This article was originally published by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
“Prepare yourself for an authentic Bajan feast today. We Bajans never hold back when it comes to food,” Paulette de Gannes declares to our group gathered in Bridgetown’s Independence Square. With Paulette, our guide from Lickrish Food Tours, leading the way, we embark on a three-hour culinary adventure, exploring restaurants, markets, food trucks, and more. Paulette chuckles and adds, “Bajans have a deep love for food. Indulging in our cuisine under this scorching heat might make you feel a bit heavy and sluggish. You’ll crave a nap, I guarantee.”
However, sleep is not an option for me today. I’m here during the annual Barbados Food and Rum Festival, where Bajans not only excel in eating but also know how to throw a party. The festival is a vibrant mix of rum-infused street celebrations, sunrise beach events, rum distillery tours, tastings, and cocktail demonstrations. Local chefs showcase their skills through cooking demonstrations, serving refined and bite-sized versions of traditional dishes.
While the festival celebrates Barbados’ innovative contemporary food and drink scene, I’m also eager to delve into the island’s culinary heritage. With its roughly triangular shape, Barbados is technically not part of the Caribbean but is instead surrounded by the North Atlantic, positioned 99 miles east of the Caribbean Sea. It served as the first landfall for some African ships and became a British colony in the 17th century, gaining full independence only in 1966. As I zigzag through Bridgetown’s picturesque streets, Paulette shares fascinating tidbits: the Dutch, not the British, introduced sugarcane in 1639, which became the raw material for rum production. The island derived its name, “Os Barbados” (meaning “bearded men”), from the Portuguese who also instilled a love for salt cod. Another intriguing fact is that Bajans enjoy dipping their fruit in the sea for a salty twist, as demonstrated by local superstar Rihanna.
Our first stop is Tim’s Restaurant, a casual establishment located above a pawnshop. Balancing on stools on the balcony, we indulge in a generous serving of well-seasoned pork, marinated overnight with turmeric, paprika, and scotch bonnet peppers, accompanied by pickled cucumber and cassava. Paulette emphasizes, “You haven’t truly eaten like a Bajan unless you’ve savored pork with starchy root vegetables. Chicken is our most common choice, but pork is our ultimate favorite, while fish merely plays a supporting role.”
However, that’s not the entire story. We join a queue at the renowned Hot Legendary Fish Cakes food truck, a humble orange trailer serving battered salt cod balls with a Bajan twist. Paulette asserts, “Fish cakes reign supreme on the island. We enjoy them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, devouring them with a pepper sauce so spicy it can make your eyes water.” True to her words, the fish cakes pack a powerful punch, leaving my eyes teary from the heat.
The spotlight shines on fish during the weekends when the usually tranquil fishing villages come alive with locals and tourists gathering for the legendary Friday “fish fries.” Mahi-mahi, tuna, marlin, swordfish, and flying fish sizzle on barbecues, while the beer flows and the weekend revelry commences. That evening, I head to Oistins on the southwest coast, home to one of the largest fish fry gatherings. The waterfront stalls glisten with twinkling lights, pulsating music, and people enjoying games of dominoes at rustic tables. The air fills with the enticing aroma of smoking grills. I load my plate with a mountain of flying fish, rice and peas, macaroni pie, and salad—an abundant, unpretentious meal in true Bajan fashion.
The next morning, before exploring the less-trodden parts of the island, I make a pitstop at the fish market. With the guidance of Marlon Webb, my taxi driver and local expert, I navigate the wet concrete alleys between the stalls, engaging in conversations with skilled fishmongers expertly filleting red snapper, preparing swordfish, and handling lobsters. I inquire about cou-cou and flying fish, the national dish of Barbados. Marlon shares his insight, “We often enjoy flying fish fried, but the best I’ve ever tasted was roasted on a beach, fresh from the sea. It’s also delightful when rolled and seasoned in a flavorful broth.”
Our next destination is a quaint market located on the beach at Pile Bay, on the outskirts of the capital. As we arrive, a small boat glides towards the shore, and two men, one wearing a wetsuit, leap onto the sand. Ian Watt, a spear fisherman, proudly tells us about his early morning dive to around 100 feet to catch parrot chub. “I’m grateful if I return with anything after a dive,” he says. He presents me with a shimmering, rainbow-hued catch.
Continuing our journey along the west coast, passing sugarcane fields that line the road, the settlements become smaller. Sugar, once the island’s economic backbone, replaced tobacco as the main crop after the latter’s market price plummeted in the 1640s. By the 18th century, there were over 600 sugarcane plantations worked by enslaved Africans, with most of the sugar exported to Europe. Today, only two sugar factories and four rum distilleries remain.
