My wife, son and I were seated at a table overlooking the water at BB crab, a restaurant specializing in island dishes. It was a one-room affair, dotted with simple wooden tables decorated with vases full of leafy fronds; a small bar ran along the wall furthest from the ocean. The white walls and beams were scrawled with guest notes: “© this island”, “The Rasta was here” and “Order the ribs”.
I was determined to try Grenada’s national dish: oil down, a thick stew spiced up with an abundance of spices grown on the island and made with coconut milk reduced to a rich nutty oil. , hence its name.
When I told the waiter about it, she frowned. “Let me see if we have it today,” she said before disappearing.
My hopes sank. I had read so much about oil, but the words on a page can never replace the experience of tasting something for yourself. I had to try it.
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A moment later, she was back. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it will be ready,” she apologized. “And the red snapper instead?”
As I considered the alternative, a man with short, curly black hair and a graying beard, wearing a blue shirt and shorts, who was sitting at the bar and working on a laptop, wake up. “You want the oil to drop?” he called in a gravelly British accent.
“Yes please!” I replied as my hopes rose.
He disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he had a pirate smile and a gleam in his eye. “It happens.”
I thanked my savior profusely, who turned out to be Brian Benjamin, aka BB, the chef and owner of the restaurant. Born in Granada, he immigrated to England as a child, eventually married, had four children and opened the first version of BB’s in West London. He returned to his native country in 2007 to open the second version of the restaurant, which has become one of the most renowned restaurants on the island.
Finally, the oil drop has arrived. This version was vegetarian (although it was often punctuated with beef or salt pork), a hearty mix of potatoes, carrots, spinach wilted callaloo, and ravioli. Thanks to the locally grown turmeric, the stew was such a vibrant golden hue it almost seemed to glow red. I took a bite. It was a whiff of warming spices – cloves, cinnamon, ginger – intertwined to create a kind of Caribbean curry with a hint of spiciness thanks to the scotch bonnet pepper, a ubiquitous ingredient in this part of the world. It was everything I had hoped it would be – and more.
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It was our second day in Grenada, which is perched on the southern tip of the Grenadines island chain. Covering just over 130 square miles with a population of around 114,000, the island has had an intertwined history of food for hundreds of years. Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1498, but he avoided colonization until the French arrived in the 17th century, when they settled on the island, began to build sugar plantations and brought in enslaved peoples of Africa to work the land. The island came under British rule in the mid-18th century (it finally gained independence in 1974), ushering in even more sugar production. Cocoa became the main export in the 19th century, but was eclipsed by nutmeg in the following century. To this day, it is one of the world’s leading producers of nutmeg, as well as a major exporter of a variety of spices, cocoa, bananas and other products, and fish.
As a remnant of 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 to some visitors. If you don’t want to hire a car, it’s easy to grab taxis around St. George’s for shorter trips, or you can hire a driver by the hour or day for longer jaunts. A side benefit of having a local behind the wheel is knowing where to find the best Grenadine cuisine.
That’s how I discovered Sandra’s Roti, one of several roadside stalls (charmingly called “snackettes” in Grenada) outside of downtown St. George. Painted school bus yellow and fire truck red with a corrugated iron roof, it had a steady stream of customers. Sandra herself worked at the window, while her son, Keishon, was inside, folding tender, flexible roti (they look like burrito-sized flour tortillas and originated in India ) around balls of yellowed potatoes with turmeric, carrots and chicken. Filling and flavorful, they’re the ultimate on-the-go island meal.
I ate one on a drive to the Belmont Estate to learn more about growing cocoa and making chocolate. Located in the northeast parish of St. Patrick, 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 the harvest by cracking the cocoa pods, harvesting the beans and fermenting them under banana leaves and burlap in rough wooden stalls to create flavor and sugars. From there, the beans are placed on giant wheeled wooden trays to dry in the sun. Every half hour, barefoot women walk through the beans, twirling them with their toes. (Alternatively, they are dried in greenhouse-like structures.) Then they are ground with milk and sugar for four to five days, chilled, and aged for three months to tone down acidity and amplify flavor. Finally, the chocolate is tempered to give it a shiny finish and prevent it from melting easily. Naturally, the hour-long walk around the estate ended in the gift shop, where visitors were able to sample some of the chocolates.
If you don’t have time to cross the island, take the Chocolate House at St. George’s, where you can take a nano-tour of how chocolate is created, shop for Grenadian-made bars, and sample local chocolate candy and ice cream. Keep an eye out for local grocery stores and gift shops for locally made jams, syrups and candies. A few strong points: De La Grenade’s not too assertive nutmeg syrup, excellent on pancakes or in cocktails; mango nutmeg jam by Spice Fusion; and LN Alexis’ rich, tropical coconut fudge.
The centerpiece of any food-obsessed visit should be the bustling market square of St. George’s. Here you’ll find dozens of vendors selling local spices – whole and ground – as well as fresh produce, crafts and take-out bites, including roasted corn on the cob and coconuts with their tops sliced off. command, so you can sip refreshing coconut water while strolling.
Bonus: the market is a short walk from BB’s. Towards the end of our trip, after shopping for our great store of spices to take home, we arrived so I could enjoy one last bowl of oil. It was the perfect finish, an iconic Spice Island taste that lived up to its name on every occasion.
Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. His website is nevinmartell.com. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @nevinmartell.
26FQ+FG2, The Lime, Grenada
Centrally located on Grand Anse Beach, this classic resort offers simple rooms, many with ocean views, complemented by on-site amenities including a pool and dive center. Rooms start around $195 a night.
Progress House, The Carenage, St. George’s
Overlooking the harbor, this longtime favorite run by Chef Brian Benjamin specializes in island cuisine, including a great take on Grenada’s national dish, oil down. Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; close on Sunday. Appetizers start around $20.
The always-bustling roadside stand specializes in premium roti – including those packed with goat, chicken and vegetables – and freshly squeezed local juices. Open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; close on Sunday. Roasts are $4.50.
Francis Bits & Bites Cafe
Perched under a tent on the side of the road, this laid-back takeaway operation offers solid local fare, including pastries (sandwiches) stuffed with escovitch-style saltfish, samosas, fried plantains and roti. Hours are flexible; open Monday to Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to early afternoon and Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Sandwiches starting at $3.75.
26FQ+F6P, Grand Anse Beach
Right on the beach with gorgeous sunsets, this airy restaurant offers tropical cocktails, island fare, and more familiar continental cuisine. Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Admissions start at around $7.
A colorful collection of vendors selling fresh produce, local spices and preserves, crafts and street food. The best time to go is Saturday morning when the activity there peaks. Open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; close on Sunday. Free.
10 Young St., St. Georges
This museum-shop-chocolate shop is dedicated to all things chocolate, so you can learn about how it’s made, buy locally made bars and candies, and, of course, eat it. Open Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Close on Sunday. Free.
The bean-to-bar chocolatiers offer tours that explore the history of the estate and the chocolate-making process, before ending in the gift shop for a tasting. Open Sunday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; closed on Saturday. Visits $5 per adult, $2.50 per child 12 and under.
L’Esterre Estate Organics
This estate organically grows cocoa, bananas, fresh vegetables and a variety of spices, which visitors experience on informal and informative walking tours, which run from January to March. E-mail [email protected] to arrange a tour, which starts at $60 per adult and $40 for children ages 5-13; children 4 and under are free.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.