Most Caribbean islands have no shortage of great food experiences. The island of Nevis is no exception. Visitors can choose from dishes served in hotel restaurants and created by internationally trained chefs, or from simpler beachfront establishments, where emphasis is on the grill and straight-from-the-ocean seafood.
Most of these make the most of island produce. But to truly get a taste for the local food experience you need to wander away from the hotels and the beach, and into the interior of the island – off the beaten tourist path. In Nevis, a small, lush island dominated by the dormant volcano of Nevis Peak, this means heading into the hills. We were able to do just that and get a feeling of the real island experience in the tiny village of Barnes Ghaut, courtesy of Nevis Sun Tours and its unique Village Food Tour.
Our guide for the two-hour ramble around Barnes Ghaut was Lyle Williams who, after a varied career that took him across North America, returned to his native Nevis, where he now seems to serve as the village’s unofficial horticulturalist. When not running his own small farm or racing pigeons, he spends most of his time offering advice on local plants, tending the gardens of absent villagers or devising strategies for keeping the island’s (non-native) monkeys away from precious crops and fruit trees.
Lyle’s knowledge is encyclopedic. He knows – and seems to love – every tree, bush and leaf growing in and around Barnes Ghaut. And that takes some doing, as the variety is seemingly endless – bananas, mangoes, pigeon peas, plantains, breadfruit, cassava, lime, tamarind, guava… All of which, especially breadfruit, find their way into local dishes. He also pointed out the herbs and seasonings used in island cooking (along with those plants with reputed health benefits, such as ginger, aloe and the so-called paracetamol plant, lauded for its pain-relieving abilities).
But back to those island dishes. Nowhere is the use of locally grown produce more apparent than in the cooking of Ras Iba, the Ital chef at the Natural Vybz restaurant in Barnes Ghaut. Ras Iba is a true proponent of Ital cooking, which believes that all food should be natural, pure and derived from the earth. No animal or fish products, additives, salt or non-natural cooking oils. The meal he prepared, a wonderfully-spiced stew of beans, eggplant, pigeon peas, okra, lentils and more, was delicious, as well as being 100 per cent natural. It was accompanied by a drink made from sorrel, another local plant with purported medicinal qualities. Even the dishes and cutlery used were organic – calabash bowls and coconut spoons.
Of course, not all Nevisians adhere to Ital rules, as the inhabitants of Barnes Ghaut are quick to testify. At the Lil Cherry Tree, a small convenience store cum restaurant cum local gathering spot, the owner, Patrick Daniel, prepared another island favourite, grilled chicken. The home-made barbecue sauce had the perfect amount of spice and flavour – jerk-like heat is not really a Nevisian thing. This time the food was washed down by more familiar beer (Carib), rum (Belmont Estates) and Ting.
And while we were sitting there, eating and chatting with Greg, Lyle and Patrick, everyone who passed by – people picking up food, workers going about their business, school children walking home for lunch – waved and said ‘hello’. Another authentic slice of the beautiful island that is Nevis.
The tour offered us fascinating insights into island life that we simply wouldn’t have experienced on our own. It provided a look at a daily life based on a respect for the land and the food it produces. A way of life where planting and nurturing some type of food crop in your yard is the accepted and expected thing to do. It also gave us a chance to interact and share experiences with people we might not have met otherwise. And, most importantly, it allowed us to view Nevis through somewhat different, even more respectful, eyes. Plus, we got to learn about and taste some amazing local food.
The Village Food Tour is one of several interactive excursions offered by Nevis Sun Tours. Founder Greg Phillip, former CEO of the Nevis Tourist Authority, wanted to offer visitors a truly ‘immersive’ experience. “I want visitors to experience a side of the islands that otherwise wouldn’t have been available,” he explains. “It’s a chance to make you feel that you’ve really gotten the most out of your vacation through a different level of exploration and interaction.”
For more information on Nevis Sun Tours services in Nevis and its larger sister island of St. Kitts, visit www.nevissuntours.com or check out their YouTube channel.
Photo: Chef Ras Iba, of Natural Vybz, uses 100 per cent locally grown organic ingredients in his cooking.