Food and Travel columnist Kevin Pilley visits the Turks and Caicos’ Conch Festival
The ambient music was fusion. Mainly steelpan, ripsaw and the Atlantic Ocean. But there was also a lot of calypso, spouge, scratch, ska, soca, rocksteady, and maybe some junkanoo too. But very little chutney.
The drink was various, predominantly “Turk’s Head” hops, vintage grain punch and frozen mojitos. But everyone at the “Three Queens Bar” was on the trumpets.
There isn’t much else to do on the Turks and Caicos Islands than put a trumpet to your mouth and swallow it. Whole. Several times. On Providenciales, the largest of the 40-island archipelago and British Overseas Territory south-east of the Bahamas, everyone conches it up.
There is a popular folk myth that if you hold a conch shell to your ear you can hear the turquoise sea.
And a 11-point serrated carpenter’s handsaw.
At the end of November, the Three Queen’s in Blue Hills near Five Cays hosts the annual “Conch Festival”, a showcase of local culture featuring a conch fritter eating contest, a conch knocking contest, and a conch peeling competition. There used to be a conch blowing tournament. The winner of this prestigious event had to produce a recognizable tune rather than a plumbing anomaly. And not infarct.
On some islands fishermen still announce they have fish for sale by sounding a conch sell. At the Turks conch festival contestants in the conch blowing section often announce they are just about to suffer a prolapse.
Cookery categories at the festival include Best Conch Salad, Best Conch Chowder and Best Speciality Conch, as well as Best in Show.
Leeward Settlement boasts the world’s first commercial conch farm. Naturally, you can go on a conch mari-culture tour beside the 65 acres of sub -sea pasture, see the pens and learn about Queen Conch and environmentally-conscious sources of low-cost protein. And that conch is now listed as a commercially endangered species due to pollution and over-fishing. Ninety per cent of seafood consumed in the US are imported. Conch harvesting is prohibited in Florida and adjacent Federal states. Many Caribbean islands are forbidden to export conch.
After two days, I was well and truly conched out.
The Turks proves it is possible to be stalked by a large shell. Everywhere serves conch.
“Coco Bistro” offers conch ravioli with sweet pepper and rose sauce. “The Bay Bistro” serves conch crepes (Best in Fest 2009). “The Beach House” serves a conch salad with heirloom tomatoes wrapped in rice paper. “The Infiniti” at the Grace Bay Club (Dress code: resort elegant) boasts barely grilled conch with Japanese cucumber, green zebra tomatoes and smoked Habanero dressing.”
The Green Island Café” at Sandy Point Marina on North Caicos serves cracked conch with waffles. “Hemingway’s” offers conch fingers. “Bugaloo’s” in Five Cays, next to the Sunrise Fish Plant” scorches, sautés and blackens its conch.
Says top TCI chef Clive Whent, originally from London :
“Conch is a super food, one of the ocean’s greatest gifts, it’s low in cholesterol and high in protein. Conch is unique There’s no end to how to serve it. And if you’re really lucky, you might be gifted with a conch pearl inside the shell,
Blue Hills Road off the Leeward Highway has conch shacks like Mark Clayton’s “Da Conch Shack” – home of the Hump and Bump Party”- where you “eat” rather than “dine”. And are liberal with the local “PeppaJoy” handmade gourmet hot sauce. Menus include conch sautéed in rum and butter sauce. Your waiter will even wade out to sea and select a conch for you. You can’t get away from the white-meated “Strombus Giga”.
Having eaten conch in its cracked (fried), frittered, sweet ‘n’ sour, smoked and even at the Sibonne Beach Resort in its pecan- encrusted form, I had developed many attributes of the celebrated Caribbean gastropod.
I didn’t move very far. Or very quickly.
I hit the mojitos and “Shark Bite” cocktails and mellowed out to the local ripsaw music. And got into the rake and scrape. Bracing the saw on his thigh, handle side up, a dude in dreadlocks and a snood scraped a knife along his 11-point edge. A friend called Dezzie jammed along, using a screwdriver as his plectrum and making a big play of his teeth. They bent and wobbled together.
Ripsaw music originated in the Middle and North Caicos and found its way to the Bahamas. The saw is the national instrument of the island as the conch is its official marine animal.
Along with the spiny lobster and the flamingo, the conch has pride of place on the islands’ coat of arms. It must be the world’s only heraldic mollusc.
Columbus discovered conch on the Turks & Caicos islands in 1492. He described the shells as “the size of a calf head”. Provo has the world’s only commercial conch farm and you can go on a tour and learn all you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about edible trumpets.
Like all parts are edible. Except the shell. The conch is called “Titan’s Trumpet”. It is reputed to be the instruments most favoured by mermaids and mermen.
Provo, 550 miles from Florida, is becoming increasingly known for its realty, its marina townhouses and its “new paradigms of home ownership”. And its “private enclaves of luxurious condominium residences.” Accommodation ranges from plush sprawling five-star, all-inclusive stalags with well-rehearsed super-casual staff and as-much-as-you-can-heap-on-one-plate buffets to marvellous B&B establishments.
The up-market package hotels boast “exclusive bathroom amenities” (free shampoo), foyer boutiques and market themselves as “hideaways for romantic exclusionists”.
Provo is developing fast. It saw its first car in 1964. The locals or “belongers” are descendants of African slaves brought over by loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina to grow cotton and sisal. It’s their cultural heritage which is celebrated at the islands’ annual conch jamboree.
Terry Morris from Grand Turk won the prestigious conch knocking or shucking title, opening thirteen humanely and without significant mutilation in the allotted five minutes. A half-hour flight away from Provo is seven-mile long by one wide Grand Turk is the administrative capital of the British Dependent Territory. Cockburn Town is a charmingly sleepy place where a tailback means two bicyclists stopping to talk to each other down Front Street.
Pillory Beach is where Columbus made his landfall. As did the late astronaut John Glenn. In 1962. The National Museum possesses the hull and rigging of the Molasses Reef”, the oldest shipwreck in the New World. The 150-year-old lighthouse was made in Britain and transported over. The only bright lights you will see will be on a glow worm cruise.
Goatskin drums announced the headline act, hipster saw hero Wenty Rigby. The “Caicos Slings”, Dirty Bananas” and “Fuzzy Buccaneers” kept on coming. Trumpets build up a thirst.
Soon we were all “wined-up” and dancing the local dance,” The Wine”. There is “The Conch” too.
Which involves a lot of swaying and hooking your foot behind your ankle. Which drinking mojitos does too.