By Ron Bernthal
Barbados has everything a tourist may want—diverse resort properties for every budget, great local restaurants, a variety of sightseeing, beautiful scenery and a friendly population. It is also a place where Americans can retire, or at least live for awhile, in comfort and peace. A stable government, high literacy, excellent communications, roads and schools, some of the best health care in the Caribbean, and an opportunity to learn cricket before the World Cricket Cup comes to the island in 2007, all provide an exotic, yet familiar, atmosphere.
Although Bridgetown, the island’s capital, and the south coast get most of the attention from visiting Americans, I suggest Speightstown, on the island’s northwest coast, as a good place to experience the island’s history, food, architecture, and scenery.
Speightstown is the second largest city on the island, with about 41,000 people living in homes along the coast and in the small wood and stone homes in the hills east of town, where sugar cane fields overlook the shimmering sea below.
Most Bajans live in the southern part of the island, around the capital city of Bridgetown, whose suburbs now extend east all the way along the island’s busy south coast, where mass market resort properties, commercial districts, industrial parks, and the Grantley Adams International Airport make the island seem busier and more frenetic than it really is.
The Portugese were the first Europeans to visit the island, stopping briefly in 1536 on the way to their colony in Brazil. Because the island was ruled by a vicious and cannibalistic group of Carib Indians (who had taken over the island from the more peaceful Arawaks), the Portugese did not linger, but were so amused by the beard-like appearance of the island’s fig trees, that the explorer Pedro a Campos named the island Los Barbados (bearded-ones).
The British came next, landing near Speightstown in 1625 and, facing no opposition, quickly established cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations throughout the island. Working with Dutch slave traders, the British brought in thousands of West African slaves to work the fields, and as house servants to the wealthy Brits who ran the plantations and built great stone houses on the high hills above the city.
With the abolition of slavery in the mid-1800’s, and a decrease in importance of the island’s cotton and sugar cane industries, most of the commercial and political activity on the island drifted towards the southern portion of Barbados.
Because of this new growth to the south, however, the old port town of Speightstown declined in importance, and for many years it was neglected and off the beaten track for tourists. In the last decade, however, the town has slowly been making a comeback of sorts, and the Barbados National Trust, the island’s historic preservation organization, is studying ways to restore many of the town’s centuries-old structures, and the stunning landscape of Barbados’ northwestern coast is beginning to be discovered by tourists.
Several of Speightstown’s old plantation houses still exist, including St. Nicholas Abbey, built between 1650 and 1660, one of only three Jacobean plantation great houses left on the American continent. Arlington House is one of the earliest examples of the typical Barbadian town house, and the 1837 St. Peters Parish Church is famous for its square bell tower.
Another good reason to visit Speightstown is for its locally grown vegetables, fresh caught fish, and its small but always lively street market, where town women occupy much of the sidewalk space, sitting in the shade of store awnings, displaying cardboard boxes filled with yams, okra, and a variety of beans, and numerous root vegetables, all so fresh that the planting soil still clings to them. Just across the street is the town pier, where locals haul in nets filled with small, squirming silvery fish, or flying fish just unloaded from arriving fishing boats.
As with most Caribbean islands, Barbados must import much of its food so island chefs are always happy to purchase the fresh, locally grown produce whenever possible. One of these chefs is Neil Hitchen, who runs the kitchen at Cobbler’s Cove, a small and elegant resort property just outside Speightstown. Built in 1941 as a private residence by Joseph Haynes, a sugar cane planter and Bridgetown politician, the seaside house was called Camelot and used by the Haynes family as a weekend retreat in the country.
Today, the original house still stands, and its two exquisite master bedrooms are used as large suites, with 35 other smaller suites located in a semi-circle surrounding the house.
Chef Hitchen, trained in his native Britain, as well as in Europe and other Caribbean properties, buys local produce whenever possible. “I try to buy whatever is available, including lettuce, tomatoes, okra, beans, and yams,”he said while taking a break in the outdoor restaurant facing the blue-green sea.
A recent survey of readers of Caribbean Travel & Life magazine gave Barbados very high marks for its local cuisine. “We do a lot with flying fish, made in different ways, because that’s a popular local dish, and we always try to include a few other Bajan dishes, like pepper pot (see recipe below), on our menus,”said Mr. Hitchen. Some of the ingredients that the chef may use when creating his local dishes include sweet cassavas, breadfruits, pumpkins, avocados and plantains, along with fruits such as bananas, mangoes, soursop, sea grapes, dunks, guavas, Bajan cherries, limes, oranges, tamarinds, sugar apples, sapodillas, pawpaws and mammee apples.
