Last Updated on July 22, 2018 by Fiona Maclean
Party all year in St Lucia – starting with Food and Rum:
Towards the end of last year at a reception at the St Lucian Embassy in London, I learnt that the tiny island of St Lucia has not one but five major festivals each year. I’d never visited the island, though I ‘d heard of the Jazz Festival and knew of St Lucia as the home of Hotel Chocolat. Both a good start in my book…and I was keen to find out more.
An invitation to the first festival of the year, the Food and Rum Festival arrived. What a way to start the year – spending a week in January exploring the rum and food of St Lucia, all in the tropical sunshine of this beautiful island.
To understand the culinary heritage of St Lucia, it is important to learn a little about both the history and the geography of the place. That context helps to explain the wealth of dishes on the island and the variety of cuisine. Originally populated by Arawaks and Caribs, Ameridian people indigenous to the entire Caribbean, once St Lucia was discovered in the 16th century and attempts were made to settle by the English, the French and the Dutch, the island began a long cycle of alternating rule by French and English governments, each country controlling St Lucia 7 times total. With European rule came slavery and the introduction of Africans to the country. When slavery was abolished, East Indians replaced the African workforce as indentured servants working in the sugar factories. This multicultural society resulted in a culinary fusion and the favourable geography acted as a catalyst for this.
Fertile volcanic soil and tropical climate results in plenty of local produce – from bananas, mangoes, papayas and pineapples to callaloo a spinach-like leafy green, plantain, cassava, yams and sweet potatoes. Surrounded by the sea, there’s a treasure trove of fish and shellfish and the verdant countryside means that there’s no shortage of meat and poultry. And the local cuisine is really very good.
Unusually for me, I found myself eating local food for breakfast each day, despite being in the culinary shelter of a large resort with plenty of croissants, bagels, smoked salmon and fresh coffee on offer! Bakes (a bit like fried muffins), salt cod with vegetables and callaloo. Delicious!
The Food and Rum festival, the first in a series of five throughout the year, is the Island’s celebration of its culinary heritage. The event takes place over a weekend and includes formal drinks receptions, a gala dinner and a food and rum tasting event on Pigeon Island. And, some of the local regular community events, like Fish Friday at Anse Le Raye are extended – last weekend there was a band and, from personal experience, the entire island seemed to have congregated there to party the night away.
Of the events I went to, it’s hard to pick a favourite because they were quite different.
The Friday night fish fry at Anse Le Raye happens every week and, having established that it wasn’t going to be feasible to get there AND to the opening event for the Food and Rum festival, I skipped the formalities and headed down to this tiny fishing village to enjoy bakes, rum cocktails and the freshest fish possible.
Worth a visit if you happen to be in St Lucia on a Friday night, you’ll find that this is largely a community event where visitors are welcome to eat like a local and where you can’t help but feel that Caribbean vibe.
The next evening, a gala dinner at Ti Bananne at Coco Resorts saw St Lucia at its most glamorous. Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson from the USA served a menu based on the dinner he originally prepared for Barack Obama when he visited Red Rooster in Harlem. But this version, in the presence of the Prime Minister of St Lucia, had a distinct local St Lucian twist.
I’d already discovered bakes – a bit like English muffins, but either griddled or fried and eaten for breakfast. We started with a tiny and very moreish bake served on a base of hot buttered rum. Delicious. Instead of lobster salad, we had a piquant and spicy spiny lobster roll with lambi (stewed conch), crab, shrimp, Antillia passion fruit ale, leche de tigre and passion fruit.
Then breadfruit gnocchi with green fig chutney smoked salt fish and callaloo puree. Lighter than the traditional Italian gnocchi, I’m planning to see if I can find a reasonably priced supply of these tropical fruits to make my own. They were delicious.
Next up the famous ‘Obama beef ribs’ served here with berbere BBQ (an Ethiopian spice blend), yam salad and pickled peppers. Meltingly tender, full flavoured and lightly spiced meat contrasted with the salad and pickles.
Finally coconut red velvet to finish, with Admiral Rodney’s Rum Punch Sorbet.
