Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Exchange profoundly shaped both world history and diets in every port of call – including the Cayman Islands.
Before the widespread transfer of animals and plants between the Old World and the Americas in the 15th Century, the global food landscape was fundamentally different: there were no potatoes in Ireland, no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador no pineapples in Hawaii, no rubber trees in Africa, no tomatoes in Italy; Switzerland had never heard of chocolate, and there was no coffee in Colombia.
Just think how the menu at Grand Old House, the most famous name in Cayman Islands dining, would look if such staples had never left their native lands.
Christopher Columbus began the process on his journey through the Caribbean to the Americas in 1492 and profoundly shaped both world history and diets in every port of call – including the Cayman Islands – as part of the wider transfer of people, ideas, foodstuffs, animals and diseases (a phenomenon of which we are presently hyper-aware), known as the Columbian Exchange.
Today, cuisine in the islands is a fusion of more than 100 cultural influences and traditional flavors and ingredients from all over Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, creating an artist’s palette of taste and texture options that were completely unheard of a few hundred years ago.
Add in the enormous range of fresh, abundant seafood harvested on the doorstep and you have a menu of mouth-watering international dishes with a Caribbean flair that are even more appealing for their unavailability during this period of pandemic and social distancing.
While we are forced to sit at home in front of the TV, picking up dull, lazy eating habits, all we can do is a daydream of a return to normality where we can visit our favorite restaurants in the Cayman Islands, socialize in the company of friends and eat food prepared by a professional chef.
In better times, for a perfect lunchtime appetizer, Grand Old House will prepare conch fritters, beer-battered, with jerk aioli and pickled mango. The local queen conch produces the iconic seashell, often sold as a souvenir to tourists. Females are bigger, weighing up to five pounds and can live up to 30 years. Rather than swimming, they use their feet to lift and then throw their bodies forward. Conchs also are good climbers. Sometimes the conch may also produce a pearl, but there’s no need to look for one in your fritter.
For an entrée, it could be a local goat curry, off the bone, with savory rice, mango chutney, and poppadum. It might come as a bit of an exotic surprise to most westerners, but the rest of the world is quite familiar with the fact that 70 percent of the red meat eaten globally is goat meat.
For dinner, how about a full-bodied red wine from Grand Old House’s famous wine cellar to go with that Filet Mignon, an 8oz steak with mashed potatoes, caramelized onion, roasted vegetables, and green peppercorn? What is it about that heavenly pairing of red wine and steak? Wine and steak taste good together because each is at the opposite ends of the sensory spectrum, according to food scientists.
For dessert, there’s a Banana Sticky Toffee Pudding, rich with vanilla ice cream, sticky toffee sauce, and lemon Chantilly cream. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas all over the world, but the ones you see in the supermarket are all genetic clones of the Cavendish variety, mass-produced because it does not have seeds and it survives longer in transit than its cousins.
And finally, a thought to ponder as we while away the seemingly endless lockdown days in isolation, dreaming of Cayman Islands waterfront fine dining and sumptuous Grand Old House desserts while staring forlornly at that last, tired and lonely apple in the fruit bowl: there are more than 7,500 varieties of apple and it would take you more than 20 years to eat every variety if you ate one apple a day. Now there’s a project that will hopefully outlast any enforced isolation.