While other visitors to Jamaica seek sun, sea and sand, I have set my sights higher. I’ve committed to a quest worthy of the most intrepid explorer. A quest for the world’s best jerk.
Judging jerk in Jamaica’s best kitchens
My mission begins in the kitchen of Jake’s Resort near Treasure Beach on Jamaica’s south coast. There I meet the chef, who’s prepping chicken for a weekend wedding, marinating it in a vat of sauce, a concoction so spice-laden it stings my eyes when I lean in to inhale the aromas.
The challenges I must surmount become all too apparent when I ask about the recipe. He grins. “If I tell you, I have to kill you.”
Luckily, I can extrapolate to some extent. Several ingredients are de rigueur. Historically, jerk was comprised of pimento (AKA allspice) and salt. The inclusion of scotch bonnet peppers, along with a multitude of possibilities, came much later. Like the chef at Jake’s told me, as he held up a bouquet of scallions: “the ingredients are the thing.”
Chef Khana, proprietor of a roadside stand reputedly boasting St. Elizabeth Parish’s best jerk, shares that opinion. “No three teaspoons of this or that,” he says. “Just go with the heart.”
While the proof is in the pork (delectable) my journey has only just begun.
Next stop is Scotchies near Montego Bay (I’ve heard this one’s the best of the three Scotchies on the island). Here great slabs of meat sizzle under sheets of corrugated tin. A Hawaiian-shirted staffer repositions the meat with gestures as graceful as a symphony conductor. I bite into a chicken thigh that burns my mouth even as it warms my heart.
But my quest is no mere gourmand’s goal. The story of jerk parallels the story of Jamaica itself.
The spice that shaped Jamaica’s history
During the 17th century English occupation, slaves would escape into hiding in the Blue Mountains. Hunting was their chief source of food, wild boar a staple. They’d add spices to preserve the meat, slow-cooking it over wood (primarily pimento) in underground pits in order to avoid capture.
The process was likely borrowed from the Taino and Arawak. The term a corruption of the Spanish word “charqui.” Locals first offered jerk to tourists around the 1940s right here in the village of Boston on Jamaica’s northeast coast, where the final chapter of my saga unfolds.
Where to find the world’s best jerk in Jamaica
As I stare into the firepit at Mickey Jr.’s in the Boston Jerk Centre, Max, the “spice man,” lifts a sheet of corrugated tin covering sides of pork and smears a brown paste over the meat. He cuts off a piece and hands it to me.
As I lean on the scarred wooden counter of the first of eight vendors’ stalls (AKA “jerk pits”) in a procession marching down a gravel driveway I reflect upon my quest. Could this be the culmination of my nearly two-thousand-kilometre journey?
I bite into the meat. Short answer: yes. Forget Ulysses, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail.
I’ve just had a taste of the world’s best jerk.
A little taste of heaven at home
Even if you can’t visit Jamaica you can experience your own little taste of heaven. Just check out the offerings of Grace Foods, the definitive purveyor of Jamaican delights (available through Amazon.ca).
Choose from either their Cool Runnings Jerk Seasoning (the rub) or one of their sauces/marinades bearing the same name: “mild” or “hot and spicy.”