Caribbean Food: Waiter, there's a bone in my goat soup

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica are home to what some say is the best coffee in the world. It's also where you can tuck in to a soup made of goat's entrails...

`Curried goat should be the national dish, not ackee and saltfish," Mr Clue spluttered over a plateful of this traditional Jamaican breakfast. "You won't find a wedding or funeral in Jamaica without curried goat on the menu." The ackee (a red and yellow fruit that tastes like scrambled eggs) and saltfish was going down very well, however, and the thought of eating goat, curried or otherwise, first thing in the morning was not something that I wanted to contemplate.

Mr Clue was my driver and guide and, with his help, I seemed to be eating - and drinking - my way around the island. After breakfast we were heading up into the Blue Mountains in search of what many people believe is the best coffee on earth (Ian Fleming, one of Jamaica's most famous expats, wouldn't let James Bond drink anything else).

Coffee was originally brought to Jamaica from Ethiopia, in 1728, by the then governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes. The new crop flourished on the cool slopes of Jamaica's Blue Mountains and when Europe went coffee crazy in the early 19th century, the plantations were booming.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1838, however, Britain ended preferential trade agreements with its colonies. Along with competition from South American plantations and the effects of hurricane damage, the island's coffee plantations were pushed into decline.

In the middle of this century the government finally took steps to remedy the situation by setting down strict quality guidelines and aiming for the top end of the market. By stipulating that only coffee grown above a certain altitude could lay claim to the name Blue Mountain, they ensured its exclusivity - and high price. However, its recent rise in popularity is also the result of a Japanese love affair with the bean; these days, over 90 per cent of all coffee produced in Blue Mountain is sold to Japan.

Driving up into dripping mist, we swapped a tropical coastline for the chill of the mountains to visit Alex Twyman's Old Tavern Estate. Dressed in shorts and wellington boots, he welcomed us in, stopping to explain: "We don't actually offer tours - although the Lonely Planet says we do. But if we've time, Dorothy or I show people around."

Trained as a chartered surveyor, Alex Twyman first came to Jamaica on a two-year contract over 40 years ago. Whilst there, he met Dorothy and stayed. They bought the Old Tavern Estate - it was named after the foundations of an old Spanish tavern found on the plantation - in 1968 and now have 100 acres of coffee in cultivation. Stepping over the dogs, Tino and Molly, and grabbing a couple of enormous bamboo walking sticks, we slithered down the muddy track and made our way across the valley.

Machete in hand, Alex hacked away at the undergrowth around the coffee plants. "Pick one of the `cherries'," he commanded, pointing to a small red fruit. "Now suck it." The skin and pulp was surprisingly sweet. Spitting the two white seeds into my hand, I looked down on raw Blue Mountain coffee beans.

According to Alex Twyman, Blue Mountain beans are so sweet because they take double the length of time to convert carbohydrates to sugar. They also take 10 months to ripen - rather than the five months it takes beans grown in warmer climates - and it is this that gives them their distinctive taste.

The beans are hand-picked, washed and taken into Kingston to be slowly barbecued dry for a week. Then they're graded by the Coffee Board and returned to the Twymans to be roasted and packaged as Old Tavern Estate.

Back at the basic wooden cabin the Twymans keep on the plantation, Dorothy ground some beans and brewed a pot of coffee. As tiny birds bobbed in and out of the windows and we looked out at the valley, we sipped the smoothest, most delicious coffee I had ever tasted - even served black and sweetened with a little honey from their beehives.

After an impromptu lunch of red pea soup, another Jamaican speciality made with red kidney beans and leftovers, Alex Twyman offered one further tip. "You must try the curried goat on Spur Tree Hill. And try the mannish water too. It's a soup made from goats' entrails - but don't let that put you off."

As we left the plantation, my driver, Mr Clue, continued his culinary history lesson. "Dishes such as pepperpot stew can be traced back to the Arawak Indians. The Spanish brought goats and cattle to the island and the African slaves cultivated okra, yams and callaloo."

One of the most famous Jamaican specialities, though, has local origins: jerk cooking (a kind of spicy seasoning) owes its invention to the runaway slaves who hunted wild pigs in the Blue Mountains. The pigs lived off a special diet of herbs, which gave their meat a distinctive flavour, and the pork was cured over pits of pimento wood to preserve it. The pig was killed and seasoned for a day, then spices were rubbed onto the meat before it was barbecued.

"Different areas in Jamaica specialise in different dishes." Mr Clue picked up his story the next day as we started to wind our way down the famous Spur Tree Hill on the other side of the island. "Boston Bay is famous for its jerk, Old Harbour for cassava cakes, Middle Quarters for its pepper-shrimp, and Spur Tree Hill for curried goat."

Pulling up at one of the curried goat shacks, I perched on a stool and prepared myself for my first taste of curried goat - the true national dish, according to Mr Clue. It was slightly gamey, with a spicy sauce - and full of splintered bones.

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Air Jamaica (0181-570 7999), which flies to Montego Bay and Kingston five times a week (return fares from pounds 649.30).

To buy Old Tavern Blue Mountain coffee, contact Alex Twyman at PO Box 131, Kingston 8, Jamaica, West Indies (001 876 924 2785).

The Jamaican Tourist Board can be contacted on 0171-224 0505

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