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Entertaining jaunt through exotic treats

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The Spice Necklace

A Food-Lover's Caribbean Adventure

By Ann Vanderhoof

Doubleday Canada, 459 pages, $33

FOR most of us, our knowledge of spices is confined to little glass bottles sitting in rows in the grocery store.

But Toronto writer Ann Vanderhoof's newest tale of sailing the Caribbean islands brings readers into the world of nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon and the ground it comes from.

Part travel book, part cookbook, The Spice Necklace continues from Vanderhoof's previous effort, 2004's An Embarrassment of Mangoes, a tale of workaholic 40-somethings casting off the shackles of regular life and taking to the seas.

Ultimately, it's a quick and entertaining jaunt through a world of exotic treats that belongs in the kitchen rather than the literary shelf.

Vanderhoof and her husband explored the Caribbean in the 1990s, losing themselves in the people, landscapes and food. They have returned to the Caribbean in Spice Necklace after a 10-year hiatus and are ready to continue their adventure.

What follows is an ode to the cuisine and native ingredients of Trinidad, Grenada and a host of other islands. Vanderhoof visits cocoa plantations and watches locals as they go seaweed fishing.

She samples goat fattened on oregano leaves and shellfish plucked straight from the ocean. She picks up the secrets to making perfect breadfruit stews and crisp lobster fritters from the local island women (and sometimes men).

Vanderhoof's tale is incredibly airy and bright, but in a world where the politics of food has become about much more than just what's on our plate, it also seems flippant.

Touring through some of the poorest parts of the world, Vanderhoof skates at the edges of the issues that plague farmers on these islands, for example the swaths of valuable agriculture lost to Hurricane Dean in 2007 and the divide between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

As a result, her exploration feels hollow and lacking any real insight into the culture she purports to cherish.

The same lack of depth is found in her connection to the people. She claims lifelong friendships with some of the islanders, and yet we never learn anything about them aside from their names and which spices they tip into the stockpot.

She haphazardly pieces together information with no connection from one idea to the next. We might start out hunting for cloves and find ourselves learning about guava berry liquor with no transition in between. The only indication she's changed topics are the numerous section breaks in each chapter.

Vanderhoof's writing style is accessible and mostly engaging. But it's her native island recipes, many developed in the small kitchen aboard her boat, which are the book's highlight.

Twice-fried plantains, coconut drops, pepper shrimp and mango chow -- many sound good enough to induce hunger pangs just by reading their names. Although some of the ingredients are likely only found in a market in St. Kitts, Vanderhoof does an admiral job of making them accessible to any North American kitchen.

Nisha Tuli is a Winnipeg writer and an avid foodie.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2010 H8

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