Insight Guides: Pocket St Lucia - Insight Guides (2016)
In almost every aspect of St Lucian culture there is a colourful blend of African, Amerindian, French and British influences, and nowhere more so than in its cuisine, which is known as Creole. The tropical climate and fertile soil mean that the island enjoys a near endless bounty of nature from cassava, sweet potato and dasheen to fragrant nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. The landscape is punctuated with rich farmland where bananas, pineapple, grapefruit, oranges and mangoes grow in abundance. There is also superb seafood from the surrounding Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The market in Castries is a riot of colour and scents, well worth exploring to investigate the wealth of produce grown on the island or gathered from its surrounding waters. It is a feast for the eyes and nose as well as the taste buds; you can buy fruit and snacks for a picnic, sample a local lunch at a market stall or stock up on cocoa and spices to take home as edible souvenirs. A typical lunch will include meat of some sort, plantains, potatoes or other starchy vegetables, macaroni, rice and shredded lettuce, accompanied by fruit juice. This is the main meal of the day.
For those who do not care for island food at every meal, rest assured that most of St Lucia’s restaurants in the tourist areas serve international or fusion cuisine. You can savour the very best beef steaks imported from the USA or Argentina, share a huge pizza with friends, grab a burger or go for a curry. The island can not support livestock farming to any great degree, so beef, lamb and dairy produce is usually imported, although you can find local pork, goat and chicken.
A wealth of spicy sauces for sale in Castries
Seafood has a distinct and intense flavour here, most likely because it is served so fresh. Fish such as snapper, mahi-mahi (also known as dorado or dolphin), wahoo, flying fish and tuna are all available, as are crab, spiny lobster (in season 1 September to 30 April) and conch (same season). The result is that mealtimes can often be a delicious cornucopia of fragrances and flavours. Weekly street parties at Anse la Raye, Dennery and Vieux Fort are fun places to try local, seasonal seafood. Fishermen bring the freshest catch of the day, including huge lobsters, to be cooked on barbecues made from oil drums, where you can pick whatever you fancy for dining under the stars.
Breakfast is usually available from 7am–10am, lunch noon–2pm and dinner 6pm – 10pm. Some restaurant kitchens stay open until 11pm, particularly if there is a bar attached, but generally late-night dining is not common. Castries is not known for its nightlife, although there are lots of places for lunch catering to the office workers and cruise ship visitors. The greatest concentration of restaurants is in the Rodney Bay area where most of the hotels are. These are of a good standard – some are excellent – and so varied that all tastes are accommodated. From beach bars to fine dining, there is a wide range for all budgets.
Catch of the day
WHAT TO EAT
Many of the foods the Amerindian settlers grew and consumed are still around today, notably cassava, sweet potatoes, yam, corn, peppers, avocado, okra, peanuts, cashew nuts and pumpkin. The Amerindians delighted in roasted corn, and today it remains a popular and healthy snack. The island’s street vendors roast the corn on barbecues, often until it is black.
Cassava bread is a St Lucian staple, first enjoyed by the Amerindians and later the enslaved West Africans, who brought with them their own version of the bread. Served as an accompaniment to a main meal or as a filling snack, modern cassava bread comes in a variety of flavours from sweet or cherry to smoked herring.
The island’s national dish is green fig and saltfish, a tasty meal of seasoned salt cod and small green bananas, known locally as a fig. Also worth a try is hearty pumpkin soup or callaloo soup made from the green leaf of the dasheen, a common root vegetable. The leaves have a spinach-like appearance and can also be cooked up with onions and saltfish.
Saltfish was first introduced to the Caribbean as an easy-to-store, inexpensive source of protein for the slaves working the land and it was they who created imaginative ways to cook it. Making the best of what was on offer and what they could afford has inspired generations of Caribbean cooks, so it is little wonder that menus include dishes made from almost every imaginable part of a pig or cow.
Pigs’ tails are a local speciality, cooked in a juicy stew. Other stews include pepperpot – a combination of meats, vegetables and hot peppers with cassava juice – while souse bouillon contains salt beef cooked with a spicy mix of onions, beans, little dumplings and potatoes. Then there is cowheel soup and oxtail, chicken and beef, stewed, fried, baked or in mouthwatering curries.
The word ‘provisions’ on a menu indicates a variety of root or starchy vegetables, such as yams, sweet potatoes or tannia. Side dishes include breadfruit roasted or boiled, cut in slices or cubed in a salad, accras (spicy deep fried fishcakes made with salt cod), cassava, dasheen, sweet potato, yam, green fig, plantain, lentils, plain rice and rice and peas. These can be green or dried pigeon peas, black eye, split peas or lentils. Christophene, another local vegetable, is often served baked in a cheese sauce. Bakes are a fried dough patty filled with fish or corned beef, a popular snack bought in most bakeries.
The breadfruit was brought to the West Indies in 1793 by Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) and its large round fruit was useful to provide slaves with carbohydrates and vitamins A, B and C.
Roti, a flat unleavened bread wrap that contains a spicy meat, fish or vegetarian filling, is a filling lunch. Originating in Trinidad where it was developed by immigrants from India, the roti has spread up the island chain and is more popular than the sandwich.