Chef Hitchen also uses the services of Barker, a local fisherman, to keep his daily guest menu filled with fresh “catch of the day.” Going out to sea every day in his small red and white boat, Barker returns every afternoon with barracuda, tuna, snapper, or another Caribbean fish, which Chef Hitchen will gladly purchase and use in that evening’s dinner service.
Americans are visiting Barbados in increasing numbers these days, and many are beginning to think of the island as a possible retirement haven. Sue Yellin has lived in Barbados for almost 35 years but she didn’t come down here to cash her social security checks.
Her story begins in New York City, on Little West 12 Street and Gansevoort Street, in the neighborhood known as the Meat Packing District. Although that area of Manhattan is now quite trendy, with French restaurants, expensive clothing boutiques, and the fashionable Gansevoort Hotel, in the late 1960’s and early 70’s it was still a gritty neighborhood, filled with actual meat packing plants, trucking companies, rundown apartments, and a tiny jazz club called the Needles Eye.
In a 1972 review of singer Betty Carters performance at the Needles Eye, music critic John Cabree said,“…managed by Sue Yellin, a friendly, medium sized brunette, who looks more like a Radcliff graduate student than the owner-operator of a Village dive, the club is a narrow room with a bar down one side and a row of tiny tables and chairs down the other…downstairs they were four deep at the bar and there wasn’t an empty chair anywhere.”
This was Sue Yellin’s world —-a young Jewish girl from Brooklyn who took her love of jazz to the big city and opened a small, but very successful club, reveling in the long nights, the smoky bar, the fast moving crowd of customers and musicians. She even spent some time with one of the guys who frequented the club, a handsome black musician who became her lover, and a son, Paul, was born.
Ms. Yellin, perhaps tiring of her late nights at the club, the cold winter months in New York, and single-mom days with young Paul, took her son on a vacation to Barbados and discovered plenty of warm sunshine, good local jazz, and a cheap house on the beach. The lure of an island lifestyle was too tempting, and she decided to stay and raise her 18-month old son in Barbados.
Almost 35 years later Sue Yellin is still here, the walls of her beach house covered with jazz posters, photographs, and Caribbean artwork. Dozens of pieces of blue pottery fill the nooks and crannies, and a ceiling fan twirls through the warm air. Plants and flowers line the walkway to her door.
“I do miss my family and friends in New York, ” Ms. Yellin said, bringing cold lemonade to a visitor and shooing away the friendly dog. “But in Barbados I have had everything I needed to live a nice life. There is a great arts and music scene on the island, with good jazz and classical music performances, and it has been fairly inexpensive to live here, especially if you don’t mind living in a local community, and don’t need all the extra fancy amenities of a Sandy Lane-type environment,”she said, referring to the deluxe, upscale resort property on the island’s west coast.
Ms. Yellin explained that an American couple coming to retire on the island, with two social security checks each month, can live comfortably, especially when such “northern”expenses like heavy clothing and heat are deducted from the monthly budget. Part of her house has been converted into an office, where she works as an “incoming”travel agent, making arrangements for villa accommodations and tours for individual tourists and groups.
And her son, Paul, who she brought to Barbados when he just a baby, is now a well-known Caribbean chef and author whose new book, Infusion, is filled with Caribbean cooking recipes using Barbados’ famous Mount Gay Rum (see recipe below). And the name of Sue Yellin’s present beachside community is Brighton Beach, the same name of the neighborhood in Brooklyn she left so long ago.
Chef Hitchen’s Bajan Pepper Pot Recipe:
1 lb of Oxtail
1 lb of Stewing Beef cut into cubes
1 lb of Stewing Pork cut into cubes
1 tablespoon of cassareep ( which is the boiled down juice of the cassava, it is available in West Indian Markets and some Asian Market)
1 stick of cinnamon
4 springs of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
1 and a half tablespoons of black pepper
salt to taste
Mix all ingredients together and marinade meat for 2 hours
Add one chopped onion to pot with oil and sweat until tender,add 2 whole Congo peppers ( Habaneros) tied in a cheese cloth.Place all ingredients including spices into large pot cover with water to top and bring to the boil, gentle simmer for 2 hours or until meat is tender
Always remember to use wooden spoon and not metal
Paul Yellin’s Spicy Grilled Shrimp
bamboo skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 lb peeled shrimp
1 tablespoon jerk seasoning
1 tablespoon. minced ginger
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon oil
3/4 cup tamarind syrup
1/2 cup Mount Gay Eclipse Rum
1/4 cup water
Marinate shrimp in remaining ingredients and skewer from head through to tail so shrimp is straight. Grill for 3-5 minutes on each side, turning often as skewers burnr quickly. Brush shrimp with glaze while cooking and before serving. To make glaze bring tamarind syrup, Mount Gay Eclipse Rum and water to a boil and simmer till thickened.