In much of the industrialized world and the tourist spots its inhabitants frequent, "Where'd this food come from?" is a complicated question. No matter how good the meal tastes, the answer to its origins almost always involves considerable distance, expense and, potential health risks. That hamburger you had on St. John? Not local.
While we've reported on agritourism in the United States before, the trend is growing, as American palates become more adventurous, international, and conscious of where our food comes from. In response, resorts are starting to make their own practices more transparent to guests. A place like Jamaica, for example, offers an abundance of indigenous fruit, vegetables, and seafood, and a number of properties there are putting more local, organic, seasonal food on the menus, and making a commitment to practices that encourage sustainability.
The collection of boutique hotels and resorts run by Island Outpost, (tel. 800/OUTPOST; www.islandoutpost.com) created by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, incorporates as much local, organic and seasonal food into its menus as possible. Island Outpost operates an organic farm in Trelawny Parish, and its purchase of produce, meats and seafood helps to support local farms and the Jamaican economy. At Goldeneye (www.islandoutpost.com/goldeneye/), in Oracabessa, about 80% of the food is from local sources, and much of it is organic. Menu items include the likes of ackee and codfish, liver and brown stewed chicken, along with staples of the Jamaican diet, "yard foods" like green banana, potatoes, pumpkin, plantain, yams -- so named because they can be produced in your own yard. The resort's menu is based on what it receives from growers, and so it changes depending on what's available, fresh and plentiful. Seasonally, you'll encounter things like papaya, june plum, star apple, soursop, sweetsop and passion fruit. Goldeneye is located in St. Mary, which is known as the "Banana Parish" (in the 19th century Oracabessa was a major banana-exporting port). The resort employs real chefs from Jamaica who've learned from the best: their mothers and grandmothers.
If you've ever had Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, you know how wonderful it is, and how expensive it can be. Strawberry Hill (www.islandoutpost.com/strawberry_hill/), located in those mountains, is on the site of one of the first modern coffee farms. Guests can take cooking lessons and visit the nearby market with an onsite chef. Local farmers supply carrots, onions, scallions, cho-cho, avocado, pear, parsley, pineapple and tomatoes, cultivated by using environmentally sensitive sprays and manures. Onsite, a garden produces an abundant array of herbs, from mint, dill, oregano, cilantro, lemongrass and lemon basil, along with sweet bananas and plantains. An organic tropical orchard supplies all kinds of fruits, from pomegranate to jackfruit to soursop and sweetsop to cherry, naseberry, and other indigenous fruits.
At The Caves at Negril (www.islandoutpost.com/the_caves/), nearly all of its fresh produce comes from the community nearby; the seafood, too, is fresh and locally obtained. As for the fruit the resort receives, it's grown with minimal pesticide involvement from farmers who are committed to use environmentally friendly products. The resort obtains its salad greens -- specifically watercress and romaine -- from hydroponic farms, which takes recycled water and adds it to potable water, which used for growing the lettuce, and then takes it back to a tank and starts the process all over again.
Jake's (www.islandoutpost.com/jakes/), in Treasure Beach, is situated between two great spots: Pedro Plains, referred to as the breadbasket of Jamaica, and Pedro Keys, known for its fertile fishing waters, so all the seafood it serves is local. In the kitchen, about 90 percent of its produce and 80 percent of its meat is local and fresh. Your morning orange juice at Jake's comes from locally grown organic groves; mangoes are especially abundant. Notably, Jake's has an arrangement with Treasure Beach Ital Farmers Association (TIFA), which keeps its kitchens stocked with organic foods. The farm is about five miles away and provides a weekly supply of scallion, needed for rice and peas, and a seasonal array of arugula, herbs, lettuce, bok choy and salad greens.
More importantly, the endeavor has paid off in a multitude of ways, much of it in spite of the fact that the farmers did not receive incentives to go organic, according to Liz Solms, agricultural activist and the founder of TIFA, whose background includes time with Slow Food Movement. "With Jake's being the only Boutique resort in the area, we were willing to pay higher prices because we thought our guests would not mind paying higher prices for food which was both local and organic," says Jason Henzell, president of Island Outpost and owner of Jake's. Guests can experience those foods firsthand by taking a kitchen tour, a cooking lesson, or by joining a local fisherman and eat what you catch that day.
