Anguilla (pronounced an-gwil-uh) is where I was born and raised. In the British West Indies, it’s the most northern of the Leeward Islands, only 35 square miles, with a population of about 16,000. This tiny gem is commonly described as ‘tranquillity wrapped in blue’ for its crystal turquoise-blue waters and pearls of white sand surrounding the island.
It’s also known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. To get to Anguilla, first you have to travel to St Martin island and take a 20-minute speedboat ride from the Dutch side of the island (Philipsburg) or the French side (Marigot) straight over to Axa (Anguilla).
It’s on the boat ride from St Martin that you may receive your first taste of paradise from the crew. Locally made rum punch is renowned for its fruity flavours and sweetness – ingredients include a blend of tropical fruit juices such as pineapple, orange and guava with lime syrup, Mount Gay Rum and a dash of amaretto. Varieties vary around the island with some adding the beloved spice nutmeg and a few drops of Angostura bitters here and there. Be aware that rum punches are potent, and you could find yourself carried away in the ‘irie-life’ vibe. Irie means, ‘everything is going to be okay; relax, chill and enjoy’.
You’ll find a wide variety on offer from goat ‘water’ (clear broth), pig tail and bull foot through to red bean and corn soup. A must-try is the conch soup. Described as the abalone of the Caribbean – it is basically a large sea snail that lives in a spiral shell.
All roads lead to ‘Di-Walley’ (the Valley, which is the capital of the island) for Carnival weekend, when food is all about the barbecue. Smoky, slightly spicy, moist pieces of meat sizzle on customised grills – chicken, ribs and pork are all usually served with grilled garlic bread, fried johnny cakes (fried savoury bread), or curries. ‘Jeezum bread’ (cheese and bread) is a Caribbean exclamation I often use in place of ‘Jesus Christ’ to describe how good the curries are!
When the main streets are closed for Carnival, street stalls of all shapes and sizes sell locally made sweets and snacks such as sham, which is made from ground, dried corn and sugar, and which resembles ash. Other sweets include guava cheese, tamarind and jam balls.
One of our most peculiar sweets is called coquiña (pronounced cock-eey-na), which has a distinctive taste of peppermint. Only one or two families on the island know how to make it properly, and you’ll only find it in The Valley during festivities.
One of the biggest days of the year is August Bank Holiday Monday. We start our day early with bush tea made from the bayberry shrub, lemongrass, soursop (a prickly green fruit also known as guanabana or custard apple), sweet basil and mint. This is accompanied by a traditional breakfast of eggs, sausages, stewed salt fish, local avocados and johnny cakes, then it’s off to J’ouvert, a large street-party held at the break of dawn. I often describe myself as having a J’ouvert spirit: my style of cooking involves using techniques to bring out the flavours and colours from a variety of ingredients combined with creative thinking to create an enjoyable experience through food and service – much like it is at J’ouvert.
Festival Del Mar is held every Easter weekend. All things from the sea are prepared in a traditional way from grilled lobster and crayfish through to cracked conches, whelk soup, salt fishcakes and conkie dumplings (cornmeal, spiced coconut and veg) cooked in grape leaves. At other times, fish such as snapper, parrot fish, hind’s head and local favourite jack is seasoned and fried outside on a coal pot rather than inside on the stove. Everybody comes together with stories and laughter, some playing dominos (the game of choice) while the fish is frying. To go with the fish, it’s de rigueur to have hot sauce made from local chillies – whoa-wee hot and spicy! – and a squeeze of lemon or lime.
Local drinks that go with pretty much everything include mauby (made from the bark of a tree); sorrel (a floral red drink), passion fruit, tamarind, ginger and soursop juice, or an ice-cold Carib beer. The cocktail of choice is Campari with orange juice.
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Kerth Gumbs, a native Anguillan, is now executive chef at Ormer, Mayfair, which was voted one of London’s top five restaurants by Harden’s guides in 2018. @KerthGumbs