The scene before the dozen or so elegant clapboard dwellings that constitute the Calabash Hotel is so much of a Caribbean cliché that it is rather embarrassing to describe. Like feather dusters waved by a lazy hand, palm fronds whisk in the light breeze. On a crescent of perfect sand, hotel guests loll on their recliners and scan their Wilbur Smith or Joanna Trollope. From time to time, waiters deliver glasses of rum punch to maintain the pleasure quotient. Scattered about the small bay before the hotel is a flotilla of expensive leisure craft, dominated by the gleaming hull of a zillionaire's floating palace. Everything is pretty much as you would expect in this languid corner of paradise, with one exception. What you would not expect to find is a restaurant bearing the name of one of Britain's most energetic and perfectionist chefs. Yet the first thing you see on entering the Calabash's cool, minimalist dining room is a large glass sign etched with the single scrawled word "Rhodes".
We are at the south-western tip of Grenada, southernmost outpost of the Windward Islands. Exceptionally lush and verdant even by Caribbean standards, Grenada is a 22-mile-long volcanic outcrop 100 miles north of Venezuela. It is, to be frank, an unlikely spot in which to find perfectionist cooking. Most visitors to the island satisfy themselves with grilled tuna, grilled lobster and grilled steak. The more adventurous may sample local fare such as lambi fritters (deep-fried conch) or pepperpot (oxtail and cow heel simmered with cassava juice). So what prompted Gary Rhodes, a gifted chef who recently ditched his chirpy chappie image to become the softly spoken culinary philosopher of the TV screen, to bestow his name, expertise and recipes on the Calabash? The answer dates back to 1997, when a BBC producer was cudgelling her brains to come up with a new angle for the Gary Rhodes Christmas Special: "Christmas ... mince pies ... spice ... spice island ... Got it!" The spiky-haired maestro was duly despatched with film crew to Grenada, the world's second largest producer of nutmeg.
In the course of his yuletide labours, Rhodes was approached by Leo Garbutt, the owner of the Calabash, who asked if he could think of anybody who might train the hotel's kitchen staff. "Yes," the great chef mused. "Me." The following August, Rhodes flew in to buff up the skills of the kitchen brigade and provide demonstrations for hotel guests and other interested parties. "Phew! Never again!" he declared, after a fortnight's strenuous tutoring and cooking. The experience cannot, however, have been too debilitating, for within minutes he announced: "When we do it again next year..." Like a rich sauce, the liaison between chef and hotel gradually melded. Rhodes dishes began to appear on the menu. (The chef was familiar with Caribbean cuisine through the cooking of his Jamaican stepfather.) He initiated a training programme for the Calabash's kitchen staff. Exchange visits took place with his restaurants in the UK.
In November 2002, Rhodes chef David Marshall was installed in the Calabash to cook dishes devised by Rhodes from local ingredients. Aside from him, the kitchen brigade of 15 chefs (for a maximum of 90 diners per night) is entirely Grenadian. Gary Rhodes reckons they are on a par with any of his teams in the UK. Marshall agrees: "They're cool, rock-hard and very professional." In April last year, the Calabash's dining room was refurbished and a new kitchen was installed for "close to $1m". Belying the laid-back reputation of the Caribbean, the job was completed in two weeks, though Marshall admitted it was not without a few nerve-racking moments.
"Our first customers were due to arrive on a Sunday, but on Saturday night there was still no roof. It turned out that the carpenters were all Seventh Day Adventists and don't work on a Saturday. They arrived on the dot at midnight and worked like hell." In January, the Rhodes sign went up and the TV chef flew in. Instead of supervising the cuisine from 3,000 miles away, he joined the kitchen staff in the production of seared tunafish Benedict, salmon and lobster fishcakes and bread and butter pudding parfait. All are variations on Rhodes signature dishes, familiar to fans of his TV programmes, but David Marshall insists that the cuisine served at the Calabash has a distinctively Grenadian twist. "All our fish and vegetables come from the island," he said. "I spent my first three months here talking to local suppliers. It was a fraught time. The produce here is fantastic, but it wasn't easy to get the standard I wanted. When I got here, all the fish caught was immediately frozen after being landed. I had to get them to sell it fresh. It was hard to get farmers to sell me small beetroot, baby aubergines and baby cucumbers. I said: 'Bring them to me and I'll buy them.' It proved very persuasive." Fresh meat presented a bigger problem. The lamb served at Rhodes restaurant is shipped in from Miami, though more sheep than goats are raised on the island. "The lamb here is a bit muttonish," admitted Marshall. "I'd love to serve it, but it might be a bit strong for our customers."
The creation of "a Rhodes restaurant with everything produced to Rhodes standards" might have been an uphill task on the southern full-stop of the Windward chain, but there are many worse places than Grenada for a chef to practise his art. As far as vegetable fecundity is concerned, this mineral-rich volcanic upthrust has few equals in the world. A tour of the island with taxi driver Emery Stuart was dominated by a litany of edible greenery, as he constantly pointed out the Eden-like riches: custard apple, mango, bananas, pawpaw, grapefruit, lemons, tamarind, coconut. "That's the breadfruit," he said, pausing his vehicle under a knobbly green orb. "We use it for soups. We roast it. We fry it as chips. We put it in salads." Pointing out a prickly grenade, he declared: "There's a soursop. You can suck it. It also makes a nice drink or ice cream. And over there, you can see a sugar apple."
