Tony Maws, the chef behind the locavore-centric restaurant Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just got back from a family vacation in Jamaica. Maws skipped the big resorts and instead hung with the locals. Here, he shares highlights from his trip.
“Jamaica can mean different vacations for different people. Negril is on a long, white beach called “Seven Mile Beach,” and the resorts range from the über honkey tonk to MTV-esque party central, to laid back cabanas, and small villas. We stayed at Crystal Waters (Norman Manley Blvd.; (876) 957-4284; crystalwaters.net)—not truly a resort but more of a collection of small, no-frills villas, each with its own kitchen and large covered porch. Call ahead and they’ll stock your fridge upon arrival with Red Stripe, fresh fruit, and whatever other things you’d want in your vacation fridge.
Besides the perks of having our own small home with a great balcony mere yards away from the beach, the biggest perk was Laverne, the cook the resort assigned to us for the entire week. It took more than a bit of convincing, but she finally bought into the idea that we wanted to eat whatever she would make for her own family, not the standard fare that other tourists might request. Throughout the week, we devoured home-cooked, authentic Jamaican family-style meals: Curry lobster made with Caribbean lobsters bought from the back of a van; pan-fried whole red snappers picked up from a fisherman’s truck; mutton stew.
While we would sit on the beach, streams of people would walk by—a mixture of tourists and locals, some simply strolling, some selling tourist bracelets, and a few with some amazing food. The best was a guy named Dean who carried his homemade jerked pork in a basket. We got to choose between “regular” and “hot”—the former being quite spicy and the latter-covered with chopped habaneros. They were ridiculous—lip-smacking, mouth-on-fire, delicious. You can’t stop eating them despite the pain from the heat. We sat on our chairs, wiping sweat from our brows, downing Red Stripes hoping to put out the fire, meanwhile reaching for yet another bite.
When we arrived in Negril, we ran into two of my favorite farmers, Carl and Marie Hills from Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell, Massachusetts. It turns out they go to Negril every year to recover from the arduous New England growing season. This meeting proved to be true serendipity as they had the inside scoop on some great food finds and the whereabouts of the Negril farmer’s market (last Wednesday of the month). There we found some unbelievable fruit and vegetables to bring back to our little villa to help inspire Laverne’s next meals. What we thought would be normal bananas and pineapples were so far superior and flavor-packed than anything we’d ever had; then we were introduced to the unfamiliar fruits, like Jamaican pears that were sweet and smelled like roses.
We were beyond fortunate when Carl and Marie led us to Niah’s Pattie Shack, located a short walk down Seven Mile Beach. Niah’s has the island’s best meat patties. Peek into the shack and you see a large cast iron skillet filled with oil over some low-burning, glowing coals. Niah and his wife rolled out the patty dough by hand and to order, filled it with a choice of chicken, pork, pepperoni, and vegetables, and fried it crispy on the outside and steamy on the inside. Walking down the beach back to our chairs and Red Stripes, watching my wife and son gleefully consume their patties, with huge smiles on everybody’s faces, I knew I couldn’t have asked for a better vacation.”