Strange Fruit: discovering new ingredients on St Kitts

By Fiona Sims

Strange Fruit: discovering new ingredients on St Kitts

What happens when you put a French chef in the Caribbean and tell him that you can’t import any ingredients? You get garfish meunière, papaya sauerkraut and red wine braised breadfruit. And yes, it works. Where am I? Belle Mont Farm on St.Kitts.

If you’ve been scanning the travel pages over the last few months you may have come across this ambitious new venture on the slopes of Mount Liamuiga. The brainchild of Trinidad-born entrepreneur Val Kempadoo, it is a hotel with a difference – or I should say a big farm with a few (luxury) hotel rooms.

“We’re creating a sustainable future, from the stone that we used to build it, which was quarried right here, to our pesticide-free, 18-hole golf course. It’s about making a difference, and bringing about lasting change; from the way we train our staff to celebrating who we are as people. The focus here is on authenticity, yes, but it’s also about creating a guest experience,” says Kempadoo, as we resist the urge to hug him.

The 400-acre farm set on the edge of lush rainforest boasts 5 large nurseries, and, once it’s finished, 84 guesthouses, five large villas, seven four-bedroom ‘farmhouses’ and six restaurants, including one to be headed up by top New York chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm fame, plus a further 100 hotel rooms in the ‘village’, which will have an additional 12 places to eat.

And no, before you ask, there is no beach – or not one to speak of anywhere nearby. So what do you do for entertainment here? You hang out by your own plunge pool, watching the sun set behind St. Barts. You get a massage using essential oils distilled from the estate. You enjoy natural wine stashed in the mini bar – and freshly squeezed passion fruit juice.

You pluck ripe mangoes off the tree in ‘your yard’ – if the resident monkeys don’t get there first. And when you’re not doing that, you fill your face with healthy, imaginative, beautifully presented food cooked up by French chef Christophe Letard and his local team, using mostly produce from the farm.

So here’s a first for the Caribbean - 95% of the produce used here is grown at Belle Mont Farm. I’ve written stories about other Caribbean hotels that are making great efforts to use local produce, among them Cobblers Cove in Barbados and Hermitage Bay in Antigua, but this beats them all.

We spend an informative morning hanging out with nursery manager Winston Lane, who used to manage the sugar plantation that once thrived here, before the government called time on sugar in 2005, closing the last factory.

“I sort of look after all these beautiful plants,” he shrugs, escorting us around the Blue Mountain coffee, turmeric and cocoa trees, and pointing out the intensely sweet soursop that is about to ripen. “It helps to beat cancer that one,” he tells us, then shares his recipe for soursop shake, combining the fruit with milk, ice, and nutmeg. “It’s like the best ice-cream,” he enthuses.

We frown at a large lily pad. “That’s dasheen. That’s what Usain Bolt eats, it’s a kind of natural steroid,” says Lake, running his hand through a bank of tall lemongrass, which provides our morning tea. It’s a different variety to Asian lemongrass - less toilet cleaner, more aromatic. They call it bush tea here, and people drink it morning and evening.

Normandy-born Letard has been having fun experimenting with these ingredients since he arrived, such as that sauerkraut, made with young, green papaya, and the breadfruit. “It’s almost like eating a piece of meat,” he says, plonking down a plate of pan-fried duck breast with a reduction of tart, intense manciport (or mammy apples).

Letard also likes to serve callaloo leaves raw, which are usually steamed or sautéed in the Caribbean, used as a wrap with an accompanying peanut and passion fruit dipping sauce. Okra, too, is served raw (usually eaten stewed or at the very least blanched), hollowed out then filled with a pearly aubergine caviar. While yams, which are usually boiled or baked, are sliced paper thin and used as ‘ravioli’ and filled with goat cheese.

For the garfish meunière, he replaces butter with coconut milk. Or how about Old Wife and chips? “It looks a bit like plaice, but it’s more colourful, with meat a bit like turbot. It’s new frontier stuff,” he grins.

I second that, as I nibble on a waxy, crunchy, fragrant wax apple, then start on a bowl of my first guinep, peeling back the brittle green skin and stuffing the fragrant lychee-like fruit into my mouth, sucking off the juicy, sweet flesh before spitting out the large pip.

For the full account of Fiona S’s trip to St. Kitts and Nevis read her story in The Times.