"What do you do with that?"
"You shove it in your mouth," he said.
We learned that cinnamon trees have to be chopped down in order to secure a crop and that, like humans, banana trees take nine months to produce a hand. But the greatest prize grows in a host of lowland plantations around the island's volcanic peaks. First planted by the Dutch in the 19th century, the nutmeg is, by some distance, Grenada's most important crop. In the town of Gouave, we visited the plant where half Grenada's annual production of five million pounds of nutmeg is processed by hand. After removal of the sheath of scarlet webbing that produces mace, millions of nuts are dried in trays for eight weeks. Every window in the handsome old building is flung wide open to catch the ocean breeze. When dried, the nuts are cracked open and every nutmeg kernel is scrutinised. Those without blemish are dispatched around the world to be incorporated into innumerable custards, rice puds, mince pies, cheese sauces ...
"Fresh nutmeg is in a different league to the nutmeg that your granny has kept for the past 50 years," said David Marshall. "It's really pungent and contains so much oil that it clogs up your grater." He enthuses about virtually everything grown on the island. "You get passion fruit like cricket balls, not like the wrinkled things at home. The avocados are the size of rugby balls, but they're a lot less fatty with a lighter flavour. Grenada grows the best cocoa in the world. The chocolate has a wonderful minerally finish from the volcanic soil. What's known here as saffron is actually turmeric, but the root has tons of flavour. The plantains are tree-ripened; that's why they're a lot sweeter than in London. Grenadian honey is fantastic and as for the local eggs ..."
Marshall's particular passion is for the fish of the Caribbean Sea. When I accompanied him round the gleaming new fish market given by the Japanese to St George's, he rhapsodised about the quality of swordfish, yellow fin grouper and other exotic giants hauled from the Caribbean Sea. "White marlin and barracuda go up to six or seven feet. I keep an eye open when diving - if you see lots of red snapper or lobster, then you start planning the menu down there. While Gary was here, a guy came along to the hotel with a 200lb yellow fin tuna in the back seat of his car. Still had the slime on it from the ocean. Gary had never seen one so fresh."
So, with a cornucopia of raw materials, a dining room whose setting is unrivalled this side of paradise, the best-equipped kitchen in the Caribbean and a kitchen brigade that Gary Rhodes would "love to take back to Britain", there remains one question: what's the food like? The answer is: pretty good. A starter of duck leg in spicy Grenadian honey was a sublime melt-in-the-mouth confit spruced up by an orange and plantain salad. The seared tunafish Benedict, bolstered by an exceptional hollandaise sauce, was an equally satisfying appetiser.
My wife was mightily impressed by a main course of tiny slices of lamb imbued with lemon and rosemary that formed the topmost strata of a tart filled with creamed calalloo (a local greenstuff somewhat like spinach) and mushroom. "A wonderful combination of textures," she cooed. "The pastry is to die for - it's the best I've ever had." Subtlety and balance are the kitchen's great strengths, but these qualities were taken too far in the case of a Grenadian fish stew that erred on the side of restraint. Instead of the spicy mélange I was hoping for, it consisted of three squares of fish in an unassertive sauce. To be fair, Grenadian cuisine eschews the daunting pepperiness that dominates the cuisine on other Caribbean islands (bird's eye chillies that grow wild on the island remain unpicked), but a bit more robustness would not have gone amiss. On my final night, I had a pan-fried swordfish steak that was cooked to perfection, not a moment longer than necessary. One of the best fish dishes I've ever had, it was complemented by a creamy sauce given depth and warmth by a hint of spice. In the pud department, my wife's vanilla and nutmeg pannacotta with passion-fruit sauce and shortbread biscuits drew a rave review. My warm chocolate banana cake pudding was light and not too sweet, a winning combination of local assets.
Such metropolitan finesse in a tropical setting comes at a price. We paid $147 (£82) for a three-course dinner with one bottle of wine. The management of the Calabash insists that the pricing is "very competitive", which suggests that top-end dining in Grenada must match London prices. We were assured by David Marshall that you can pay more on the island and have much worse food and service. "It breaks my heart to go to some beautiful restaurants in Grenada because the food is so dire," he said.
If you've got the money, it is hard to conceive of a more pleasant Caribbean destination than the quiet Grenadian bay where the Calabash perches. Though the Rhodes restaurant is white and modern, the atmosphere is pleasantly retro. As a pianist tinkles "Satin Doll" and you sip a Sea Breeze, you could be in the Caribbean of Noël Coward or Ian Fleming. However, if you're staying here for a week, you might feel the urge to escape for a dish of pepperpot baked or land-crab in some noisy dive. After all, who would want to be in heaven all the time?
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How do I get there?
Christopher Hirst travelled with Harlequin Worldwide Travel (0845-450 3782; www.harlequinholidays.com). A week at the Calabash costs from £1,033 each, based on two sharing, including flights with British Airways and b&b. Guests who quote The Independent on Sunday will receive a free Gary Rhodes cookbook.
Where can I find out more?
Grenada Tourist Board (020-8877 4516; www.grenada.org).Reuse content