A few weeks ago, I was watching a rerun of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation Goa episode. In it, he visits a spice plantation. It looked so interesting that I immediately added “visit a spice plantation” to my bucket list. Little did I know that I would be checking that one off so soon!
When we arrived at Sun Valley Plantation near Ochio Rios in Jamaica, they had been without any power for days because of hurricane Sandy so all production was halted. Sun Valley is a working family plantation that has been producing a variety of spices and tropical fruit for the past 250 years and their gardens are just magical. We took a tour around the plantation with owner Lorna Binns, who pointed out all the different fruit and spices growing around the property and told us about their culinary and traditional medicinal properties. I felt like Alice in Wonderland discovering all the different plants! I remarked that Lorna must never go to a pharmacy because it felt like every ailment known to man could be cured with a plant found in her backyard!
Sun Valley used to be in the banana production. They planted coconut trees in between the banana plants to break the wind. However, in 1996 they switched to bottling coconut water. Young, 8-months old “jelly” coconuts are harvested for their water content. The water is sterile while inside the husk. I was surprised at how much water a fresh coconut contains. The liquid is clear, slightly sweet and so refreshing. The jelly part of the flesh is scraped and eaten as is or dropped inside the glass to be slurped down with the water. Coconut water is the richest known natural source of potassium and the closest thing to the body’s electrolytes. It has been hailed as a miracle product used in the treatment of so many ailments, from dehydration to heart disease. When the coconuts are 12-months old, they are then sold for their flesh, which is fully formed by then.
We are so used to seeing some of the spices we use in our kitchens every day in berry, leaf or bark form that we often don’t even think about their previous plant state. It is fascinating to discover how some of these familiar spices grow! Nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, mace, Jamaican pimento (all-spice) all take on different aspects when growing. For example, did you know that vanilla is hand-pollinated everywhere except in Mexico, where they have the right kind of bees to pollinate it? And did you know that it takes months of labour-intensive precise work to produce the dried, fermented vanilla beans that we get? It makes sense that vanilla beans would be so expensive. That, and so many more fascinating facts, is why I highly recommend you add “visit a spice plantation” to your bucket list.
- Jamaica exports 80% of its cocoa production to Europe. The Spanish brought in cocoa from Mexico in 1962.
- All hot beverages in Jamaica are called “tea”, so a cup of coffee is called “coffee tea” and hot chocolate is “chocolate tea”.
- Jamaicans make “chocolate balls” by combining raw cocoa (butter and solids) with warm spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) to make “chocolate tea”, the equivalent of our hot chocolate. They grate the chocolate ball and steep it into water or milk to make the drink.
- Jamaica has over 30 varieties of mangoes on the island, with distinct tastes, colours, textures and sizes.
- There are 27 varieties of bananas in Jamaica. Banana plants are not trees but a giant herbaceous plant. Bamboo was brought in from Asia for the sole purpose of bracing banana plants which topple over easily. Bananas only mature once, growing one bunch of bananas. They then need to be cut to give way to the smaller “sucker” (a shoot that grows from the bottom of the plant) so that it can grow into a mature plant. Bananas are the only fruit that grow against gravity.
- Jamaican pimento or all-spice was discovered in Jamaica in 1509. It’s used in all spice cologne and contains the aromas of 4 spices: nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, pepper. Pimento is an essential ingredient in Jamaican jerk. The largest export of all spice from Jamaica goes to Russia where they use it in their sausages.
- One fruit one must absolutely try while in Jamaica is ackee, the Jamaican national fruit. Ackees are pear-shaped red fruits with white flesh and black seeds inside. Ackees must only be eaten once they have ripened and opened up on their own. If they are consumed before they ripen, they contain an amino-acid that is hypoglycemic and will lower your blood-sugar. Ackee intoxication can cause you to be violently ill. No worries though because I ate ackee almost every day in Jamaica and never got sick. Ackee and salt fish is the national Jamaican dish and is eaten for breakfast as well as for dinner. It is a mixture of onions, garlic, pepper, scotch bonnet peppers, salted cod and ackee flesh and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs. Unfortunately, ackee is only imported in cans to Canada, the US and the UK.
Sun Valley Plantation
Nolly & Lorna Binns
Crescent, P.O. Box 20, Oracabessa, St. Mary
30 minutes east of Ocho Rios
Call 876 446 2026 to reserve a guided tour
Check out my post on Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee and come back soon for my next post on Jamaican jerk!
When in Ocho Rios:
I stayed in a private villa on the hills at the beautiful Sandals Grande Riviera resort. You will fall in love with the resort with its 15 restaurants, many pools, 24-hour room service, beautiful beach, lush tropical gardens and so much more.
Scotchies Jerk is one of the best known jerk restaurant chains in Jamaica. They have a location on the side of the road near Ocho Rios. If you want to taste authentic jerk, this is it.
There are quite a few direct flights from Montreal to Montego Bay every week. Some of the airlines offering flights are Air Canada Vacations, Sunquest, Sunwings, Westjet and Air Transat. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from MoBay to Ocho Rios. If you stay at Sandals, your roundtrip airport transfers are included. You can hire a private driver to drive you to Kingston from either Montego Bay or Ocho Rios (there are plenty of companies that do this and would stop at jerk stops along the way, as requested).
For more information on Jamaica, check out the Jamaican Tourism website: Visit Jamaica.