I found it on the internet. With its white-tiled floors, white sofas and white plantation shutters, the rental villa had views through a tamarind tree on to a turquoise sea. This was the Barbados I had dreamt of – so far, so good.
Next up, food. Seeing as I spend my life scoffing in smart restaurants as a food and drink writer, I didn’t want to do the same here. It’s not the usual way of enjoying Barbados, I know; most visitors choose to spend their time in one of the island’s many luxury, all-inclusive hotels, interspersed with visits to swanky restaurants, which offer, mostly, a range of international fare.
But I wanted to experience the local food – which offered a different way of seeing the island, and spend lots of time hanging out in the villa, preferably not having to cook myself.
‘You’re in for a treat – you’ve got one of the best villa cooks on our books,’ writes our villa manager, Alexis, via email. Yes, our villa, like most on the island, comes with a cook.
I’m not used to having staff. Not only do I get to discover a totally new cuisine, but there’s no washing up for ten days. Alexis asks what I’d like for my first dinner.
Now I don’t know much about Caribbean food beyond the marvellous Mr Jerk in London’s Wardour Street (which does excellent ackee and saltfish, and is Jamaican). After a bit of research, I discover that the Bajan national dish is cou-cou (ground cornmeal, which is flavoured in different ways, often with banana leaf) and flying fish. That will do nicely for starters.
Our villa cook, a lovely lady in her 50s called Diana, seems surprised when we arrive, standing at the stove with a big stick stirring something that looks a bit like porridge. She thought I was going to be a Bajan returning home for a visit. ‘How on earth do you know about cou-cou?’ she asks, incredulous.
The dish is a revelation. Cornmeal, studded with okra this time, and served with steamed flying fish in an aromatic gravy. Cou-cou harks back to its African heritage and can be found in some form or another all over the Caribbean, but it’s eaten routinely in Barbados. The flying fish is another Bajan emblem. When it’s not scudding across the water with its fairy wing-like fins, it’s most often breaded, then pan-fried and served in a bun.
Diana had rubbed ours in Bajan seasoning – a mix of onion, garlic, chives, thyme, pepper, sugar and spices (which you can buy in jars at the local supermarkets) before rolling up the fillets and steaming them over a gravy made with onions, spices, garlic, hot red pepper, tomatoes, and a dash of Lea & Perrins. Forget the soft, white beach, and snorkelling with the turtles and the tropical creatures on the reef, I’m staying near Diana and her kitchen.
The next day we go shopping. The deal is you drive your cook to the shops, then pick her up after – or accompany her, which I willingly choose to do. The nearest supermarket in Holetown has all the comforts of home (shortbread, Rich Tea biscuits, Typhoo, Marmite and so forth) – just in case you can’t bear to be without anything. Most of it is imported (there’s even a few lines from Waitrose), but the fruit and vegetable section had plenty of locally-grown produce – some of it completely new to me.