Striking turquoise seas, impossibly soft sand, staff that seems like family, local and organically sourced food... huh? Discovering Hermitage Bay in Antigua shattered a few preconceived notions that I held about the slow food movement. I always assumed that this progressive approach was primarily preached and practiced in our little urban bubbles. I'm happy to say, I was dead wrong. The Hermitage Bay employees responsible for growing, sourcing and serving food to the guests are truly an inspiring lot.
Kempton and Leslie, both of Guyanese descent, are lifelong farmers. As I listened to them speak about the finicky soil, the challenges of keeping the local fauna away from the new crop of tomatoes (including the use of Mr. Not-So-Scarecrow sporting D&G jeans) and their vision for a small but growing organic garden, I imagined heading back to Brooklyn and growing something, even just herbs in a window. One of their prized crops are Scotch Bonnet peppers. The red variety looks threatening but is really a sheep in wolf's clothing. Its the yellow variety that does real damage, and I thought the pain might never go away.
Verman 'Desi' Banhan, an award-winning, Jamaican-born executive chef, is responsible for taking these organically grown fruits and vegetables and incorporating them into Hermitage's cuisine. In addition to turning out sophisticated creations for Hermitage's 5-star clientele and tasty enough to impress any foodie, Desi is very knowledgeable about the slow food movement. As if there weren't't enough to admire, Desi drives around in a diesel-powered Toyota fueled exclusively by the vegetable oil left over from the property's kitchen. As Desi and I chatted about the sourcing of his ingredients, he insisted that I meet one of the farmers that provides their fruits and vegetables.
A few days later, a taxi dropped me at the entrance to a large tract of land where Desi's truck awaited. A gentleman offered me his seat in the front of the truck and tucked himself in the back. I sat and asked "whose farm is this?" to which Desi replied "you just took his seat." The farmer sitting in the backseat was Alvin Christian, a lifelong farmer with an impressive operation. As we pulled on to one of his multi-acre properties, Alvin talked proudly of his water catchment (ponds) started in the early 90's and now the largest in Antigua. He runs one of the most diverse fruit farming operations in the Caribbean, all grown without the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Without knowing the strict definition of slow food, he believes in its major tenets. He terms his approach "safe farming," which includes fertilizing his crops with the manure of his flock of sheep and crop rotation to keep the soil healthy and balanced.
Desi told me to come hungry, and after my tenth piece of fruit, I understood why. Alvin started me off by hacking into a fresh coconut and handing me a straw. While doing my best to be a good guest and finish the refreshing coconut milk, Alvin handed me what proved to be the tastiest guava I've ever consumed. When I thought the ride was just about over, Desi drove up to a tree with fruit that I'd never seen. Alvin is in the early stages of "commercial" production of Ackee, a Jamaican favorite encased in a brilliant red skin. It was only after I tasted the nutty flavor from the exposed, ripe version that Desi decided to share that eating this fruit before the skin opens can be fatal. Shortly after this I had to beg for an end to the tour as my digestive system couldn't handle any more work.
As our plane headed back for NYC, I looked down on Antigua and imagined buying a piece of land and working with Alvin. Shortly thereafter, reality set in and I scaled back that goal and decided to start with something more easily attainable; grow an organic garden (similar to this plan). Now I just need to figure out how to keep the rats and the pigeons from infiltrating my operation. Then again, maybe they deserve slow food just like the rest of us.
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