The importance of rum to Caribbean culture
One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about the Caribbean is wonderful golden rum. Whether you drink it neat, or as a base to a mojito or any other exotic cocktail, rum is synonymous with this group of exotic islands.
Rum originated in the 1630s in Barbados when it was discovered that molasses – a by-product of the sugar refining process – could be fermented into alcohol. And following a trip to Barbados with his brother, George Washington even demanded a tot of rum at his inauguration in 1789.
If it’s good enough for Washington, it’s good enough for the rest of us, and such was the drink’s popularity that this potent spirit can now be found throughout the world.
An island apart
Produced in Jamaica, Aruba, Cuba and St Lucia, among other countries, rum is made in a variety of different ways in each of the places where it’s distilled. This explains why there are so many different tastes and styles throughout the islands.
In order to help consumers appreciate these variations, and also guarantee the provenance of rum produced throughout the Caribbean, The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ – WIRSPA – has introduced a marque, or an authentication system.
Using rum as a sightseeing guide
If you wanted, you could base a tour of the Caribbean around the islands’ many distilleries. There’s even an online International Rum Council that will help you select your destination – distillery by distillery, or island by island – as well as adding to your rum knowledge.
One of the oldest established rum distilleries is, as you’d expect, on the island of Barbados. Mount Gay Distillery, in Bridgetown is still going strong after more than 300 years, having been established in 1703.
Here tourists can explore the plant to see how rum is made as well as learn about its social history and how rum has diversified over the ages. You might be surprised to find that rum has overtones of flavours including chocolate, almond, banana and vanilla.
Rum and the arts
The economic and cultural importance of rum in the Caribbean cannot be understated. Each Caribbean island that produces rum has a different history and distinct culture, but the connection of rum with Caribbean music, food and the tourism industry is evident.
Highlighting the cultural links, the late great Bob Marley composed a guitar solo about Jamaican Rum. And on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique, there’s even a rum distillery that’s been converted to a super contemporary art museum.
The world-renowned Island records founder, Chris Blackwell, is a huge fan of rum, having created his own Blackwell Rum brand. Blackwell believes in rum in all its forms and advocates pouring it over fruit salad, drinking it neat and adding it in cocktails.
You can actually hang out at his Goldeneye Estate, just under an hour’s drive away from Ocho Rios and sip rum at this now upscale hotel and resort. In case you didn’t know, the estate is famous thanks to the fact that James Bond writer, Ian Fleming, used to live here.
Celebrate rum at Caribbean festivals
The Caribbean islands have many differences, but one of their unifying factors is rum. August 16th is International Rum Day, which is celebrated across the Caribbean and further afield – now there’s a party worth attending.
As with all festivals you’ll have the pleasure of attending during your stay in the Caribbean, they aren’t simply a celebration of alcohol but a way of showing off the music, the costumes and the traditions of these islands. So you can immerse yourself in all things rum and Caribbean.
If you’re celebrating in Jamaica, just be aware that you may encounter something called overproof rum. This is the stuff that the locals drink and is 80% proof – to say that this is really strong is something of an understatement. So maybe ask for an Appleton’s or Myers instead.
When you think of Caribbean food, what instantly comes to mind might be jerk chicken with rice and peas or a hearty fish stew. However, when you arrive on these tropical islands, you’ll soon realise they have hundreds of unfamiliar ingredients and cooking techniques that combine to create new flavour sensations.
The use of plantain, seafood and a certain level of heat to the food remain consistent across Caribbean islands, but each have their very unique twists on Caribbean favourites as well as some individual and sometimes quite unusual delicacies.
Jamaica’s dangerous delicacy
Probably boasting the most well-known Caribbean cuisine like jerk chicken and Jamaican patties, food in Jamaica is heavy on seafood, meats and some little heard of tropical fruit. It has influences as wide as Spanish, British, African, Indian and even Chinese, shown in the fact the ackee fruit used in Jamaica’s national dish of saltfish and ackee was imported from West Africa in 1778.
Commonly served for breakfast, saltfish is what Jamaican’s call cod, and ackee resembles scrambled eggs when cooked. Adding a dash of jeopardy to your mealtime, unripe ackee and its black seeds are actually poisonous, but don’t worry, the locals know exactly when it’s ripe and which bits not to serve.
St Lucia’s savoury bananas
Shaped heavily by its French and East Indian past, St Lucian food has lots of creole flavours and is also hot on seafood and fish like tuna. Food here can be as simple as plantain fried in a bit of coconut oil and seasoned with salt, to the more complex national treasure of green figs and saltfish. The figs are actually none other than unripe bananas, which are quite savoury and less strong than ripe bananas. They’re peeled, boiled then sauteed with garlic, onions, celery, peppers and the saltfish.
Another widely used ingredient is callaloo, a dark green leafy vegetable that comes from the leaves of the taro plant. The leaves are similar in taste to cooked chard or kale, but with none of the bitterness, and they act as a smoky-flavoured addition to fish or seafood dishes.
A laid-back island, street food is popular in St Lucia, including a deep-fried round of plain flour dough known as a bake that can be eaten for breakfast with jam or filled for a more substantial meal. For instance, the St Lucian delicacy of shark and bake is a bake filled with a mixture of shark or other fish and stewed vegetables.
Not your usual pasty in Aruba
The Aruban range of snacks is wide, from cala bean fritters to bolita di keshi, which is made of egg, white cheese, and yellow cheese, rolled into a ball and deep-fried. What is considered their national snack though is the pastechi – a crescent shaped flour pasty filled with either beef or cheese. And for something more substantial you could try a goat curry or sopi di pampuna – spiced pumpkin soup served with diced salt beef.
Fish with wings in Barbados
Barbadian cuisine is known as Bajan and the national dish is the flying fish, which you may have seen on wildlife documentaries launching out of the water and gliding through the air like a bird. Out of the water and into the frying pan it’s cooked with chopped onions, cherry tomatoes and Bajan seasoning, a secret combination that usually contains chive, thyme and peppers.
The flying fish is often accompanied by cou-cou and tends to be served in Barbados homes on a Friday. Made from the protein-rich breadfruit found hanging on local trees, it’s mashed to produce cou-cou.
With lots of Latin inspiration, traditional Cuban food makes good use of the seafood, meats, pulses and root vegetables found across the island. As well as heading to Caya Coco for some lobster, one thing you must try while in Cuba is the ultimate comfort food of ropa vieja. It’s slow cooked beef in a rich tomato and veg sauce that’s shredded and served on white rice.
For a lunchtime treat, the Cuban Sandwich is a classic that might muster up New York deli thoughts. It has the five key ingredients of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, all served on crusty Cuban bread and toasted.