SAVORY ISLAND SOUVENIRS - Considering Caribbean Cook's Components

by Chelle Koster Walton, Florida Travel Editor

As Caribbean cuisine becomes more mainstream in gourmet dining circles, island taste treats become the best way to relive an island vacation, or to bring home a truly authentic souvenir for connoisseurs. Beyond the bottle of West Indian rum that once constituted the quintessential culinary island souvenir, a variety of unique products today offer limitless options.

When shopping for my own revery-sparkers, I visit the island grocer to find canned goods, juices, specialty liqueurs, candies, dressings and ingredients I can't find at home. I'll arrange the edibles in a basket or other appropriate vessel from the local straw market or craft shop, and voila! a souvenir both to keep and consume. One of my favorites is a lignumvitae mortar-and-pestle from Jamaica filled with whole pimento (allspice) berries.

Nowadays, certain island shops and companies package their products creatively for you. One of the first islands to sell its food wares as souvenirs was Grenada, nutmeg capital of the New World. Vendors in the streets and at cruise ship docks have for decades hawked baskets of nutmeg and other Grenadian spices. Certain St. George's shops took the cue and began selling bags of fresh spices, nutmeg jam, nutmeg syrup and the island's trademark La Grenade liqueur, with its taste of orange and spices. You can still find these and other products at Tikal, Grencraft and Marketing Board.

Arawak Islands, Ltd., went a step further with its Rum Punch Kit (with fresh nutmeg and mini-grater), herbal teas, hot pepper sauce trio and bar of spiced cocoa --another Grenadian product, perfect for grating atop coffees or desserts.

Another leader in creative souvenir food packaging is Sunny Caribbee. Based in Road Town on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, it has outlets in St. Thomas and Curacao. The stores carry pre-packaged gifts, for instance, jarred lemon grass tea with a straw strainer, or island fish spice in wooden shakers. Island Nutmeg Mustard comes in a glazed crock. Jars and bottles of hot sauce, rum peppers, spiced catsup, pepper jelly, papaya chutney and other condiments come dressed in straw hats and bright head ties.

When buying on Tortola for that Caribbeanophile who loves the islands for the goats alongside the road and the local brew bottled in yesterday's mayonnaise jar, try the ferry landing at the West End. Tortola is still that kind of time-frozen island, and the one-man show at the ferry landing peddles a delightful selection of home-bottled local oddities such as guavaberry rum, Sea Moss, Mammee Apple Juice and guava vinegar. 

The food gift is particularly poignant if it contains, like Grenada's nutmeg baskets, a culinary specialty of the island. Nothing says Barbadian cuisine, for example, like flying fish. Fly Fish Inc. at the Grantley Adams Airport sells packages of frozen, vacuum-sealed flying fish which come with cooking directions and a packet of local seasonings. Dolphinfish and jumbo shrimp are also available. Double bag these and carry them in the center of your luggage and they should be just about thawed when you arrive home.

In Jamaica, the obvious gift is Blue Mountain coffee, which you will find prettied up in guises from burlap bags to straw hampers along with Tia Maria or Sangster liqueurs. More current these days would be a jar of jerk sauce. You can buy versions of this in most American cities, but if you want the authentic rendition, go right to the source: Boston Bay.

Here, cooks at any local jerk shack will sell you a jar of their special blend. If you can't make it to this rather out-of-the-way destination near Port Antonio, find jerk sauce in a Jamaican grocery. Just make sure the label says Boston Bay if you want the sure-fire stuff.


The east coast of Barbados, flying fish territory.

Pepper sauces make zesty gifts from the Caribbean, and practically every island bottles its own. Some, such as Jamaica's Pickapeppa, Trinidad's Matouk and Barbados Jack, can be found in the U.S. I look for those unavailable here, and those made of untamed Scotch bonnet peppers -- free of attempts to accustom it to non-native tongues. Matouk's also bottles other interesting condiments: satay marinade, pineapple-mango vinaigrette and sorrell jelly.

Many islands have their representative seasonings, such as sofrito in Puerto Rico and curry in Trinidad. Buy them if you plan to re-create your island culinary experiences at home. Nothing in U.S. groceries comes close.

Throughout the islands, you will find sweet and rare fruits made into preserves, jams, jellies, marmalades, liqueurs and chutneys. Some good outlets include the Anguilla Craft Shop (try the hibiscus wine), The Women's Desk Workshop in Antigua and Kittitian Kitchens in St. Kitts.

In some cases, you can even bring home the fresh product, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Regulations vary for each island and each fruit or vegetable. To be safe, call your local office for specific information before you leave home. Any processed or parboiled product is allowable; meats must be shelf-stable, according to my local agent. She told me the most common problem they see is dried citrus leaves used to line the bottom of spice baskets. These must be removed. Even if your fresh imports are pre-approved, you must declare them at customs.

For best results, carry products in glass containers with you onto the airplane and bag everything with two layers of plastic bags. Somehow curried swimsuit or jerk beach towel fails to evoke the same tastebud flashback for which you so cleverly shopped.