We recently returned from a much needed vacation cruise in the eastern Caribbean. Stepping out of the airport upon return I received an embrace of icy cold that arrived during our time away. I reluctantly returned to the responsibilities and cold weather. The end of the first vacation in a couple of years, a reward for my wife’s hard work in her business, was hard to accept.
Our trip included time spent at farmers markets, talking to farmers and eating local foods throughout our travels. We spent time in Old San Juan Puerto Rico before becoming a time captive on the boat. A meal at respected restaurant, El Fondo El Jibarrito introduced us to Puerto Rican food. More savory and rich rather than fiery we enjoyed the complex flavors. Dinners came with hot sauce and condiments to add, similar to southern fare.We ate Arroz con Gandules, pork, seafood, yucca and plantains all prepared to local tastes. Add rum and enjoy…rum seems to go with everything. A pleasant surprise was the Puerto Rican coffee. Locals make a habit of enjoying their coffee and the coffee shops are always jammed. The locally grown, hand-picked and roasted coffee is flavorful and rich with complex flavors and a fruity characteristic. It reminded me of similar care that went into a favorite Kona coffee. A great introduction to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
We visited a fabulous Farmers Market: http://www.mercadoagricolanatural.com/ Finding the market was a bit of a challenge. Three public servants gave bad directions (HaHaHa!!! Same as at home!) but we located the market when a shopper with a produce bag loaded with market goodies pointed us in the right direction. The market was impacted by three days of stormy weather. The farmers had trouble bringing to market all that they may have wanted. Produce, crafts and food was all exceptional. We had lunch and talked with kindred spirits before leaving to board the boat.
The boat cruised at night and dumped those who wanted to visit islands at ports in the morning. We stopped at St. Croix, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Thomas. Each port had a veneer for when the boats docked. Getting a fair view of life on the islands was a bit complicated. We found the “winter climate” fabulous. The whole region was humid, and the temperatures only drifted between lows and highs of 75-85 degrees. It did rain and we were told it can rain anytime. The rain was intermittent and warm so it never stopped us from enjoying our time on the islands. We had time away from the port towns on several stops. Hiking, snorkeling and kayaking made for memorable days.
Purchased meals were in local restaurants. You can eat at chains like KFC or Chinese restaurants in the ports. Recent immigrants like the chinese have impacted local economies and food markets. They now have asian vegetables that adds to the traditional produce. Produce markets are open most weekdays, and people shop frequently. Refrigeration is less prevalent so foods are purchased, fixed and consumed a bit differently than we are accustomed to. The grocery stores have cheese and milk products in cans or aseptic boxes in the middle of the aisles. Cold pop was $2.00. We enjoyed the local grapefruit soda, Ting. Not like anything at home, it was less sweet and very refreshing.
The restaurants fix a plate of rice and peas; chicken, fish or pork; a choice of 2 sides that can be anything from Mac N Cheese to yucca, plantains or sweet potatoes, with a chopped salad for about $7.00. One place in Grenada had breadfruit as a side. It was great. Different than what was expected for sure. It was more like a potato than a fruit. All great food! Several times a side choice was blood sausage. The sausages are almost black and quite popular. They wouldn’t go over very well at home! If you finished the food you’d be set for 5-6 hours before you were hungry again.
Those that had land cultivated fruits and selected items for the table. We saw bananas, citrus, coconuts, avocados, and many unknowns. Drivers told us about how easy it was to forage and cultivate favorites. One driver shared his favorite was coconut water and rum. The collapse of the sugar industry led to poverty and subsistence living on many of the islands. Without the influx of boat/tourist money many would have economic problems. Keeping chickens and goats was common as is small scale farming. Many small farms showed evidence of poor stewardship of the land with erosion and water handling issues at the top of the list. Local governments had billboards promoting local food production. We noticed them in St. Kitts, Dominica and Grenada. For decades food was shipped around the Caribbean. Local food was undervalued. Now they are trying to reduce trade for food and create local production capabilities. We were told that some places are desperate for food farmers. Makes we wonder what obstacles farmers on the islands have to overcome to create a living from the land? Probably not much different than what we must contend with…
We had great experiences and met some wonderful people. The islands are a great place to visit and offer a warm and inviting party life for the boat people. Reality is a bit different from the image. The history of colonialism and resource exploitation is an icy slap to the party life. Awaiting the trip from Atlanta to the islands we observed a group of agronomists from Dekalb (Monsanto), Pioneer (Dupont) and Syngneta. They were deep in conversation about the seasons’ seed corn production on the islands, chemicals, genetics and worker issues. They were “laboring” in the tropics during the winter so they’d have seed for the 2014 season. So happy to be a food farmer just vacationing…