I’m taking in the tiny West Indian island of St. Kitts from the back of a Dodge Ram that’s plastered with more Bob Marley stickers than a dorm room. I white-knuckle the truck’s roll bar as my tour guide, Gregory Degrasse, of the appropriately named Beach Ram Tours, whips past roadside jerk chicken grills, old Anglican churches and vast tracts of parched wild grass. Abandoned sugar mills dot the fields, like sand castles plunked down far from the beach.
The crumbling brick towers, he says over a crackling loudspeaker made ridiculous by the fact that he has just two passengers, are leftovers from the island’s cane days, a 365-year span in which 80 percent of the island was covered in the sweet stalks. Tanking global prices forced the government to shut down the sugar industry in 2005, and as we wind north, I see evidence of that history in the old plantation railways that slice through the grasslands. We roar up to Timothy Hill, a lookout where a green peninsula divides the rolling Atlantic Ocean from the placid Caribbean Sea. I unstick my T-shirt from my sweaty back and fantasize about hurling my body into the turquoise water below. Turns out, this is as close as I’ll come to the ocean.
Before long, we’re climbing 300 metres above the coast to Kittitian Hill, a 400-acre luxury resort with a sustainable farm at its centre that might just represent the next chapter in St.?Kitts’ agricultural history. Tucked in the foothills of a dormant volcano called Mount Liamuiga, which translates from the island’s native Kalinago as “fertile land,” the retreat occupies the richest soil on the island. It’s the latest in a wave of agritourist destinations, including ones in St. Lucia, Belize and Grenada, wooing visitors away from the Caribbean’s white-sand beaches to experience things like cocoa harvesting and mango foraging inland. Up here, a breeze filters through the mountain’s tropical forest, turning the humid air fresh. I squint out over the Caribbean Sea to St. Eustatius, a green fleck in the Antilles island chain. It’s pretty enough, but I don’t think about the beach for the next three days.
As I’m unpacking, I hear plonk, plonk, plonk on the roof: vervet monkeys pelting my cottage with green mangos from the tree that shades it. (The property’s mango groves produce around 100 varieties.) My airy pad is patterned after the humble homes around the island, although it’s also tricked out with a palatial outdoor bathroom and an infinity pool. Inside, I’m greeted by a painting of an erotically charged cantaloupe and one of fuchsia wax apples, a Caribbean fruit that looks like a pink pear and tastes only vaguely like its namesake. Outside, a five-minute stroll takes me past pineapples ripened almost orange from weeks of unbroken sunshine, Surinam cherry saplings I greedily strip of their tart fruit and hip-high clumps of lemongrass whose reeds end up in everything from the spa’s body wash to my nighttime tea. This localist’s Eden is the brainchild of Val Kempadoo, a Trinidadian entrepreneur who made his millions exporting poinsettias. I meet him for the first time on a veranda at the Great House overlooking an organic golf course that also accommodates acres of mango and avocado trees – good for mid-game snacking. “I don’t cut trees down,” says the dapper 52-year-old.
“In the Caribbean, we haven’t done a great job of food,” he says, bringing to mind all-inclusive margaritas and rice-and-bean buffets. “On this island, with the most beautiful soil from the volcano, St. Kitts imports 90 percent of its food.” Those centuries of single-minded sugar cultivation mean very few other crops have been grown here – even pineapples and bananas have to be shipped in. And farmers who once mastered sugar need retraining to grow things like cassava and coconuts.
To remedy this, Kempadoo has staked out a nursery containing one of the biggest collections of tropical plants in the Caribbean. The plan is not only to turn the ingredients into meals for foodie tourists, but also to share the plants with farmers on the island and work toward slashing food imports. As he drives me around the property, which is still a work in progress, he points out the future sites of an artisanal market and another 200-room hotel. As local roofers and landscapers wave to us, Kempadoo says that most of the $130 million spent here is going back into the community. “We believe in five years’ time, we’ll have made a significant impact on the country’s economy,” he tells me. If all goes according to plan, he may end up feeding the island.
Our tour ends at the farm, where leafy terraces of organic produce tumble down 10 acres of the place’s titular hill. Head farmer Yahsonn Tafari, a Rastafarian from nearby Nevis, offers a soil-stained hand. We saunter the rows, where farmers are hauling buckets of red leaf lettuce, spinach and gnarly carrots. Tafari schools me in companion planting, explaining the garden’s symbiotic logic in a chilled-out tone that suggests he’s still in awe of it. He muses on his luck at waking up to this view every day. Guests are welcome to join in the daily harvest, but if I am any indication, the invitation leads to more sampling than hard labour. I pluck burgundy snake beans that cluster on a vine like dreadlocks and bite into spicy arugula super-charged from the mineral-rich soil and spicy beyond recognition. Knee-high egrets pad around us, jerking their heads to catch ticks – the garden’s pest control squad, Tafari explains. We do our part by picking tiny gold beads (butterfly eggs) off squash leaves the size of elephant ears.
