Meridian Writers' Group
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados-Barbados has a history of being one of the more high-end destinations in the Caribbean so it's perhaps not surprising that, despite having a population of only 280,000, the island has more than 100 restaurants deemed worthy of inclusion in the Zagat Best of Barbados guidebook.
According to Zagat, it's homegrown creations that visitors most savour. Special favourites are cou cou, an African dish made of cornmeal, and the always delicious flying fish, which can be steamed or fried. But Italian cooking is also very popular, as well as French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and, of course, North American.
Barbados has kitchens that do them all and in 2006 some clever Barbadians began a new festival to take advantage of this culinary cornucopia. Taste of Barbados runs for nine days in early October and is meant to give both locals and visitors the chance to see some of the island as well as experience the best of local produce and chef wizardry.
It's a good idea, although still a work in progress. Each year it gains in sophistication, but at many events a visitor may feel that he or she has come to what's almost entirely a local celebration, with all the social gossip and in-jokes that implies. That could make it a tad uncomfortable, but on the other hand, if you let down your hair it can be a great way to meet some of the posher island folk. Either way, at least there'll be lots of good food to occupy yourself with.
Three events that should be at the top of any festival-goer's list are the 18th-century feast at George Washington House, the evening at Holder's and the grand finale, Dining by Design, at the Lion Castle Polo Club.
The 18th-century feast is held in a pavilion on the lawn of the newly restored George Washington House, so-called because Washington stayed in this elegant mansion for seven weeks in 1751, when he was 19. It was the only place outside America he ever went. Delightful jugglers and food, but beware the speeches and poetry.
The evening at Holder's is a bit like crashing a Hollywood party. Holder's is a well-known estate whose pool is half-covered for this event to make a band stage, while the area surrounding the pool becomes a carnival of tents and stalls offering a smorgasbord of Barbadian delicacies, including spices and rum. Steam tables set up on the grounds let you graze at will.
Dining by Design takes the prize hands down for polish and presentation. A street of intimate restaurants is created in front of the polo club viewing stand, each with an exotic menu and matching décor. The island's best restaurants are here and they go all out. For the 2008 event, for example, Chef Mitchell Husbands of the Coral Reef Club concocted "A Tropical Spendour" menu that included pickled lobster, a pumpkin, coconut and lemongrass soup and main dishes featuring red snapper, shrimp and black belly lamb.
Delicious - and, at US$200 a head, pricey.
For more information on Taste of Barbados visit its website at www.tasteofbarbados.com .
A rum that's 'something really special'
ST. PETER PARISH, Barbados-Once upon a time, almost all of Barbados's 300-plus sugar plantations would have made their own rum. Before the coming of emancipation, a rum ration was one of the few perks for the slaves who worked the plantations.
But after the end of slavery in the Caribbean in 1838 the number of on-site distilleries began to decline. Today, there are still dozens of sugar plantations in Barbados, but virtually all the island's rum is made by three big companies: Mount Gay, Malibu and Foursquare.
Now Larry Warren, the owner of St. Nicholas Abbey, is bringing back plantation rum and in the process, he hopes, creating a new niche market.
St. Nicholas isn't really an abbey - it's a 17th-century Jacobean plantation great house, one of only three in the Western Hemisphere and possibly the second-oldest building in Barbados. (The oldest is thought to be Drax Hall, the island's other Jacobean great house, still occupied by the Drax family. The third one, for those who must know, is in Virginia, in the United States.)
The "abbey" is an imposing, three-storey home, open to the public and still attached to a 90-hectare sugar plantation. Warren is taking over the harvesting of some of its crop from Barbados Agricultural Management Company, the government agency that operates many of the island's remaining plantations.
Since January 2009, he has been turning sugar cane into rum right on the premises, using a 19th-century press. Visitors will be able to watch the entire process.
There isn't a lot of rum: a maximum of just 7,000 bottles a year, Warren estimates. (Compare that with the 400,000 bottles Mount Gay can turn out in one hour.)
It is aged in old bourbon barrels for 10 years, but you can already buy some: until the first made-on-the-premises product is ready, in about 2018, Warren is working with Foursquare distillery to make his artisanal product.
For St. Nicholas, the presentation is as important as the golden liquid itself. The bottles the rum flows into are Italian cut glass. Each one has frosted lettering and you can have your own personal inscription added. The stopper is hand-cut cork, mahogany and leather.
The price, naturally, is well above the US$13 you pay in Barbados for a 750 millilitre bottle of Mount Gay's best rum, Extra Old. A similar amount of St. Nicholas Abbey rum is US$60. The idea, as Warren says, is that you're buying "something really special."
If you're exceptionally well-heeled you can buy your own barrel of rum. It'll be stored at St. Nicholas, but you can visit it any time and when you want a bottle or 10, for yourself, friends or clients, just let Warren know and he'll tap your barrel (which holds about 450 bottles), frost your desired inscription on the glass and ship your order wherever you want. How much? Well, if you have to ask... but think mid-five figures, in U.S. dollars.
For those on a tighter budget, the house and distillery tour are a much more manageable US$13, and include a tot.
For more information on St. Nicholas Abbey visit its website at www.stnicholasabbey.com .
For information on travel in Barbados visit the Barbados Tourism Authority website at www.visitbarbados.org .