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Seven seas of wry

Food and Travel columnist Kevin Pilley takes us for Bahamian culinary stroll

They know how to eat in the Bahamas. The sea bass is flown in especially from Chile, the sole from Holland and the crab from Alaska. The lobsters are local. But the deep-water prawns are Spanish.

If you want to spoil yourself and get one up on your friends you can turn to page seventy of the famous grape list, trail your finger down and order yourself a bottle of the house 1727 Rudesheimer Apostlewein from the Bremen Ratskaler in the Rheingau region of Germany.

Reasonably priced at $200,000, it is the world’s oldest drinkable grape. So ideal if you fancy a dessert wine that has some cachet and will go down well with your insecure social peers.

The Graycliff Hotel in Nassau has the third largest grape collection in the world. A quarter of a million bottles, conservatively worth $11m, are kept in the old rock-faced dungeon.  It’s an experience eating in a pirate’s residence.

On the site of buccaneer John Graysmith’s 1740 fortress mansion and once Polly Leach’s “Lunches, Teas & Dinners” – Nassau’s first inn- it was the home of Lord and Lady Dudley, the 3rd Earl of Staffordshire who hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – the former Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson who thought the Bahamas rather perfect. They called it home. It became a luxury hotel in 1973. There are only twenty rooms but plenty of herringbone parquet and credenza. Next door is the Governor General’s House.

“Graycliff Restaurant” on New Providence Island, not far from the National Art Gallery and Western Esplanade beach is the first and so far, only fine dining establishment in the whole of the Caribbean. Although curiously the hotel is only four star.  Mainly because it only has twenty rooms. But its main restaurant is the epitome of old school chic and elegance.  It embodies colonial lunch and dinner-time values. It preserves certain mores.

You are not a customer. You are a patron. The dress code (jackets and shoes are obligatory. No shorts) is strictly enforced. You have to fit in. You have to look like you are able to sit and eat at the same table as the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Mr Martin Luther King Jr, Aristotle Onassis Esq. and Her Royal Highness, Princess Caroline of Monaco.

Things are more relaxed in the hotel’s “Giotto Pizzeria” and “Humidor Churrascaria Brazilian Steakhouse” with its “unlimited portions of delectably seasoned delectable meats”.

You don’t have to dress up for a platter of skewered meat or wear a jacket and tie and your best dress and earrings in front of a 12” pizza. No matter how hand-tossed it is and how thin it’s crust.

A rotisserie is not fine dining. It’s different from a pricey posh restaurant. You don’t have to put on any airs and grace and be too respectful of anything that has been barbecued.  Even in the Bahamas south American savoury vegetables don’t expect to be feted. You don’t have to pose as an epicure and pretend to be a connoisseur or aficionado when faced with several  lumps of grilled lamb. Charred pork doesn’t need to be paired an 1865 Chateau Lafitte.  Your taste buds don’t have to live up to a Margherita.

An all –you-can-eat fixed price menu buffet is what it is. Seared pineapple doesn’t care about your impression of it. The waiters want to you to be gauchos from the Pampa region. Not food critics from the New York Times.

The term “Churrascaria” comes from south Brazil and goes back to the early nineteenth century and refers to a restaurant specializing in “rodizio”, the roadside roasting spits. You don’t even need to wear your best Etsy voucher bought wide-brimmed, black felt Latin American cowboy hat.

They’ll let you in without riding chaps.

Curiously, the hotel’s chocolate factory insists you wear a plastic hair net when learning to pimp and personalize your chocolate box selection and being taught how to introduce subtle vanilla notes to your cocoa butter and hand-paint your Key Lime pie truffles.

Although ingredients are largely imported, Bahamian food is more interesting than you may think. It’s not just conch and conch and more conch. The colourful shacks on Arawak Cay on Nassau’s West Bay Street offer authentic down-home callaloo soup, leaf vegetable soups made from taro, amaranth or water spinach. A form of morning glory. You can’t avoid the okra (ladies’ fingers) or collard greens (loose leaf brassicas).

“Graycliff Restaurant” on New Providence Island, is the first and so far, only fine dining establishment in the whole of the Caribbean.”

On guided food tours, you learn about ceviches, that turtle soup is no longer served and iguana only on special occasions. You hear about clawless spiny lobsters, stone crabs, baked bonefish, grits, fish served “escabeche” (marinated), cassava bread, “Old Sour” sauce, pepper pot stew, Sapodilla melon tree pudding, soursop ice cream and guava duff pudding.

Bahamians traditional fare includes  coleslaw, steamed chicken, fried plantains, pigeon peas in “peas ’n rice”. In the Bahamas (from Spanish for “shallow waters”) if there’s no rice or meat it’s not a meal.   

Bahamians love their coconut water,  goat pepper and hot mango sauces,  guava jam , iced “switcha” lemonade and fever grass bush tea made from ginger, brown sugar, lemon grass and sour orange rind. And they love their rum cakes.

A tourist trap maybe but still charming and educating, The Graycliff is several Caribbean culinary experiences in one. You can tour its Cognaceque with 900 bottles including a museum piece 1893 AE Dor. You can have a cigar rolled at your table or you can bring one you rolled yourself. There are classes given by torcedores. You learn about wrapping and sorting and lighting and coughing.  And that the best cigar should give off the aroma of manure.

The hotel is one giant historic humidor. It is where Bill Clinton got his Gurkha cigars. The Graycliff a fascinating place. Executive Chef, Elijah Bowe, gives masterclasses in making Grouper Dijonnaise and Snapper en papillotte.

Book your table, your history lesson and the coconut soufflé at the same time.

WORDS BY: KEVIN PILLEY

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