In the remote rural parish of St. Lucy stands Mount Gay, the world’s oldest rum distillery, dating back to 1703. Spread across sprawling warehouses surrounded by fields, our guide, Tina Forde, leads us from the spring to the fermenting room, revealing the simplicity of rum production—just water, molasses, and yeast, nothing more.
After glimpsing into the vast vats of thick molasses, passing by towering oak fermenters and copper pit stills, and wandering through dimly lit bond houses filled with barrels, Tina hands us over to Ria Cox in the tasting room. Ria advises, “When sampling the rum, avoid swirling it as it agitates the alcohol. You wouldn’t want to upset it. On the nose, you’ll detect notes of vanilla, banana, cinnamon, and nutmeg.” We proceed to savor a rum aged in whisky, bourbon, and cognac barrels—a darker, richer, and smoother variant. Ria describes it as “reminiscent of baked goods and nostalgic holiday memories.”
As I venture towards the east coast, I gain a clearer understanding of the island’s agricultural heritage and witness a few innovative projects shaping the future of food production. Barbados, with its extensive history of sugarcane cultivation, has never been self-sufficient—an issue that became evident during the COVID-19 lockdowns and one the island aims to address.
Situated in the hills above Bathsheba, a surfing village, the PEG (People Environment Growth) Farm & Nature Reserve sprawls across 108 acres, operating on biodynamic principles. The visionary behind this project is Paul Bourne, a former rally driver. “Nine years ago, this area was covered in sugarcane; there were no roads, just wilderness,” he shares while we admire the cliffside view of the forest stretching towards the coast.
Paul has established a field-to-fork cafe, a medicinal herb garden, and beehives. We stroll along grassy paths, passing cattle, turkeys, and mud-dwelling pigs. He proudly shows me plots rented by farmers who share his vision of pasture-fed, pesticide-free agriculture and commitment to soil restoration. The site offers tours, hosts an off-grid campsite, and Paul has plans to build a sustainable farm stay eco-resort on the cliffs.
Returning to my taxi, I make my final stop a few miles away at Coco Hill Forest—an endeavor blending rewilding and regenerative forestry. Resting over 300 meters above sea level, this 53-acre site is home to one of the island’s last remnants of endemic tropical forest. As Mahmood Patel, the owner, guides me through his nursery, we pass beds of turmeric, basil, and rosemary. Over the past eight years, Mahmood has planted around 80 tree and plant varieties, including mahogany, teak, black pineapple, and sugar apple.
The planting mimics the natural layers of the forest, with coconut trees forming the canopy, bananas below, and ginger at the lower levels. “The goal is to create an edible forest,” Mahmood explains as we navigate the trails amidst the trees. He showcases his terracing efforts and points out the lemongrass he planted to combat soil erosion. In no time, he emerges from the undergrowth with a giant bay leaf in hand. Mahmood envisions a museum of agriculture, sustainable eco-lodges, and a forest-to-fork cafe. It’s a stark contrast to the bustling resorts on the other side of the island. “This will be my lifelong project. Next year, I hope to host a Food and Rum Festival event, featuring forest-inspired cuisine,” he muses.
Mahmood’s passion is infectious, and the forest is already bearing fruit. In the not-too-distant future, eating like a Bajan might take on a whole new meaning.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Barbados food scene
What is the Barbados Food and Rum Festival?
The Barbados Food and Rum Festival is an annual event celebrating the island’s vibrant food and drink scene. It features rum-fueled street parties, beach events, rum distillery tours, tastings, cocktail demonstrations, and cooking demos by local chefs.
What are some traditional Bajan dishes?
Traditional Bajan dishes include well-seasoned pork with root vegetables, fish cakes made from salt cod, flying fish served with rice and peas, macaroni pie, cou-cou (a dish made from cornmeal and okra), and various seafood options like mahi-mahi, swordfish, and red snapper.
Are there any unique culinary experiences in Barbados?
Barbados offers unique culinary experiences such as grassroots food tours exploring local restaurants, markets, and food trucks. Additionally, you can enjoy the famous Friday “fish fries” in fishing villages, where you can savor freshly grilled fish while immersing yourself in the vibrant atmosphere.
What is the significance of rum in Barbados?
Rum holds historical significance in Barbados as the island was one of the first to produce it. Sugarcane, introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century, became the main ingredient for rum production. Today, Barbados is home to renowned rum distilleries, offering tours and tastings for visitors to learn about the island’s rum-making heritage.
Are there any sustainable and agricultural initiatives in Barbados?
Barbados has initiatives promoting sustainable agriculture and regenerative forestry. Projects like PEG Farm & Nature Reserve focus on biodynamic principles, offering field-to-fork experiences, medicinal herb gardens, and sustainable farming practices. Coco Hill Forest promotes rewilding and regenerative forestry, aiming to create an edible forest and sustainable eco-lodges while preserving endemic tropical forest.