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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In Grenada, a.k.a. the Spice Isle, a foodie paradise blossoms

By Nevin Martell Special To The Washington Post

A cheery midday sun beamed down, offset by the flicker of a cooling ocean breeze. Fishing boats churned across the placid waters of the harbor. In the background, sailboats were lined up in neat rows at the marina, while colorful stacks of shipping containers sat on the docks. Beyond that, mostly one-story homes dotted the green hills undulating around the edge of St. George’s, the bustling capital town of the Caribbean island of Grenada, known as the Spice Isle. As I would find out, the nickname is fitting: The lush, tropical getaway with cinematic beaches has a lot to offer food-focused travelers.

My wife, son and I were sitting at a table overlooking the water at BB’s Crabback, a restaurant specializing in island fare. It was a one-room affair, dotted with simple wooden tables decorated with vases full of verdant fronds; a small bar ran along the wall farthest from the ocean. The white walls and beams were scrawled with notes from guests: “(heart) this island,” “The Rasta was here” and “Order the ribs.”

I was dead set on trying Grenada’s national dish: oil down, a thick stew accented with an abundance of spices grown on the island and made with coconut milk reduced down to a rich, nutty oil, thus the name.

When I mentioned this to the server, she frowned. “Let me see if we have it today,” she said before disappearing.

My hopes sank. I had read so much about oil down, but words on a page can never replace the experience of tasting something for yourself. I had to try it.

A moment later, she was back. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’ll be ready,” she apologized. “What about the red snapper instead?”

As I considered the alternative, a man with short, curly black hair and a graying beard, dressed in a blue shirt and shorts, who had been sitting at the bar working on a laptop, roused himself. “You want the oil down?” he called over in a gravelly British accent.

“Yes, please!” I responded as my hopes rose.

He disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he had a piratical grin and a glint in his eyes. “It’s coming.”

I profusely thanked my savior, who turned out to be Brian Benjamin, aka BB, the restaurant’s namesake chef and owner. Born in Grenada, he immigrated to England as a child, ultimately got married, had four children and opened the first version of BB’s in West London. He moved back to his homeland in 2007 to open the second iteration of the restaurant, which has become one of the island’s most renowned eateries.

Finally, the oil down arrived. This version was vegetarian (though it’s often punctuated with salted beef or pork), a hearty mix of potatoes, carrots, wilted spinach-esque callaloo and toothsome dumplings. Thanks to locally grown turmeric, the stew was such a vibrant golden hue that it almost appeared to be glowing. I took a bite. It was a rush of warming spices – clove, cinnamon, ginger – intertwined to create a sort of Caribbean curry with a touch of heat thanks to scotch bonnet pepper, a ubiquitous ingredient in this part of the world. It was everything I had hoped it would be – and more.

It was our second day in Grenada, which is perched on the southern tip of the Grenadines island chain. Just over 130 square miles with a population of roughly 114,000, the island has a history that has been interlaced with food for hundreds of years. Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1498, but it avoided colonization until the French arrived in the 17th century, when they settled the island, began building sugar estates and brought in enslaved peoples from Africa to work the land. The island flipped to British rule in the mid-18th century (it eventually gained its independence in 1974), ushering in even more sugar production. Cacao became the main export by the 19th century, but it was eclipsed by nutmeg the following century. To this day, it’s one of the world’s major producers of nutmeg, as well as a strong exporter of a variety of spices, cocoa, bananas and other produce, and fish.

As a holdover from British rule, you drive on the left. This complication – coupled with narrow roads often in need of repair and the assertive style of many Grenadian drivers – will be off-putting for some visitors. If you don’t want to rent a car, it’s easy to catch cabs around St. George’s for shorter trips, or you can hire a driver by the hour or day for longer jaunts. A collateral benefit of having a local behind the wheel is picking their brain on where to get the best Grenadian cuisine.

That’s how I was introduced to Sandra’s Roti, one of a string of roadside stalls (charmingly referred to as “snackettes” in Grenada) outside St. George’s downtown area. Painted school bus yellow and firetruck red with a corrugated metal roof, it had a steady stream of customers. Sandra herself was working at the window, while her son, Keishon, was inside folding tender, flexible roti (they’re similar to burrito-size flour tortilla and originated in India) around scoops of turmeric-yellowed potatoes, carrots and bone-in chicken. Filling and flavorful, they’re the ultimate grab-and-go island meal.

I noshed on one on a ride out to the Belmont Estate to learn about cocoa growing and chocolate making. Located in the northeastern St. Patrick parish, about an hour’s drive from St. George’s, the 400-acre farm dates back to the late 17th century. The informative tour takes you from bean to bar. It begins after harvest by breaking open the cacao pods, harvesting the beans, and fermenting them under banana leaves and burlap in rough wooden stalls to build flavor and sugars. From there, the beans are placed on giant wheeled wooden trays to dry in the sunlight. Every half-hour, barefooted women walk across the beans, turning them with their toes. (Alternately, they are dried in greenhouse-type structures.) Next, they’re ground with milk and sugar for four to five days, cooled and aged for three months to blunt acidity and amp up flavor. Finally, the chocolate is tempered to give it a glossy finish and to prevent it from melting easily. Naturally, the hour-long walk around the estate ended in the gift shop, where visitors could sample some of the chocolates.

If there’s no time to get across the island, hit up the House of Chocolate in St. George’s, where you can get a nano-tour on how chocolate is created, buy Grenadian-made bars, and enjoy bonbons and ice creams featuring local chocolate. Keep an eye out in local grocery stores and gift shops for locally made jams, syrups and candies. A few highlights: De La Grenade’s not-too-assertive nutmeg syrup, great on pancakes or in cocktails; nutmeg mango jam by Spice Fusion; and L N Alexis’s rich, tropical-minded coconut fudge.

A centerpiece to any gastronomy-obsessed visit should be the lively Market Square in St. George’s. There you will find dozens of vendors selling local spices – whole and ground – alongside fresh produce, handicrafts and some grab-and-go bites, including roasted corn on the cob and coconuts with their tops lopped off to order, so you can sip refreshing coconut water while walking around.

Bonus: The market is a short walk away from BB’s. Near the end of our trip, after we did our big shop for spices to take home, we popped over, so I could enjoy one last bowl of oil down. It was the perfect finale, an iconic taste of the Spice Isle, which lived up to its name at every opportunity.