Nestling just below the western most tip of Jamaica lies Savanna-la-mar. The gracious parish capital stretches east and west of a wide avenue that leads one mile up from the beachside market to a cluster of modern uptown malls. It is a conglomerate that resonates with both the traditional rural infrastructure and modern consumerism. The beachside market is fed by the surrounding farms where produce is organically grown, freshly harvested and transported on Wednesday night by ingenious small business developments to sell by Saturday twilight’s final flourish of trading. This traditional supply line brings food for workers in the nearby tourist resorts as well as for the visitors themselves and fuels the town’s resident workers and its economy. A survey of produce in the busy market reveals the truth of the saying that Jamaica is the hub of the world.
If you approach Savanna-la-mar from the eastern coast road at harvest time your car might be pleasurably slowed by laden trucks taking berry bearing branches of a native forest tree of Jamaica to be processed for world famous spice blends. At the market the aromatic pimento scent wafts from the dark green burnished leaves on twigs stacked at the sides of open stalls. These may be flanking other products that were indigenous to the island and were cultivated by the Tainos before the arrival of European adventurers. The best known of these are the golden cobs of corn, usually sold sheathed in long light green leaves and dark amber pineapples with their crown of dusky green spikes. Less commonly found outside of the island are the spherical dense purple star apples, gigantic unmodified pawpaw, and guavas twice the size of pears. Custard apples, sour sops, sweet sops, and naseberries, all clusters of seeds coated in rich pulp and encased in textured skins, feature as native Jamaican fruits though they now grow across all tropical latitudes. Coils of chewing tobacco as well as fresh loose leaves remind us of the origin of a widespread habit derived from Amerindian sacred ceremonies, whilst round cakes of bammy are the Taino’s processed cassava, separated from poisonous juices to make their edible and easily transported energy sustaining staple. They are available from glass enclosed cases along with crispy fried and tangy hot peppered escovitch fish.
Other stalls in the market specialise the flavours imported by Spanish settlers between1509 and1633. Juicy, coiled roots of ginger nestle around carefully caked cans of wet sugar or may have been squeezed into jugs of cane juice using Spain’s import from North Africa. A range of citrus fruits, sold in abundance, come from extensive orchards some of which were originally Spanish property. Navel oranges are bold and bulky. Ortaniques, squeezed a little flatter than a sphere, invite the buyer to juice their pulp for its rich vitamin c. Mandarins are brightly orange and fall apart at a touch. Lemons are coarse skinned and knobbly and limes range from yellow to deeper green allowing you to select them for sweeter or sourer flavours. Grapefruits may have pink or creamy flesh according to their strain and, the luckiest of buyers will encounter ugly fruit which was grafted from orange and grapefruit to capture liquid sunshine in its soft and fluid interior. While pomegranates also came from Spain, they were adopted and renamed “pomgonuts” and are easy to find in the market. Grapes, also originally planted by Spaniards, are increasingly available from the roadside stalls though, now, they may be imported from America.
If a hot morning drink is your objective instead of cooling juices, pressed balls of “country chocolate” can be bought to grater into boiling water. This use of cocao, introduced from South America and planted as cocoa walks during the Spanish occupation is often flavoured with nutmeg, from Mauritius, and cinnamon, from Ceylon, both brought by the East India Company to Jamaica a century after the Spanish departure. You may want a cooked breakfast based on breadfruit, brought by Captain Bligh in his second botanical voyage after the disastrous mutiny of the Bounty. His first specimen, as legend goes, was planted by a stream in Bluefields and still survives. If you want a bland filling meal you will buy a green fruit or, if you prefer sweetness comparable to roast chestnuts, you will buy a turned breadfruit for baking whole or frying in spears. This self perpetuating crop has protected many generations of Jamaicans from hunger and malnutrition, since it was brought from the Polynesian islands along with jackfruit, otaheiti apple and many other varieties of less common fruits liberally available to the market’s customers.
The capitalists of Bligh’s day were not alone in their concern to feed unmoneyed mouths. The enslaved workers of the plantations cultivated their own kitchen gardens on five year leases that allowed them to clear outlying lands and plant plantain and banana suckers, yam hills and melon and pumpkin vines. The results of their work prepared for the cultivations of the freedom villages in those hills that, to this day, supply Savanna-la-mar’s market. Not to be forgotten is the native ackee tree, the seed stems of which are pulled from the pod to accompany salted cod fish, transforming tough seaman’s fare to a gourmet’s delight in a manner developed only by Jamaicans.
The know-how of Moravian missionaries and other migrants from Germanic lands effectively propagated delicately flavoured rose apples like those at Cairn Curran, and deep puce sorrel flowers used for Christmas drinks, sauces, tea and jams and provided arrowroot for delicate eaters. Their era also brought indentured labourers to the cane fields from East India and, with them came prized mangoes such as the East Indian and Bombay varieties that fetch high prices in the market. These voyagers also brought marijuana, known locally as ganja, a herb with sound medicinal properties but the sale of it is prohibited due various social complexities. Sadly also, economic pressures have reduced the amount of local rice that descendants of these same migrants once produced but, tucked away on odd stalls, inquirers may still find a few pounds for sale.
Rich green bunches of callaloo and spinach are kept fresh at the market by sprinkling them liberally with water and, beside such refreshing mounds, a variety of other vegetables are sold from ubiquitous cabbages, carrots, beetroots and turnips to tropical fare such as cho-chos, squashes, sweet potatoes and Chinese papchow. Whilst rosemary and thyme feature in old English folk songs and savoury potatoes were returned to their native shores as a delicacy called “Irish potatoes”, tomatoes, onions and skellion are such standards of Jamaican cuisine that they are sold in specially handy packages at carefully affordable costs to busy market customers.
Wander through this market with me in your imagination whilst you save for that life marking pungent experience of the smells, sounds and rainbow colours of a Caribbean market. Prepare your taste buds by shopping in world food isles of multinational supermarket chains and experiment in your own kitchen with a few selections from your local Jamaican takeaway to guide you. Read West Indian children’s books to your children and grandchildren and curl up with Caribbean novels on cold nights to soak up the culture that laboured for freedom, feasts on its hilltops’ fertility and celebrates its gastronomy with world recognised verve. The central revolving point of the hub will draw you in by thought or fact as you savour the riches of the world brought to the hub as fuel for your spirit or body.