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Universe unfolds as it should, no problem

On Jamaica's south shore, living is leisurely, spiced with some Scotch Bonnet

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A blown tour bus tire gives us a chance to partake in Jamaica's favourite pastime.

That, of course, being standing at the side of the road doing absolutely nothing but watch the world go by.

However, we are on a culinary tour of Jamaica and our delay is no hardship because the tour bus is stocked with goodies.

That means as we loiter at the side of the road, we sip ice-cold Red Stripes (Jamaica's national beer) and nibble on fresh fruit, banana cake and croissants.

We also joke about our predicament and giggle at the names of the businesses in the ramshackle storefronts across the road -- Kam's Cool Runnings Beer Joint, Keeshie's Braiding Joint & Shop and Jody's Beauty Hut For All Your Hair.

The tour organizer sets a competition in motion -- the bus driver gets to work on changing the tire and a new tour bus is dispatched.

We'll continue on whichever bus is ready first.

The dispatched bus wins -- only a 10-minute wait.

Coolers, food stash and personal belongings are all transferred and we continue on our way to -- where else? -- lunch.

An hour down the narrow, winding and potholed road is Little Ochi, an oceanfront collection of thatched-roof pavilions that has morphed from a locals-only eatery into an international seafood destination.

"When your food is good, people will find you, no matter where you are," says chef Garel Kirlew of Little Ochi's remote location off the beaten track on Jamaica's south shore.

Kirlew is being modest calling the food "good."

The seafood is spectacular.

Caught by Little Ochi's own fishing fleet in the ocean just 10 metres away, it's as fresh as can be.

And there's never any menu. Whatever is caught that morning is cooked up and served Jamaican-style.

Thus, a spread of jerk and garlic lobster, peppered shrimp, curried conch, octopus in lemon and various other fish barbecued with the head and tails still on.

Kirlew is the self-pro-claimed "master of peppered shrimp." After tasting his version of the Caribbean delicacy, no one challenges his claim.

Tail-on split medium-size shrimp are slow-cooked in oil and spices featuring Jamaica's flagship spice, the habanero pepper, a.k.a., Scotch Bonnet.

It's an innocuous-looking little red pepper shaped, coincidentally enough, like a Scotsman's bonnet, but packs a powerful punch.

Kirlew's secret is to chop the pepper ultra-fine so it permeates the dish and delivers even heat without burning your lips off.

Scotch Bonnet is the key ingredient in the ubiquitous Jamaican jerk marinade, which can be used with any kind of meat or seafood.

Back at Sandals Whitehouse, where we are staying, the resort chain's culinary ambassador, Walter Staib, is sweating in the jerk hut set up on the beach.

First thing he tells us is never, ever chop Scotch Bonnet with bare hands -- wear rubber gloves to avoid the unbearable burning the raw opened pepper will cause on your fingers.

And then Staib starts chopping the little peppers with his bare hands.

"Why aren't you wearing gloves then?" I ask incredulously.

"Because I'm da mon," Staib says, mixing Jamaican vernacular with his native German accent.

Apparently Staib's chopped enough Scotch Bonnet to develop some kind of unnatural immunity to its sting.

To give our North American mouths a chance, he goes light on the Scotch Bonnet for our jerk marinade, which includes thyme, allspice, ginger, onion, garlic and soy sauce.

The chicken and pork he marinates is tossed on the barbecue, but not the kind of barbecue Canadians routinely abuse their meats on, says Staib.

This is a metal barrel barbecue with allspice tree wood coals; no open flame like the Canadian gas or propane barbecue.

The key is to slow-cook the jerk meats in the low heat and smoke of the barrel.

To recreate this at home, Staib recommends turning the barbecue on low and sprinkling allspice berries that have been soaked in water on the grill to throw off smoke and flavour.

The results on the beach are palate-changing -- tender, flavourful chicken with just the right amount of kick.

A cold Red Stripe, our toes digging into the sand and the Caribbean sun and scenery are the perfect accompaniments.

Staib and his culinary support team from Sandals become fixtures with our group as we eat and drink our way around the resort and area. By the way, Staib is the Emmy Award-winning host of PBS travel and cooking show A Taste of History, the founder of the Caribbean Culinary Federation, a Caribbean Culinary Hall of Fame inductee and prolific cookbook author and restaurateur.

Seated in the courtyard of Giuseppe's restaurant under torchlight, we munch our way through a Staib-designed six-course meal featuring everything from sea scallops and Caribbean bass to rare steak and sautéed bananas for dessert.

Each course is accompanied by different Beringer of Napa, Calif., wines and El Dorado rums from Guyana, both beverage companies with which Sandals has forged exclusive partnerships.

We were primed for these matches with earlier wine and rum tastings.

In fact, we swirled and sipped seven El Dorado rums as you would wine, led by Sandals' food and beverage whiz, Troy King.

King also made for us at Casa Blanca Bar all the rum-based cocktails that are an integral part of every Caribbean vacation, from the daiquiri and pina colada to rum punch and the hurricane.

Our livers and stomachs could take more, though, so we giddily amble over to Café de Paris for pastry chef Veejooruth Purmessur's assortment of El Dorado rum-based desserts, from deconstructed apple pie with rum ice cream and rum-injected poke cake to rum-soaked blue cheese and rum cream-filled chocolates.

Surprisingly enough, we did have time for things that didn't involve eating or drinking, such as lying on the beach, lounging by the pool, getting West Indies massages at Sandals' Red Lane Spa, snorkelling Whitehouse Bay reef, waterskiing in the Caribbean, reading to kindergarteners at the school the Sandals Foundation built and shopping for "ya mon, no problem" souvenirs.

-- Postmedia News


Sandals Whitehouse Resort on Jamaica's remote south shore is a couples-only super all-inclusive, meaning everything is included in the package price, from hotel room and gourmet meals and drinks, to activities ranging from snorkelling to water-skiing.

Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing all option Sandals in their vacation packages from myriad Canadian cities.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2012 D7

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