Jamaica's Strawberry Hill: An alluring hideaway

At Strawberry Hill in Jamaica, honest local cooking comes before haute cuisine. Rhiannon Batten samples its home-spun flavours

Along with the national dish, ackee and saltfish (a kind of spicy kedgeree), and other traditional comfort foods, porridge is enjoying a comeback on Jamaica's menus. Not that the Caribbean version bears much resemblance to the familiar stuff. A sweet, spicy goo laced, here, with sweetcorn (you can also get it with peanuts, plantain or breadfruit), it's not all that different from custard. But porridge isn't the only thing Juici Patties sells. With almost evangelical zeal, Lee slaps a beef patty into a huge white bun and passes it across. An anti-Atkins blowout of squishy bap and crunchy patty (think spicy, deep-fill Cornish pasty with thinner pastry), the combination is surprisingly good but I can't eat a whole one. "This is what we used to have as children," grins Lee, making swift inroads into his own. "It's fast food Jamaican style. It's really good."

He should know. Since his appointment as executive chef at the exclusive Jamaican retreat, Strawberry Hill, last year, Lee has been charged with turning the hotel's formerly lacklustre menu around. Commendably, he is focusing on local flavours there too, dubbing his brand of cooking, with dishes such as steamed snapper, jerk-styled lamb rack with guava jelly and coffee-glazed pork, "New Jamaican".

"When you walk into this property you know you're in Jamaica and I want the food to reflect that," he shrugs. "I focus on home-cooked flavours with a little flair. Lunch is real hardcore Jamaican but dinner is when I get to play. I take things from around the world and put them in the Jamaican context. Chimichuri, for example, is this amazing Argentinian sauce, but I make my own version of it by blending in local flavours like Scotch bonnet, thyme, scallion and parsley."

To prove his point, Lee has started taking groups of interested guests on foodie tours of Kingston. Which is where the detour to Juici Patties comes in. Once we're carbo-overloaded, though, there's shopping to be done so we drive on to Papine market to buy up a good proportion of what stallholders Peggy and Dolores have to sell.

First comes ripe ackee. "If it's closed it's poisonous," warns Lee, just in case any of us gets carried away and we try to eat the fruit's pale, fleshy half-moons on the spot. Then there are spring onions - "in Jamaica I use one of these but in the States I'd have to use a bunch to get the same flavour" - a vegetable called chocho - "never call them that in front of Spanish speakers, it means a lady's private parts" - juicy soursops, scrunched up balls of spiced chocolate for melting into a drink, delicate dark pink sorrel (hibiscus) flowers to make tea and firecracking Scotch bonnet. "On a scale of one to 10, a jalapeno is about a three, but this," he says, "this is a 10 plus, plus, plus."

As we return to the minibus to pick up the next component of that evening's dinner at the Causeway fish market, Lee lets slip that he gets through a lot of the latter when the hotel's owner, the Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell, is staying. "His food has to be extremely spicy. I'll give him something I think is spicy and he'll say, 'What the hell's wrong with you chef? Spice it up.' It also has to be home-style. He's not into all this pretentious stuff, miniature plates. Food is food. It's got to taste good."

Janette and Sister Marie at the fish market agree. They've been selling the day's catch at this line of raggle-taggle waterside stalls for more than 20 years and, when we arrive, they get straight down to business while their fishermen husbands cool off with a few Red Stripes at the shack of a bar that sits at the end of the line. Opening giant coolers brimming with snapper, parrot fish and glossy sprats, the women give Lee first dibs on some of the most brilliantly coloured fish this side of Finding Nemo. While the women get to work descaling, filleting and wrapping, Lee gives us a quick buyer's lesson. "How do you tell if a fish is fresh?" he asks. "First, you check the eyes are bright, then you press the body and release it - if it plumps back up when you let go, it's fresh. Finally, smell it. It shouldn't smell of fish."

Sister Marie and Janette's produce passes the test, so we pile back into the minibus and head for the kitchen. The idea was that we'd cook what we'd bought ourselves but, after an unscheduled stop at Kingston's Grog Shoppe bar it's too late for the planned cookery lesson, so Lee heads to the stove alone while the rest of us smarten up for dinner.

An hour or so later we regroup on the restaurant's terrace. It's the ideal setting for the food since, with its gingerbread fretwork and plantation-style architecture, Strawberry Hill is probably the most Jamaican of all the Island Outpost properties. A 19th-century house and garden, bought by Blackwell in the 1970s and rebuilt after a hurricane, it has famously played host to Bob Marley and U2 and, more recently, Grace Jones and Sinead O'Connor.

Food-wise, in keeping with Blackwell's philosophy of building in the local style and employing local staff, Lee buys the bulk of his fresh produce from the smallholdings that dot the surrounding Blue Mountains. And, as part of a long-term vision for the property that includes developing timeshare cottages on the neighbouring hill, work will start this summer on a five-acre kitchen garden, focusing on herbs and indigenous fruits. There will also be a two-acre coffee crop - at over 3,000ft it qualifies as Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee-growing territory.

For the time being, we sit back in our surprisingly chilly mountain perch and look out on to the fizz of lights that map out Kingston far below. As we soak up the burr of hummingbirds and chirrup of crickets, Lee brings dish after dish to the table. The feast of jerked and escoveitch fish, dumplings, jerked chicken, plantain, curried goat and rice and peas sends Sterling and Lee's stomachs on a happy trip down memory lane. The rest of us find it all a little harder to swallow than the New Jamaican style.

"Many of Darren's recipes are inspired by a classic 1950s Jamaican cookery book, The Jamaica Agricultural Society's Farmer's Food Manual," explains the hotel's manager, Jonathan Surtees. "We like offering guests local, seasonal dishes. There's a great one called matrimony, for example, that's a mixture of juicy ortanique (a cross between a tangerine and an orange), and fibrous, sticky purple star-apple. It doesn't sound particularly good but put them together and it's an ideal combination."

The same could be said of the coffee scrub being developed in the on-site Aveda spa. Booking in for a trial run, I'm taken to what, with shiny pipes dangling from the ceiling, looks uncannily like a milking parlour. After being rubbed with salt, I'm hosed down with the force of a small hurricane. But where's the coffee? "Coffee makes a great scrub if you get the right consistency," says Dale, the spa manager, "but we're trying to make one with Blue Mountain coffee and the beans are just too good for it to work."

Perhaps it's time to leave before I'm offered a porridge wrap or hot patty massage. You can take this local food thing too far.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Air Jamaica (020-8570 7999; www.airjamaica.com) flies from Heathrow to Kingston and Montego Bay and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick to Kingston, both from £550 return. Charter flights with Thomson (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) serve Montego Bay and start from £300 return. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from climate care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Kingston is £16. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

Strawberry Hill, St Andrew (001 876 960 8134; www.islandoutpost.com). Doubles from $670 (£372) full board.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Juici Patties, branches nationwide (001 876 904 2619; www.juicipatties.com).

Grog Shoppe, 26 Hope Road, Kingston (001 876 929 7027).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Jamaican Tourist Board: 020-7224 0505; www.visitjamaica.uk.com.

Comments