“Jamaican cooks have imagination and flair. That’s why we adore pigs and never think of them as bacon. It’s a reggae celebration, the smell of pimento, fiery scotch bonnet and jerk seasoning filling the air. A street party for swine in heaven.” Jomo Morris
It’s raining again, and as the raindrops pepper the ground then burst like ripe fruit, my heart sinks.
This isn’t the way to start a vacation; in fact, choosing to visit Jamaica in May – the official start of rainy season – is a sure way never to see the sun, walk on the sand, or swim in the sea. There’s nothing to do but wait and watch as lightning flickers along the distant blue mountain tops. The rain picks up in pace and tempo, and my despair deepens. Water gushes from the drains along the side of the house and a small river forms in the yard. The eddying current sweeps away twigs, leaves, mud, and with it, my hope of visiting Portland.
The parish of Portland (and by extension the small community of Boston) is recognized as the birthplace of Jamaican jerk pork. This visit should be one of the highlights of my trip, but I’m hard-pressed not to let this morning squall dampen my spirits. The rumble of thunder is ominous but distant. The ground is wet; the grass and the trees all glisten as if brand-new. It’s as if the rain has made all the natural colors of the land brighter and more vibrant. Even the air seems crisp and fresh, and I breathe in deeply then turn the key in the ignition. It’s a two-hour drive to Boston. The coastal road passes through the small towns of Anotto Bay and Buff Bay before reaching the much larger town of Port Antonio. The parish of Portland is straddled by the Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s highest peak. It rains often here, and the runoff from the mountain rivers is fierce and ice-cold. Portland’s topography is lush with the bold hues of green bananas, avocado, breadfruit, mango and red ripe coffee berries. Nature is alive in this parish, and I am happy that my destination for jerk pork traverses this unspoiled piece of paradise. It’s a scenic drive, and my mind drifts to thoughts of Jamaica past. During the short-lived banana boom of the early 1900s, Annotto Bay was an agricultural hub for the sprawling plantations that covered the landscape. Eventually king banana gave way to rows and rows of sugarcane, and the government-run Gray’s Inn sugar factory. But the industry was ailing and though the town tried to hold on, declining production and revenue forced the factory to close in 1985. Now, a layer of grime, garbage and stray animals have left the town a shadow of itself. I’m glad to leave Anotto Bay and its sad past and continue along the highway. The road is a lot smoother now, and my car pulls easily through the twists and turns of Free Hill before descending into Buff Bay. I’m getting closer; but again, there’s no rush. Portland approaches: it’s an old friend, a familiar memory, gentle as a butterfly’s kiss. It’s my mother’s ancient VW bug bouncing down narrow country roads, dodging potholes, honking at chickens, scaring wayward goats back into the bush. This is the parish of my childhood adventures. It was just the three of us, Mommy and her two sons. Each Sunday afternoon, she would introduce us to the Jamaica she remembered and loved. It was exciting: we went to Sommerset Falls and swam in the aquamarine pool under the waterfall. We went to the Blue Lagoon, and my brother and I spent the afternoon frolicking at the water’s edge. We went to Rafters Rest, where the mighty Rio Grande Rafters met the sea, and found a tour guide who was willing, for a small fee, to give us a short, 30-minute ride up the river and back. Even back then it was expensive, and Mommy’s schoolteacher salary wasn’t enough for the full three-hour trip down the river. These bamboo rafts originally brought bananas from deep in the bush to market down river. It was the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn who convinced locals to carry people instead of bananas down the Rio Grande. We journeyed deeper into Portland, up and up to the Nonsuch caves. We went to Reach Falls, caught crayfish, had an all-day cookout on Swift River. In this parish of dasheen and cocoa, white sand beaches and waterfalls, little has changed – and I’m glad for that. From the town of Port Antonio it’s a short 20-minute drive to Boston Bay. The scenery along the way is breathtaking. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to drive right past the unkempt shacks selling jerk pork, sausage, chicken and fish.
I arrive at Boston Bay late in the afternoon. The sky, dark and overcast, is still pregnant with rain, and I’m a bit leery of the intermittent squalls that accompany my journey. I’m surprised: despite the worldwide fame of Boston as the birthplace of Jamaican jerk cooking, it’s still an odd jumble of concrete, board, zinc roofs, flies, stray dogs, loud music, roasting meat and spices.
