyday language with French words.
From a culinary point of view, the cultural stew is particularly rich. In addition to the French and English elements, the African heritage of most Grenadians is on display in the local menus, as are the favorite dishes of the island’s large Indian population. This is a place where restaurants offer dahls, chickpeas and rotis alongside green plantain banana soup, mango mousse and cod cakes.
Oliver’s, a seaside restaurant at the Spice Island Beach Resort, offers one of the most creative menus I’ve ever seen, especially when it comes to desserts. Garlic ice cream? It’sthere. So is sweet pepper sorbet. “You won’t see plain strawberries and blueberries for dessert here,” says Brian Hardy, the manager. “Our chefs are much more creative than that.” Main courses include callaloo soup made from a local variety of spinach, cod cakes in a lemon reduction, and medallions of pork in a nutmeg sauce. Rhodes at the Calabash resort offers a straightforward take on the island’s culinary heritage. Restaurant manager Clive Barnes calls it English food with Caribbean flavor. Offerings include jerk chicken with paw paw salad (paw paw is a cross between a mango and a banana), Grenadian fish in a light saffron and orange broth, and whiskey rice pudding served with lemon syrup and Caribbean fruit salad.
Perhaps the most sensual dining in Grenada takes place at the Laluna Resort’s breezy seaside restaurant, tucked into a hidden bay on the island’s southwest coast. Chef Benedetto La Fiura cooks up Carib-Continental dishes like fettucine with porcini mushrooms and nutmeg cream sauce. “Nutmeg with any cream or cheese is a good marriage,” says Christine Nells, general manager of the resort. “Our customers smile when they taste it.”
It’s wonderful stuff. But you don’t have to go to a high-end resort to eat well in Grenada. On my last day I visit the local market, and browse stall after stall of dolls, soaps and crafts. Food is everywhere and I eat a delicious meal of mango pork ribs and jerk chicken as I sit by the ocean watching the sailboats go by. Whether you want fine dining or just plain good food, Grenada will keep you coming back for more.