What impressed me most about the evening was how Marcus Samuelsson was working with the young chefs from the St Lucian community. A peek behind the scenes found him helping to plate, explaining some of the finer nuances of the cooking and generally looking after the team. And, when it came to introducing the dishes, it was the St Lucians who were brought on stage to present their work.
After the formal dinner, the party continued just outside the hotel gardens in the Rodney Bay Village Culinary Pavilion. Having started the evening off with a couple of delicious rum cocktails called ‘Hangovers’ continued by drinking the paired wines through the meal and having optimistically worn teetering heels, a taxi ride home was the order of the day for me. Next time I’ll be bringing my Birkenstocks to change into!
I probably arrived a little too early at Pigeon Island the next day and had to get back to the Royalton for a dinner so couldn’t stay. I was, however in plenty of time to enjoy another spiny lobster roll, this time perhaps closer to its street food origins.
And to try out some of the rums and watch more live cooking demonstrations. Later, in the early evening, there was a live concert by Freddie Jackson and my spies on the ground told me that things livened up considerably from the laid-back picnic atmosphere in the afternoon. Worth noting if you plan to visit any of the festivals later in the year, my St Lucian friend at the Royalton told me to add an hour or three on to the start time of any event before you can expect to find things in full swing.
Like many of the Caribbean islands, St Lucia has its own rum production – at the St Lucia Distillers Group of Companies in Roseau and Dennery. The results of the inaugural Caribbean Rum Awards were announced over the weekend. There were plenty of wins for the hosting island – St Lucia Distillers Bounty Rum Premium Gold won the “Best” prize in the “Best Gold Rum” category while Bounty Premium White came in second in the “Best White Rum” category. Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum came in second in the “Best Spiced Rum” category, while 1931 by St Lucia Distillers and Chairman’s Reserve The Forgotten Casks, placed second and third respectively in the “Best Rum” category. And, The People’s Choice best overall rum award went to 1931 by St Lucia Distillers. The overall winner, however, was El Dorado 12 year Guyanese Rum.
And, there are four more festivals with events running throughout the year in St Lucia.
The famous Jazz festival has a stellar line-up this year, truly international with acts including Robert Glasper, Avery*Sunshine and Christian Scott appearing at Pigeon Island on May 13th and with the resorts around the island featuring jazz dinners and concerts from May 6th to 13th.
The St Lucia Carnival runs through June and July with parades and community pageants running across both months reaching a climax between 14th-17th July. St Lucia’s largest cultural festival, this is a real community event – there’s already a buzz as the costumes are just arriving and every younger St Lucian Instagram stream seems to be full of pictures of their finery. If you want to really get involved look at the schedule on the website and head for one of the ‘Parade of the Bands’ events – you’ll find yourself caught up in a vibrant street party where you can dance through the day and night.
Next, Roots and Soul, for reggae, hip-hop Afropunk and R&B which runs from August 31 to September 2nd.
Then, the Arts and Heritage festival which runs through the month of October with the crowning event, Creole Day on 28th October. Celebrating the richness and diversity of St Lucia’s heritage, there will be art exhibitions, music, food, beauty pageants and more.
A vibrant and lively island, what marked St Lucia out for me at the Rum and Food Festival was that everything happening seemed as much for the community as for the tourists and visitors to the island. This isn’t something where wealthy visitors go to one place while the community is somewhere else. Here, everyone seemed to play well together and even the formal dinner was a good balance of local people and visitors to the island. There’s genuine enthusiasm for life and party spirit here and a warmth that goes well beyond the sunshine. I loved it and now I want to go back and explore some more.
I’ll be sharing more of what I did see on the island and offering some suggestions for where to stay in later posts so do follow along to find out more.
Meanwhile, if you are thinking of visiting one of the festivals why not pin this post for later
I travelled as a guest of the St Lucia Tourism Authority
I stayed at The Royalton St Lucia and at Serenity at Coconut Bay
I flew to St Lucia with British Airways. Non-stop flights from London Gatwick take around eight and half hours. British Airways flies to St Lucia seven times a week.
For more about the Soleil Festivals on St Lucia, check the website.