I had to check and make sure I still had skin around my throat.
The clear liquid I’d just sipped down felt like a smooth cocktail of ghost pepper and butane, a quick, deep burn I felt sliding from my tongue down into my stomach. My face wasn’t hiding the pain either.
“That’s…the weak stuff?” I gasped as I felt my stomach slowly dissolve from the fire juice.
“Yeah, locals don’t mess with that,” she replied. “We start with this.”
She thumped a clear bottle with a red label in front of me, a full 75 percent ABV rum that I’m pretty sure was also used to clean medical supplies.
“You try this next.”
It was sadistic hospitality on her part, but it seemed completely appropriate in this place where nothing is subtle. The “spice island” of Grenada is a place where every flavor — from sun-dried chocolates to spicy stews to the jetfuel rums — is stronger and fuller than you’ll find anywhere in the Caribbean. Its people use what the island provides to create the kind of terroir-driven fare people cross oceans for. And it’s only a three-hour plane trip from Miami.
A familiar name creating some unfamiliar flavors
The islands of Grenada — which also include Carriacou and Petite Martinique — are a tapestry of bright colors and robust flavors. The colorful hillsides are filled with blooming bougainvillea and birds of paradise, ripe banana plants, and coconut palms.
The lush vegetation and year-round growing season allow farmers to produce everything from cabbage to grapefruit, mango to sweet potato, and, of course, the island’s famous nutmeg, cinnamon, and chocolate.
I was able to take in the scenery and a sampling of Grenada’s flavors while sailing its coastline with Danny Donelan, a Grenadian native who spoke with a hint of a Dutch accent. He runs Savvy Sailing Adventures aboard his 43-foot, Grenadian-made schooner.
The warm breeze pushed us along as the salt air enhanced the flavors of turmeric balls, cheese straws, and Grenadian chocolates served onboard. We enjoyed rum punch made from a mixture of fruit juices and rums from the islands, and it tasted especially refreshing after snorkeling through Grenada’s underwater sculpture park, the first of its kind in the world.
The following morning, I took a cooking class on Grand Anse Beach, hosted by the Mount Cinnamon Resort which stood above it. The beach is one of the Caribbean’s finest, an arc of pure white sand guarded by jagged green mountains, with Mount Cinnamon sitting at the end to watch over it all.
The resort’s chef, Janice Edwards, started off by lighting a wood fire under a large metal pot set only a few yards from the turquoise water of the Caribbean.
“This is oil down,” she said in a welcoming, island tone. “Usually, you eat this, you’re over at somebody’s house. They throw anything they want in there for meat — chicken, pork, goat, iguana — and let it boil all day and drink rum. Oil down, it’s a party.”
With that, she threw a tray of chopped up chicken and pork in the bottom of the pot, then liberally sprinkled it with turmeric, garlic, hot pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
“We used to supply almost all the world’s nutmeg,” she said proudly as she continued to douse the meat. “Most of the cinnamon too. That’s why they call us ‘spice island.’”
She continued by layering breadfruit on top of the spiced meat. She added vegetables — peppers, onions, and callaloo (a mix of local greens) — then had us roll bread dumplings to put on top. She topped the pot off with coconut milk and set it on the fire.
As the oil down boiled, we sat under a palm tree and sampled about a dozen Grenadian rums. Each tasted distinctly like something, whether it was sugar cane, molasses, or the barrel char that comes with aging. The flavors were made especially rich by the warm breeze blowing onto Mount Cinnamon’s shore. None tasted like any rum I’d bought off the shelf back home.
About an hour later, Chef Janice scooped out the steaming, spicy stew and plated it in front of us. It smelled like a sharp curry, with soft notes of coconut. The oil down’s tastes were each distinct, yet blended perfectly. The cream from the coconut and the fat from the meat absorbed into the starchy goodness of the breadfruit and dumplings. The peppers and vegetables added sweetness and heat, creating a spectacular mix of flavors in an equally spectacular setting.
Nearly all food is local food on Grenada
The beauty of Grenada’s flavors lies in their authenticity. Everything you taste is from the land, and from its people. And things here are still made by hand like they were hundreds of years ago.
You’ll find it at spots like the Belmont Estate Chocolates, a sort of Caribbean Wonka Land where you’ll find workers literally dancing atop cocoa beans as they dry in the sun. Old women sort the beans by size so they can be crushed in small machines, and you can tour the production rooms where the beans are turned into the finest dark chocolate in the hemisphere.
The chocolates taste like plants, with hints of nuttiness and a bitter note popping out from under the sugar. None of them are killed with sweetener like the chocolate you might find elsewhere. It’s just the natural flavor of Grenada encased in a golden wrapper.
You’ll also find that authenticity back at River Antoine, a distillery that dates back to 1785 and hasn’t changed much in the last 235 years. The winding drive to the main facility is lined with 10-foot mounds of discarded sugar cane husks. They cease just outside a two-story water wheel, fed by water trickling down from the top of the island. The wheel powers the cane crusher, which extracts the sugar cane juice used in making rum.
A couple of hundred years ago, this is how every distillery crushed its cane. Today, this is the only wheel of this size used for rum production.
After crushing, the husks are taken by a hand cart and discarded outside, where they’re eventually burned to fuel the distillery’s copper boilers. The fermenting “tanks” aren’t so much tanks but big, concrete baths where the rum is left to ferment in open air, absorbing yeast from the island air. The old, stone structures look like the kind of relics you’d go past in ancient distilleries that have been converted into museums or co-working spaces. But these ones are still in action, pumping out 150-proof rum every day that the weather permits.
In the white-stone confines of River Antione’s tasting room, it was my turn to try the locals’ favorite 150-proof rum, which is illegal to fly with because of its high combustibility.
“You ready?” my tasting guide asked as she poured it into a little plastic shot cup, which surprisingly didn’t melt. The only other times I’d tried 150-proof rum were after I’d already consumed roughly my body weight in Margaritas. I was also the indestructible age of 21, when you could probably swallow an entire bottle of antifreeze as long as you had a good enough chaser.
“Of course I am!” I said with completely feigned bravado. I took the rum and dumped it into my mouth, holding it there for a few seconds until my entire mouth was tingling. I swallowed it and felt the burn of the islands coating my entire upper half. My mouth was numb, and apparently, I was tearing up.
“Now you Grenadian!” my guide laughed.
Having felt like I’d eaten through most of the island in just a few days, and with white-hot rum coursing through my bloodstream, she wasn’t too far off in that moment.