For Chef Allen Susser, cooking at Jade Mountain is paradise. “The cooking is fresh, simple and succinct”, says the James Beard Award winner. “There is always flexibility for the seasons, and availability of local products.”
It’s early April, the middle of the dry season in St. Lucia, and we’re chatting at Emerald Restaurant; a treehouse restaurant serving vegetarian dishes made with local ingredients grown at Jade Mountain’s organic estate. The interactive farm to table dinner is one of more than a dozen culinary experiences offered during the resort’s annual “Cooking in Paradise” festival; a 5-day event that celebrates the virtues of a locally grown cuisine.
As we speak, I’m distracted by a loud chorus of tree frogs harmonizing with the swell of the sea breaking at the shore a few feet away. It feels primordial – and extraordinarily tranquil.
Ever since architect owner Nick Troubetzkoy expanded on his philosophy of building in unison with nature, his creation of Jade Mountain has drawn rave reviews from romance seekers with a taste for the good life. With four themed culinary events each year, the luxury resort is also an alluring choice for food-focused travelers looking to taste the sultry flavors of Caribbean cuisine.
Jade Mountain Club and Anse Chastanet
At the airport, the first local I meet is limo driver Thomas. Within 20 minutes of my arrival, we’re on the road to Jade Mountain, a stunning property perched high on Morne Chastanet overlooking St. Lucia’s Piton World Heritage site.
Thomas warns me, “we will be driving for about 40 minutes on a winding road, then 15 minutes on a bumpy one.” It’s a right of passage that I’m looking forward to. The scenery is mesmerizing. Around each turn, a lush new panorama reveals itself, just begging to be photographed. I find myself counting the grazing goats we pass along the way. “Are the goats raised for their milk?” I ask. “No, for meat,” he replies.
Another bend in the road exposes a hand-painted sign: Easter Dance, Dinner, and Cock Fight. I opt for a less controversial subject. “What’s your favorite meal?”, and Thomas answers without hesitation, “Yams, rice with pigeon peas, and some chicken.”
The following morning, another St. Lucian, Jameel, delivers my breakfast which includes a basket of local bread. There are small loaves of creole bread that have been baked in a traditional stone oven, sticky sweet coconut bread flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon, and breakfast bake, a johnnycake-like fried flatbread. I ask him what he had for breakfast and he tells me: “creole bread and cacao tea”.
Jameel also speaks of his interest in agriculture, telling me that the island’s farmers and producers are developing new systems to help grow enough food to feed the local population while also supplying the resorts.
The town of Soufriere
The topic of agricultural management comes up again when I meet Matt, a self-described systems guy from Texas who has recently signed on as head of the resort’s 40-acre organic farm. Emerald Estates is located in the Soufriere hills and is an integral part of the cuisine at Jade Mountain. The farm produces a wide variety of vegetables, micro greens, and exotic spices including vanilla beans that are propagated by hand, bay leaf, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Each year, the farm grows enough to supply 70% of the produce for Jade Mountain and it’s sister resort, Anse Chastanet.
With the awe-inspiring Pitons as his backdrop, Matt pulls a handful of culantro from the ground, an herb similar to cilantro in flavor and aroma. He offers me a taste while he talks about the challenges of farming in a climate where the seasons are not defined by changing temperatures or shorter days, but rather by levels of precipitation. There are two seasons in St. Lucia, wet and dry, neither of which will cause a green orange to change color once it’s ripe.
Chef Susser joins our conversation and, as we walk and talk, introduces me to the culinary term ‘ground provisions’, a phrase used throughout the West Indies to describe a number of traditional staples such as yams, sweet potatoes, taro root, cassava, plantains, and breadfruit.
After the farm tour, Susser teams up with talented Chef Elijah Jules. Together, they combine the bounty of the farm with that of the sea, creating a spectacular lunch. The kingfish ceviche is so fresh it nearly jumps out of the bowl, and the herb-crusted tuna dressed with a broken vinaigrette made from local Surinam cherries is the best thing I taste all week.
On another outing, I hike to Anse Mamin, an 18th-century sugarcane plantation. As I wander through the French colonial ruins, I’m surrounded by lush jungle and thousands of fruit trees. My informative guide, Meno, comes from a long line of healers. (He calls himself Father Nature but I can’t help thinking of him as the guy I want on my Survivor tribe.) He shows me where to find cacao, turmeric, cashews, tamarind, mango, avocado, guavas, papaya, coconut, and breadfruit.
After hiking a little over an hour, we stop for an apropos refreshment – a cool drink of water from a freshly husked coconut along with a slice of soursop. A luscious Caribbean fruit, soursop tastes like a combination of strawberry and pineapple. It’s exquisite.
Following our snack, Meno guides me to a rare sight: a hummingbird’s nest holding two tiny eggs no bigger than my thumbnail.
Today, the cacao plants of Anse Mamin and Emerald Estate are used to produce the resort’s own artisanal chocolate. While there are plenty of places doing bean to bar chocolate these days, there are very few that are doing the entire production cycle, from tree to bar. Growing the cacao, harvesting, fermenting, sun drying, and polishing the beans takes place at the farm. Then the beans travel to Jade Mountain where the roasting, grinding, and conching processes take place to create chocolate with the perfect snap and shine.
Later, back at Anse Mamin beach, I meet up with Chef Susser again and we talk about the notion of authenticity when it comes to food. “The world is constantly changing,” Susser says, “and cuisine changes along with it. There’s no better example of this than the lionfish on today’s lunch menu.
The lionfish invasion started in the late 1980’s when someone released one from an aquarium into the wild. Today, they’ve overrun the reefs from Miami to Venezuela. Considered one of the most destructive invasive species ever to reach the Caribbean, lionfish are wreaking irreparable damage on the coral reefs by eating practically everything they come across, including each other.
Recognizing that the best strategy for controlling them is human consumption, Karolin Troubetzkoy, executive director of Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet, together with her culinary team, have launched a ‘conservation cuisine’ initiative where they prepare the lionfish as a delicacy.
“It’s not much of a stretch,” says Troubetzkoy. “Lionfish is a white, flaky but firm, fish with a flavor between grouper and mahi-mahi.”
It is, however, difficult to fish and to fillet, Susser says, serving me a dish of lionfish escabeche. Paired with breadfruit hash and papaya slaw, this is authentic Caribbean cuisine on a plate, regardless of the fact that lionfish have only been integrated into the local cuisine in the last few years.
This week-long immersion in local cuisine serves as an enlightening precursor for my final dinner at Jade Mountain, a five-course tasting menu inspired by the diversity and intense flavors of local ingredients.
My dinner table comes with a commanding view of the majestic Pitons and I dine on a progression of remarkable dishes. Topped with a surinam cherry coulis, cocoa spice cured foie gras and love apples is a revelation, the sweet-tart cherries cut through the richness of the foie gras beautifully. Seared chimichurri marinated yellowfin tuna served on a bed of purple taro root and drizzled with mango honey that I’m told comes from the hives at Emerald Estate tastes as fresh as tuna should be. The butternut squash and sweet corn ravioli with Malabar spinach is a little less enjoyable, the truffle altogether indiscernible, but the pan-roasted wahoo with coconut risotto, pink guava, and sour orange is intense and delicious.
Dining at Jade Mountain Club
The finale, a chocolate dome filled with cinnamon ice cream and passion fruit curd is a fitting end to a meal steeped with tropical flavors and exotic spices, and a menu that would be almost impossible to recreate anywhere else.
Disclosure: I was a guest at Jade Mountain but all opinions expressed here are my own.