The island’s food is flavoursome because of the seasonings used, of which onions, garlic, lime, peppers, thyme, ginger, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg are the most common. You will find a bottle of hot pepper sauce – made from scotch bonnet pepper – on almost every table, but be careful when adding it to your food as the strength of the sauce can vary greatly from mild to fiery.
A filling chicken roti
Well-known for its small sweet bananas, the island also produces tropical fruits including guava, soursop (chirimoya, guanabana), mango (see box), papaya (paw paw), pineapple, orange, grapefruit, lime, passionfruit, tamarind, sapodilla (zapote), carambola (star fruit), sugar apple (custard apple, sweetsop) and coconut. Fruit is everywhere, made in to juice, ice cream, a pickle or chutney. Hotels usually offer a wide range of fruits at their breakfast buffets, including melons.
Although there are more than 100 varieties of mango, just seven can be found in great numbers on St Lucia. Around 2,000 tons of the fruit are exported each year to as far afield as the UK. Of the seven common varieties only a few actually originate from St Lucia; they include the large juicy Cabishe, the Long and the Pa Louis mangoes. The sweet, orange-coloured Julie mango actually comes from Trinidad. Though closely associated with the region the mango, like the banana, is not indigenous. The fruit, be it sweet or tart, smooth or stringy in texture, can be juiced to produce a drink or made into ice cream or chutney.
Sweets and pastries
The region’s love affair with sugar stems back to the 17th-century plantation era when St Lucia began its sugar industry. Those with a sweet tooth won’t be disappointed with a choice of sweets and pastries as different as tangy tamarind balls and coconut sugar cakes, cinnamon turnovers and banana bread. And don’t forget the island fruit preserves such as guava jelly. Cocoa and chocolate are now firmly on the tourist trail, with several old cacao plantations around Soufrière having been renovated and opened for visitors with demonstrations of the bean to bar process. Not only can you eat and drink it, but you can be massaged with cocoa butter or defoliated with cocoa nibs. The possibilities are endless. So important has cocoa become, that August has been dedicated Cocoa Heritage Month.
Small but sweet
Bananas grown in the Windward Islands are smaller and (some say) sweeter than the larger fruit from elsewhere. Although you can find them in supermarkets in the northern hemisphere, you will notice that they are sweeter here, because they have been allowed to ripen longer on the plant. Bananas picked for export are ripened artificially, which affects the flavour. Unripe, green bananas, known as green fig, are cooked, much like plantains, which are also eaten in St Lucia. The island is closely associated with the banana, a dominant crop for decades until the late 1990s, when farmers were forced to begin diversifying crops. Bananas are grown by small-scale farmers, either organically or with the minimum of chemicals. The plant takes 9–10 months to develop, and can propagate itself by producing suckers on its stem, which can be planted to produce another plant.
Breakfast with a view
WHAT TO DRINK
Refreshing fruit juices abound, including orange, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, lime, guava and passionfruit. Unripe, green coconuts are full of refreshing, sterile water, sold by roadside vendors, who will hack off the top with a machete and provide you with a drinking straw. The water and jelly round the edge of the shell is full of potassium, magnesium and antioxidants. Tamarind is a bitter sweet drink made from the pulp around the seeds inside the pods (legumes) of the tamarind tree and contains calcium as well as B vitamins. At Christmas it is traditional to make the bright red sorrel drink, naturally coloured by the petals of the sorrel flower and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and orange peel. St Lucians also drink a variety of herbal teas, often for medicinal reasons, and a knowledge of herbs and their uses is passed down through the generations. Cocoa tea is drunk at breakfast, but do not expect it to be like the commercial varieties of hot chocolate. Cocoa beans are dried, fermented and roasted before being ground and compacted into cocoa sticks or balls, often with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. These are then grated and added to hot water (or milk), sweetened to taste and served as cocoa tea.
Islanders are rightly proud of their rum. St Lucia Distillers produces a selection of dark and white rums at its factory in the Roseau Valley (for more information, click here). The dark rums include Bounty, most commonly used in cocktails and punches, TOZ Gold and Elements 8 Gold. Connoisseurs can try the extra-aged Admiral Rodney and Chairman’s Reserve. Crystal is a white rum, used in cocktails, while Denros is a double strength 160° proof rum (good for rubbing on aching joints even if you can’t drink it).
Know your measures
In a rum shop, a ‘flask’ is a small, flat bottle holding enough for four people to share, maybe with a mixer; a ‘nip’ serves three, a ‘half nip’ serves two, while a ‘shot’ is an individual measure. A ‘mix’ is rum and falernum, a spiced syrup (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) from Barbados.
Admire Petit Piton while supping a mojito
In the island rum shops (known as cabawe) rum is drunk straight up or on the rocks, but the uninitiated can enjoy theirs in a blend of tropical fruit juices or with other mixers. There are also ready-made rum punches such as Smugglers rum punch, spiced rum such as Kwèyòl Spiced Rum and rum-based liqueurs such as Crème la Caye, Nutz & Rum (a peanut blend) and Orange Bliss. There are some 20 blended, flavoured or unadulterated rum products in all. Less potent is the local beer: Piton. Brewed in Vieux Fort, it is a lager, best drunk very cold. A shandy is usually a mixture of beer and ginger ale, but a Piton shandy can be with lemon, sorrel or ginger.