To consult on everything from crop rotation to the Table, a forthcoming restaurant Kempadoo hopes will become “the Noma of the Caribbean,” he’s enlisted Dan, David and Laureen Barber, the trio behind the upstate New York farm/restaurant Blue Hill Farms. “Val is trying to do something that, as far as I know, hasn’t been done in the Caribbean,” says David Barber when I speak to him later. “The development that’s moved into the south” – he’s referring to Basseterre, the island’s capital and tourist hub – “caters to cruise ships. The food arrives in plastic containers from Miami and there’s no real sense of investment in the community. Val’s trying to provide an experience where you can go and be connected to the place.” It doesn’t get more connected than when I’m wandering through thousands of tropical trees under a 3 p.m. sun with Winston Lake, or the “nursery man” as everyone here calls him. A seventysomething Kittitian horticulturist who could be Morgan Freeman’s soft-spoken brother, Lake has a way of winding backward from a present-day query about a plant to the time he fell in love with a Montreal girl, or his days as a sugar plantation manager. “I used to come to this place way before there was a nursery here, to shoot wild pigeons. It was just mango trees and scrub. I was fascinated by the land and I’d unpack my lunch and take it in,” he says, paying little attention to the fact that I’m sweating like an NBA player and we’re surrounded by some of the wildest-looking fruit I’ve ever seen.
He shows me a bushy, chartreuse tree. “That’s a moringa. We have 1,500 of those. The leaves are very high in protein and are used in infant-feeding programs in Africa.” We encounter gnarly green alien heads called noni, which he claims have helped control his diabetes, then soursop, which is being studied for possible cancer-preventing properties and which, I later discover, blends into a killer sorbet. I find my sweet spot in two long rows of bay leaf, allspice, Ceylon cinnamon, turmeric, tangled black pepper plants, pink annatto pods and a dozen-odd other seasonings that form a glorious walk-in spice rack. Many of these will be moved to the main farm when they’re ready, where Tafari will raise them before chef Christophe Letard has his way with them.
Letard looks worried, standing hands on hips in front of a long outdoor table, set for 20 or so guests in the middle of the garden. He’s tending a wood-burning oven and cursing the dense purple clouds overhead. Everyone but Letard, who has prepared a 20-plus-course feast, agrees a little rain would do the farm some good. He’s a slim Normandy-born chef who has worked at some of Canada’s most impressive destination restaurants, including Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario, and the Aerie on Vancouver Island. Counter to his training, he rarely cooks with butter and other dairy or beef – partly because he’s a health nut who counts green juice among his guilty pleasures, and partly because cattle aren’t commonly raised here on the island.
“Tonight I’ve made dinner the way I ate it growing up,” he announces, which isn’t to say it’s French. “We’ll have bread baked in the oven here, then we’ll keep bringing out dishes all night, so pace yourselves.” We imagined they must have some pretty capable equipment in the kitchen (possibly like what you might find here – www.nellaonline.com) to cope with the demand and constant flow of food. We pass around platters of mango chutney, rabbit rillettes and eggplant caviar for the crusty bread. Plus fat, sweet avocado slices nestled in that peppery arugula with passion fruit vinaigrette. By the time plantain fritters arrive, the sun has set and old-timey lanterns flicker as a wind kicks up, carrying the scent of basil, which grows in unruly bushes behind the table. I stop chewing for a second when a thunderstorm cracks somewhere miles offshore, but I’m too deep into pork rack with manciport purée (like a firm, over-grown apricot) to fret over impending rain. By 10 p.m., my tablemates and I have discussed the superiority of Ting over Fresca and the eerie allure of the island’s defunct plantation houses. We’ve also burned through curried lamb stew, fire-roasted carrots pulled just a few feet away, grilled marlin with caramelized banana and a dozen more dishes. All served, much to Letard’s relief, under dry skies.
A couple of days later, over a glass of tiny-batch natural chenin blanc from South Africa (Tafari has tried to grow grapes; they’re still a no-go due to the humidity), I ask Letard about the range of dishes on the table. None of it was quite what I expected. No haute twists on goat stew or saltfish; no jerk spice in sight. His response is thoughtful: “Food in the Caribbean is influenced by its own historical journey that’s made the food culture here rich, but more recently I feel it’s been denatured to fit customers’ tastes. I do make some staples, but I’m more about going back to ingredients that are grown here. I’m not afraid to use different culinary techniques – whether European, Middle Eastern or Asian – to support that.”
Case in point: One night he serves a snake-shaped fish called gar, caught by fishermen at the bottom of the hill. It’s meaty enough to convince half the diners at my table that it is, in fact, snake. He sautés it in coconut oil and stretches out one lithe piece next to foot-long green beans. With crushed peanuts on top, it’s both fantastic and ethnically ambiguous in the best way. “I’d never worked with gar before but it came in this morning, so I experimented,” he says gamely. Later, when I’m chatting with Tafari under a sprawling mango tree, he describes this kind of experimentation as the farm’s “reverse psychology”: “Usually a chef would tell us what he needs and we would go and find it, but here we tell the chef what we have and he figures out how to use it.” It may be a fundamental farm-to-table idea, but in the world of all-inclusive resorts, it’s a revolutionary one.