Half Moon (tel. 866/648-6951; www.halfmoon.com), a resort on the northern coast of Jamaica between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, is situated on 400 acres, with a golf course, squash and tennis courts, and 398 guest rooms. There are other offerings, such as equestrian center, gym, spa, dolphin lagoon, but the property also makes an effort to grow its own vegetables, herbs, supplying its kitchen with the likes of pumpkin, lettuce, dill, basil, thyme, melon and other tropical fruits. (Guests can request a tour of the garden.) The chicken and lobster are all locally procured and over 80 percent of the food consumed at Half Moon is produced locally.
The hotel is slated to open a new spa called Fern Tree, and there will be a similar garden for use by the Spa Elder, a Jamaican who knows the art of using herbs in spa treatments and other wellness applications. Rates for superior rooms start at $250 for double occupancy, and room styles go all the way up to the most luxurious, the imperial suite, starting at $900 per night. The resort has a handful of spa, golf, family, and romantic getaway specials.
Round Hill Hotel & Villas, about 25 minutes from Montego Bay (tel. 800/972-2159; www.roundhilljamaica.com), is also extremely involved in the process of using locally produced food at its restaurants. Jamaica's farmland offers an abundance and diversity, but getting those foods to the tables is hard to do consistently, according to Round Hill's food and wine manager Bill Moore. "The basic problem derives from the fact that the majority of farmers are smaller holders and there is not a strong infrastructure to bring the produce to the market. The Jamaican Chef's association and many of its members have forged individual relationships with farmers and fishermen often providing them with seed and a guaranteed market," he explains. Additionally, Round Hill has its own garden and a fulltime staff dedicated to overseeing the salad greens, herbs and vegetables. Rates at Round Hill start at $370 per night for oceanfront room -- but if you stay three nights you'll receive the fourth night for free.
As a company policy, Sandals and Beaches Resorts (tel. 888/SANDALS; www.sandals.com) commits itself to sustainable agricultural practices as much as possible for its 16 properties in the Caribbean. Two of the properties in Jamaica, Montego Bay and Whitehouse, especially benefit from an arrangement with local farming efforts that enables the resorts to provide guests with local produce. In Montego Bay, for example, over 100 farmers are part of a project where seeds are donated and technical assistance is offered in order to grow crops. At Whitehouse, there's a special project involving the hotel and local female farmers, who grow a type of pepper exclusively for the hotel. Resortwide, there is a commitment to recycling, composting, conserving fresh water, installing efficient showerheads, using energy efficient light bulbs and solar water heaters.
While much of the food gathering and preparation takes place behind the scenes, the food itself does get noticed. "When you serve local foods like breadfruit, callallo, and other items, ninety percent of the guests will inquire -- and they love it," says Armando Pizzuti, the company's director of food and beverage. Furthermore, he says that their guests are ore adventurous than they were five years. "There has been more interest in eating locally and trying more local specialties than ever before." Eating locally in Jamaica is a bit easier right now, because Sandals has a special offering up to a 50 percent discount on stays -- the discount varies depending on location. Three nights at Sandals Whitehouse, for example, are available from $570 per person for travel July 15-December 26. At Montego Bay -- the very first Sandals resort -- three nights are advertised from $585 per person, valid for travel in 2008.
In other parts of the country, Sunset at the Palms (tel. 800/234-1707; www.sunsetatthepalms.com) in Negril has a ten-acre tropical garden, whose yield of fruits and vegetables is used onsite in the resort's restaurants. The garden's offerings include bananas, lettuce, tomatoes, Jamaican fruits, and cabbage, and all of the resort's food is sourced from either its own gardens or local farmers. Guests can experience the culinary bounty firsthand, as cooking classes are offered once per week or by request.
Beyond the food, in 1998, Sunsets was the first resort to receive certification from Environmentally Sustainable Tourism by the U.K. organization Green Globe (www.greenglobe21.com). The resort is both all-inclusive and eco-friendly, with offerings to guests such as a swim-up bamboo bar and treehouse-style rooms, which were once featured in Architectural Digest and are situated just steps form the water. Summer rates start at $325 per night.
Walkerswood Caribbean Foods (tel. 876/917-2318; www.walkerswood.com), the founder of bottled jerk seasoning, is committed to environmentally friendly practices, employing rural Jamaicans, and recently, educating the public. Walkerswood just built an interpretation center in Ocho Rios and offers a jerk country tour, so visitors can take cooking lessons and experience the kind of foods that come out of a classic jerk pit. The educational facility is on a seven-acre rural site, where you can also tour the onsite garden and enter the factory to see how some of the company's 21 products -- from seasoning to jam to hot sauce and other condiments -- are made.
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