On a recent trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica we did our first “all-inclusive”. It was a fam-jam trip, and a different kind of travel for us since we’re used to more local travel but Dan and I managed to scratch our itch and take one day to get off the resort and explore the real Jamaica on an afternoon food tour.
We spent a half day walking tour exploring the city of Falmouth with Jamaica Culinary Tours. It’s about 30 minutes east of Montego Bay. Falmouth is more known for its seaport where ships dock for cruise travellers, yet rather than off loading tourists to explore the city, tourists are bused to other more marketed places like Ocho Rios or Montego Bay on the island’s north shore. In Falmouth, tourists don’t normally stay. In brochures, the city is mentioned on a mere, inconspicuous line.
But this is the part of Jamaica I think visitors should spend more time exploring. Falmouth is where you can find an authentic way of Jamaican life, eat some of Jamaica’s tastiest food, and see how the island’s historical past has influenced Jamaican food culture today.
Just a short walk from the port is the Albert George Market Square. This used to be the home to one of Jamaica’s colourful food markets but today it is mostly shops and a few independent stalls. The old tradition of food markets was historically started by slaves. To reduce the cost of feeding the slaves, plantation owners allowed slaves to grow their own produce. Often there was a surplus and when this happened they would sell their extra food in the town square.
Nearby the square, we got to meet Miss Maxine and her well-stocked market stall. Locals go to her for local produce and ackee (a tropical fruit that is the strangest I’ve ever seen). I’m told you can also find her creatively crocheting in between sales, to make a few extra dollars.
Cool fact: Ackee is actually a national food. You also have to wait to eat ackee until the fruit opens fully and naturally on its own. If you don’t, it could be fatally poisonous. Eeek!
Later, “bend down” markets emerged in the island’s history and continue up until today. The “bend down” market vendors sell pretty much everything from a pin to an anchor (clothing, shoes, accessories, household goods etc). This tradition became known as “bend down” markets (because items were placed on a canvas on the ground and you had to bend down to make your purchase. Janet, our guide, says Falmouth actually has some of the best bend down markets in Jamaica today.
Sugar is king in Jamaica. That’s because when the British took over Spanish rule in 1655, they turned the entire island into one big sugar plantation for their motherland. It became their wealthiest resource. Today, sugar still remains Jamaica’s biggest export. If there is one sweet thing you should try, it’s Jamaican sugarcane from Carlos.
Carlos is a fruit vendor in Falmouth but he’s known as Jamaica’s own royalty. He became a local celebrity in 2008 after he was approached by Prince Charles for a taste of his personal sugarcane. It may have been a chance encounter but four years later in 2012, Prince Harry visited on a similar tour in Jamaica and this time Carlos was personally invited to meet him. Today, you can find Carlos selling his famous sugarcane and fresh fruit at the port.
In the very short week we spent in Jamaica, I devoured as much jerk chicken as I possibly could.
Jerk is a style of cooking and seasoning born out of necessity by African slaves who fled the plantations to the hills. They cooked in clay pots in the ground using wood over a slow burning fire. It was only after emancipation that people came down from the hills and started sharing their jerk with the rest of the island.
These days you can find jerk everywhere. I think the kind we got on the resort was tamed down for tourists because when we tasted real jerk off the resort, it was smoky, spicy, woody and full of so much flavour. Wash it down with a side of Ginger Beer and you’ll be going back for seconds.
Neat Fact: The island was first called Xaymaca, land of wood and water, by it’s earliest settlers in 4000 B.C.
Other meats you should try in Jamaica: curry goat and oxtail.
Beef Patty in Coco Bread
One food we couldn’t get on the resort was meaty beef patty in coco bread. Jamaican coco bread is unlike any bread I tasted. It’s soft, slightly sweet, and shaped like a coconut. Surprisingly no coconut is used in making coco bread and it doesn’t get it’s name from the coconut either. In fact, Jamaicans are not quite sure where the name originated but nonetheless, it’s still a popular go-to meal. It’s made from a regular dough with extra buttery layers. The dough is pounded flat and folded over before baking.
The traditional way to eat coco bread is to split it in half and stuff it with a Jamaican patty to form a sandwich. This is Jamaica’s version of the American burger.
The Spicy Nice Bakery is a popular spot where locals in Falmouth get their patty in coco bread. The bakery has a long history, owned by a Chinese-Jamaican family for over 50 years. Come with an appetite because this is really filling!
A popular saying in Jamaica is that “coconut water washes the heart”, makes you healthy and takes away your ailments. No wonder coconut is everywhere. It is used widely for everything from hair shampoo to skin shampoo. We stopped at a coconut vendor where he cracked one open right in front of us and let us sample coconut water right out of the coconut. I never liked coconut water back home because it always tasted like soap to me, but I guess it’s because I never tasted the real thing. This was refreshing and perfectly sweet!
Many of the best Jamaican desserts are made from some form of coconut like grated, water or milk. The most well-known are Pink on Top cake, Coconut drops with ginger spice or Pinch Me Around tart. If you’re ever invited into a Jamaican home don’t be surprised if you’re offered a helping of some or all of these.
Three must-have things on a Jamaican dinner table you will always find: ham, fruit cake – and Red Stripe beer.
Brewed in Kingston, Jamaica it’s a local favourite and national pride. The first Red Stripe beer was brewed in 1928 and ever since Jamaica officially gained independence in 1962, the entire country pops open a Red Stripe, breaks out the reggae and strikes up fireworks every year on August 6. After all, it’s island life, mon,
Other reasons to visit Falmouth
Falmouth is one of the Caribbean’s most well-preserved cities with beautiful Georgian architecture like the Falmouth Courthouse and Town Hall. It also has the most churches per square mile including the church of William Knibb, who bravely fought for the emancipation of slavery. The city is filled with locals going about their daily lives, kids playing on the streets, bustling traditional markets, and reggae music playing randomly from the nearby shops.
If you’re a cruise ship traveller or resort traveller heading toward Falmouth, Montego Bay or Ocho Rios, I highly recommend taking this two and a half hour walking tour with Jamaica Culinary Tours. It will help you get to know a real part of Jamaica, off the resort and with a local.
I was a guest of Jamaica Culinary Tours but as always, all opinions are my own.