06 FEB 2019: Food tourism is estimated to be worth US$150 billion annually, so it’s no surprise that countries like Jamaica want to ensure that they’re getting an ample piece of the pie. To that end, the country’s tourism industry continues to develop its newish gastronomy network, which was designed to frame the country’s rich culinary offerings and help visitors both find and indulge in them. Travel Industry Today recently sat down with Jamaica Gastronomy Network (JGN) chair Nicola Madden-Grieg to find out exactly what’s cooking.

Q: Tell us a little about the Gastronomy Network, Nicole.

NMG: Food is one of the central driving focuses behind tourism and trends have shown an interest amongst travellers in making food the dominant reason for travelling. Food acts as a “pull” factor and can create loyal visitors, thus gastronomy has been used as a core marketing element in different destinations. [To that end] The Gastronomy Network was launched in 2016 and after several meetings and consultations, has recommended a strategy covering building out initially one core gastronomy destination on the island, i.e. Kingston, setting the framework for continuous support of island-wide culinary experiences, and cementing Jamaica as a culinary destination. The implementation plan is segmented in three phases: Establish Initial Gastronomy Centre; Build Out Additional Gastronomy Centres; and, Beyond Jerk: Island-wide project.

One of the first projects is the Blue Mountain Tour. How is that representative of the network’s initiatives?

The Blue Mountain culinary train was one of our first initiatives coming against the background of the Blue and John Crow mountains being designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2015. This is the first and only UNESCO world heritage site in Jamaica. Within the Blue Mountain region is a collection of several restaurants, cafés, attractions and farms that celebrate the rich diversity and quality of the agricultural products (from the region) in their menu. The Network felt it was an ideal fit to create a tour that celebrates this cuisine for both local and international visitors meeting the mandate for localization, sustainability and authenticity.

What are some of the other projects that are up and running?

Devon House (Kingston) – Re-launch of Devon House as a gastronomy destination, March 2017; already famous for ice cream, patties, and Devon Duppy. Engendered other signature Devon House culinary experiences.

Blue Mountain Culinary Trail and Experience – Officially launched on March 2017.

Blue Mountain Coffee Festival – 1st annual held March 2018. Activities: biking, hiking, seminars, coffee market, coffee plantation tours, latte art competition, etc.

Taste Jamaica website and app – Platform to curate all cuisine in Jamaica from traditional to international features, restaurants, bars, night markets, festivals etc.

How important is authentic food and drink to visitors?

We believe more and more visitors are looking for authentic food and drink and local experiences. At the recently held UNWTO World Forum on Gastronomy in Thailand, which we attended, this was highlighted and many countries are re-defining their food experiences to meet the expectations of international travellers. Part of our goal is to increase awareness of Jamaican cuisine beyond "jerk" and partnering with the Jamaica Tourist Board, we have hosted numerous "foodie" trips to the island showcasing the cuisine and worked with other partners like festival promoters and influencers who are just as excited as we are about Jamaican cuisine.

To determine the impact of this awareness campaign, we have been conducting an annual survey of visitors to the island to see if Jamaica cuisine determined the decisions to travel to Jamaica and why. In 2017 (among 600 respondents, 20 percent of them Canadians) 24 percent cited food among the top 10 factors for visiting Jamaica. The movement of food to the No. 2 position from No. 6 in 2016 is significant and underscored the efforts to build awareness of Jamaican cuisine.

Is tastejamaica.com the best place for visitors to get started?

Yes, definitely! The website and app curates a wealth of Jamaican restaurants as well as other cuisines that are a part of the Jamaican landscape due to our rich diversity of culture. This allows visitors to plan food experiences before even coming to Jamaica. So, even if staying in an all-inclusive, they would still be able to plan and find experiences such as farm-to-table offerings from, for example, Stush in the Bush and others.

Are there other resources a foodie can find?

Yes, there are other apps that offer access to many restaurants across the island and offers delivery services; the Our Jamaica magazine found in nearly all hotel rooms has articles as well as restaurant, bars and festival listings; plus, there are several local magazines that focus specifically on cuisine e.g. Indulge

I think we all know about jerk and Jamaican patties. What are some other delicacies that visitors should try?

This is a hard recommendation to make as there are so many options. However, I would suggest all our seafood dishes, starting with escoveitched fish, peppered shrimp and Jamaican spiny lobster done grilled, escoveitched or with garlic butter. I also strongly recommend dishes such as ackee and saltfish (our national dish), stew peas, sweet potato pudding, fruit cake at Christmastime with a rum-butter sauce, Easter bun, land crab, our more exotic local fruits – we have a wide variety – such as mangoes (my favourite being Bombay), June plum, Otihiti apple and naseberry. We also do some exceptional soups such as Red Peas Soup.

There is, apparently, some debate: in your opinion, where’s the best place to get a Jamaican patty in Jamaica?

Yes, this is a long standing one, but most Jamaicans will probably recommend Tastee Patties followed by Juici patties.

And is it Scotchie’s for jerk chicken and pork?

Scotchie's is a good place for both.

And let’s talk coffee. What are some options for visitors to learn about Jamaica’s famed Blue Mountain coffee?

The best option is to take a tour to the Blue and John Crow Mountains. There are several organized tours and you can book at your hotel concierge/tour desk. Nothing is better than learning about Blue Mountain coffee right on one of the plantations, walking the terrain and then sitting down to enjoy your first cup.

Of course, Jamaican food isn’t confined to the country’s borders. Tell us about the Taste Jamaica festival; and are there any events planned in Canada that are likely to tempt a potential visitor’s taste buds?

This year we are participating in the South Beach Food & Wine Festival (Feb. 20-24) and doing a Jamaica take-over of one night to showcase Jamaican cuisine dubbed Taste Jamaica! on Feb. 27 at the National Hotel on South Beach. We are definitely looking at taking to the road to promote the next level of Jamaican cuisine and as soon as we have an event nailed down for Canada, we will definitely let you know.

What’s next for the JGN? How far can it go?

The next steps for the network include continuous training and development of our current and up and coming chefs. We work closely with the Culinary Federation of Jamaica, as well as a host of local training institutions to offer seminars, certifications courses to ensure transfer of knowledge and skills training.

We feel there is no limit on where we can go in terms of creating and popularizing current and new Jamaican cuisine. Worldwide, Jamaica is a strong brand and our cuisine is beginning to take centre stage and we intend to keep moving the bar and growing as we introduce the world to the unique flavours that make us truly "Out of Many, One People and One Cuisine."

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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