I've been coming to Jamaica since 2001, when my friend Brenda Isaac invited me for the first time to her villa, Highland House. And this quiet retreat in the hills of Montego Bay has since drawn me back dozens of times. I was here when Florida held the country captive during the 2000 presidential election "hanging chads" recount debacle. I had my divorce papers faxed here back when I was married the first time. I've celebrated so many milestones here, licked my wounds after break ups and mourned the loss of my father here. There's something magical about this place - warm breezes blow up from the ocean, tree frogs sing you to sleep and the vibe is decidedly on island time. So it was fitting that I would celebrate my biggest birthday yet here over this past weekend.
Brenda bought Highland House (which was originally owned by Oscar Hammerstein) after a successful career in incentive travel that took her to the finest resorts around the world. The entire Highland House experience is informed by her travels, warm spirit, generosity and impeccable eye. You are for want of nothing - there's a chef, house manager, housekeeper and gardeners who cater to your every need. But you really don't need much. Like most things in Jamaica, relaxation is the name of the game.
Jamaica was originally colonized by the Spanish before falling under British rule. Both regimes imported thousands of slaves from Africa. The Dutch introduced sugarcane, which surpassed piracy as the nation's number one money maker. And all of these influences combine to create the special sauce that you hear in the music and taste in the food. Of all of the Caribbean cuisines, Jamaican is my favorite. Fresh local produce is everywhere. You know you're in paradise when someone climbs up a tree to pluck a coconut for you, splits it in half with a machete and sticks a straw in it for your afternoon repast. Brenda has a huge garden that supplies several resorts with organic produce. A portion of the proceeds benefits the One Love Learning Foundation, which teaches sustainable gardening at schools in Montego Bay, South Africa and Atlanta.
A stroll down the hill with her three house dogs in tow finds the garden teeming with kale, arugula, basil, melons and parsley. I'm so used to seeing herbs dwarfed in my containers on our deck or tucked into our CSA box that seeing basil planted in soil and growing tall and lush is something like visiting exotic animals in a zoo. It makes me realize how completely disconnected I am from the food I eat. But of course living in a Jamaican villa and eating straight out of my garden remains a fantasy because this girl's still gotta work. But it sure is a nice fantasy. And certainly something to stick on my vision board!
So on the last day of my birthday trip I asked Chef Sheriann to teach me how she makes her amazing callalo, a green served on many Caribbean islands and which I liken to collard greens. She was preparing our final meal: a traditional Jamaican breakfast complete with ackee and saltfish, Johnny cakes, plantains, callaloo and good old American bacon. She showed me how she takes the saltfish - cod that is heavily preserved in salt - and boils it to remove the salt. Then in a pan she sautes onions and peppers and adds the ackee and saltfish. In another pan she sautes onions, peppers and chopped tomatoes. Once soft, she tosses in the callaloo, which she has finely chopped in a chiffonade. She turns down the heat and lets it sit on a back burner alongside the pan of ackee and saltfish. Then out comes a third pan, which she fills about two inches high with vegetable oil to fry the Johnny cakes - essentially fried Southern biscuits - and the plantains. She puts the bacon in a toaster oven, and I ask her if she ever fries it in a pan and uses the bacon fat to cook with. She cocks her head gently and says that everyone's a cook. But it wasn't in the too-many-cooks-in-a-kitchen kind of way. She was being honest. She may be filing that tip away to try another time. Or not. She says she comes from a family of chefs. It's what she knows. She loves using local ingredients not because she thinks she can change the world but because they're fresher and cheaper. She wastes nothing. Anything she can't repurpose goes in the compost bin for the garden.
Later, I stagger through the airport in a daze as that nagging realization of re-entry hangs over me like a dark cloud. No one will be lining up lounge chairs for an afternoon of beach reading, plucking fresh greens from the garden for lunch, or filling the cooler with lemongrass water for me back in Atlanta. Tree frogs won't be singing me to sleep. But it's all good. Because that's the thing about Jamaica - you can always go back.
2 T olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 tomato, chopped
1/4 green pepper, chopped
6 C callaloo, finely chopped, hard stems removed
On medium high heat saute the onions, tomatoes and green peppers in olive oil until soft. Rinse greens and toss them in the pan. Turn down the heat to medium low and let them cook for 45 minutes. Serve with your favorite hot sauce.