I didn’t know what to expect the day our cruise ship arrived on St. Kitts. I knew we would be doing a culinary tour of sorts, but since my boyfriend’s mom, Diane, had organized it for us as a surprise, I didn’t know any of the details in advance. But no matter–the day turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
As we pulled into the driveway of Fairview Great House and Botanical Garden and stepped out of our taxi, we were greeted by the friendly face of Lavita, our bubbly tour guide for the day and, as we would find out later, the chef’s assistant. The tour we had signed up for–the Caribbean Cooks Tour–was a fairly new offering at Fairview, but the stately stone building has held a number of weddings, extravagant dinners and other events since its restoration in 2010.
Built as a plantation great house in the late 1600s, Fairview is now a historical landmark for tourists, foodies and history buffs alike. The property has a beautiful pool, a botanical garden filled with lush tropical trees and plants, an open-air restaurant called Nirvana and, finally, a dining room complete with a full cooking stage. To my delight, it was there that we we’d be spending our afternoon.
Lavita led us to the dining area where we met our chef, English-born Janice Barber, who has been living (and cooking) in the Caribbean for decades. The two women chatted with us about their backgrounds, the menu and the various Caribbean ingredients they would be using as they prepared our lunch. The witty banter and friendly dynamic between them was engaging, adding an extra element of fun to the already exciting and informative cooking demonstration.
We were given a helpful sheet listing the day’s menu along with recipes for every dish (excluding the mango chutney, the recipe for which I got anyway!). The menu consisted of the following:
- Mango chutney
- Jerk pork loin
- Creole fish in a tomato broth
- Island rice and peas
- Green banana escovitch
- Coconut bread pudding with rum and brown sugar glaze
- Kittitian bush iced tea
I was shy to take photos at first, but chef Barber was very welcoming. And, by sheer luck, we were the only group who had signed up for the tour that day. This made the experience more intimate and personal, almost as if you were sitting in a friend’s kitchen at a dinner party, chatting away while she cooked.
We munched on mango chutney and sipped iced tea as we watched the cooking process from start to finish. On the ceiling just above the cooking stage was a large mirror which offered a bird’s eye view of the stovetop, prep area and ingredients.
I learned a lot about Caribbean-style cuisine that day and was happy to discover that I really enjoyed the more foreign (to me) ingredients I had only ever read about. Take green bananas, for instance. As a Canadian who grew up in a small, northern town with very little ethnic diversity and limited access to exotic foods, I had never contemplated the fact that you could cook and eat a miniature, unripe banana, let alone serve it as part of a savoury dish. But boy was that banana good. Its flavour and texture reminded me more of a squash or potato than the sweet yellow bananas we’re used to back home. I vowed to try making them at home.
All of the dishes were phenomenal, so I can’t really say I had a favourite, but the use of allspice in the rice and pigeon peas was particularly appealing to me. So simple, so straightforward and oh-so tasty! Another home run was the Creole fish–the spice-laden tomato broth perfectly complimented the tender grouper.
But the meal that day wouldn’t have been complete without dessert: a rich, buttery bread pudding studded with rum-soaked raisins and drizzled with a warm rum-brown sugar glaze. Much to our delight and awe, chef Barber flambéed the rum-brown sugar mixture with expert skill right in front of us. Equally astonishing was the fact that I managed to capture the flames on camera. I was beyond the point of full by that time (I think I liked the bananas a little too much), but even then I found it hard to put my fork down.
As our tour came to a close, we popped into the gift shop where I picked up a glossy green bowl (I learned that pottery-making is big in St. Kitts) and a cookbook to add to my collection. We then took a quick stroll around the pool area and paused to take in the breathtaking view. The vibrant turquoise Caribbean sea sparkled in the distance, and the lush tropical vegetation blanketed the mountaintop thickly, like a fluffy layer of snow. Odd that I would think of snow in such a humid, tropical climate, but that’s what it looked like to me.
I’m hoping to try at least one of the dishes we feasted on that day along with some other local favourites from the cookbook. But more than anything, I want to return to St. Kitts some day and spend an entire day–or weekend–at Fairview. Hey, it could happen.
If you’re planning on a trip to the Caribbean this year, check out the Fairview Great House website here - http://www.nirvanafairview.com/ – I highly recommend it.