People who come to Boston, come here for one thing and one thing only: jerk pork, sold by the pound, cooked on spits of pimento wood the same way it’s always been done. Boston Bay hasn’t been sanitized and repackaged. There’s no air-conditioned comfort here; this isn’t a tourist attraction. This place is strictly for the locals, and Boston seems determined to stay that way. On my most recent visit, someone had built a tourist trap on the hill just above the original, a spanking-new jerk center and bar complete with a large neon sign and asphalt parking lot. It starts to drizzle again, but the rain only adds to the allure of this place.
My mind is clear as I walk towards the old collection of shacks and bars along the side of the road in tune with the throng of people moving in and out their favorite jerk spots. The decision is easy for us: we take our pound of pork please, with a bottle of ice-cold Red Stripe beer – never mind the flies or open huts or dirt floors – this is the Boston we know and love. This is Boston the way we remember it, and we’re glad for that.
“Transforming the simple cocoa bean into chocolate is the most powerful form of alchemy.” Jomo Morris
The aroma is a sign: important things are happening to these beans.
Fresh cocoa beans are fermented in the open to increase their flavor – just like coffee beans. Prolonged exposure increases the risk of bacteria, fungi or mold. When cocoa beans are roasted, several chemical reactions occur. Roasting removes moisture, concentrating and intensifying chocolate flavor. Roasting also sterilizes the bean, and separates it from the outer husk, making cracking and winnowing easier.
The beans then go through a Crankandstein® cocoa mill that breaks the beans into pieces.
It’s a hand cranked cocoa mill, with abrasive double rollers. It’s hard work to crack the cocoa beans by hand, but hard work and perspiration adds integrity to the chocolate making process.
The broken bits are then “winnowed”
Chef uses a common hair dryer to blow away the flaky outer shell and leave the inner kernel or cocoa nib. Imagine seeing hundreds of tiny cocoa snowflakes covering the wall, the sink, swirling up and around as the hair dryer moves back and forth to separate the nibs.
Bring forth the Champion juicer
The Champion juicer was originally created to juice fruit and vegetables; but somewhere in its history, someone discovered it could grind cocoa nibs. The Champion juicer grinds cocoa nibs until they liquefy to produce a sludge called “chocolate liquor.”
The Melangeur – Refining and Conching
The melangeur is a chocolate mixing machine with a granite basin containing two opposing granite rollers. Think of a turn-of-the-century mill with a huge granite stone to crush the grain, and you have an idea of how this piece of equipment works.
Chocolate liquor is grainy in texture and bitter in taste. At this stage, sweeteners and additives like cocoa butter are added to manipulate the characteristics of the finished product. This bar is 70% chocolate, which means that it retains a high level of antioxidant flavonoids which are actually good for you. The melangeur reduces the particle sizes of cocoa solids, fats and sugar crystals through heat and friction. Eighteen hours of frictional heat from granite rubbing against granite refines the chocolate and keeps it liquid. This process is called “conching.”
The next step is tempering. Chocolate can be tempered by hand with the aid of a chocolate thermometer and a little knowledge, but a tempering machine removes the chance of error from this step.
Tempering chocolate is an exacting process that changes its finished characteristics. The process of heating, cooling, stirring and reheating to specific temperatures ensures that the chocolate crystallizes evenly. If not tempered correctly, chocolate will be dull in color and have ugly white streaks on the surface. Tempering also raises the melting point of chocolate (so it doesn’t melt in your hand). Properly tempered chocolate has a polished, shiny appearance and a crisp, clean snap when you break it.
Pouring the chocolate into molds
A large syringe works well to draw the warm chocolate from the machine and fill the molds, and then the chocolate is left to set. The day is done but chef is still in his office with a stack of chocolate-filled plastic molds on his desk. He carefully unmolds each bar and wraps them in shiny aluminum wrapper and finishes with protective paper sheath. There’s a story in his chocolate, and this story intertwines chef, the cocoa beans, and the person lucky enough to taste his artisanal chocolate bar.