Levi Roots is handing me a spoon bubbling with hot, coconutty liquid. The musician-turned-chef is holding court at a cooking demonstration in the Jamaican sunshine and what he’s making smells amazing.
I was first to volunteer to taste his creation, and as I slurp up the contents of the spoon I’m delighted I put my hand up. “That’s stupidly good!” I exclaim involuntarily. Levi laughs. Since that TV appearance on Dragons’ Den he has launched his now-multi-million-pound Reggae Reggae Sauce empire and published seven cookbooks. It is perhaps down to him that Caribbean cooking is now so popular across Britain and the dividends of his success are evident in his happy demeanour and the startling amount of bling he wears. Of course he knows his food is stupidly good.
His latest venture is with Caribbean-based Sandals resorts. He’s the face of its new one-off holiday: Rum, Rhythm and Roots, at the newly renovated Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast. I’m here to preview the trip which departs with the chef next January and aims to give visitors a taste of the island beyond the beach and buffet.
Guests will learn how to cook authentic food and experience the island beyond the hotel’s gates through culinary-focused excursions. Hotel-based classes do have their own advantage though — staff serve non-stop drinks as you watch the chefs in action.
Levi — partial to a rum cocktail himself — conducts his cooking demonstrations in Sandals’ sheltered amphitheatre. Dancers twerked enthusiastically the night before on the sunken stage where Levi is now adding his coconut sauce to salmon fillets in foil parcels. The parcels sit on the barbecue for 15 minutes before Levi dishes them up with avocado mash and Caribbean coleslaw (mayonnaise substituted for spicy kick). It’s all healthy, easy to make and absolutely delicious. Levi himself is charming, gregarious and full of stories about his childhood and career.
Back to his roots: Levi shows how it’s done (Picture: Charlene Davies) The partnership is a deft move. Not only does Levi know his food but he’s great company — loud and bright, much like the Jamaica we experience: the clothes, the heat, the sunshine and even the colourful insults being exchanged between two women at Ocho Rios Market just as we arrive for a tour.
The resort’s head chef, Frederick Gayle, takes us around the stalls first thing to avoid the crush that comes later in the day. Early morning it may be but it is still close to 30C, the colourful fruit and vegetables already glistening in the hot sunshine.
There is callaloo, Jamaica’s answer to spinach; sorrel, which is boiled up at Christmas as a festive drink; and the pretty star apple. Cut it open and you see stars. Meanwhile, an elderly lady sits at a cocoa stall, mixing up her own cocoa powder with nutmeg and cinnamon: hot chocolate at its most pure and delicious. There’s no plastic packaging or refined food to be found here.
Even more unusual is a stall selling potions promising to improve your health — including your sex life. Jadian, the beautiful stallholder, waves a bottle of her love potion around while pointing to her male friend. “He’s 27 and he’s got eight kids. This stuff works, you know!”
Elegant: a bedroom at Sandals For those of us not wishing to procreate quite so widely, Jadian hands out some chewy tablets made from moringa, touted as a superfood that is said to lower blood pressure and yes, boost libido. It tastes horrendous at first then morphs into a sweet toothpaste taste, then back to horrendous again. Four bottles of water later, the taste still lingers in my mouth. Bravely, chef Gayle buys a whole bag of it.
Much tastier treats follow. A highlight is a visit to Prospect Plantation, one of Jamaica’s oldest estates. We are promised a “warm Jamaican welcome” and the wonderful gardens and views deliver just that. A stroll outside to examine the plants reveals a mahogany standing as firm and proud as the person who’d planted it as a sapling — Winston Churchill, back in 1953. A photo nearby shows him with a spade in his hand and a cigar in his mouth.
The only thing that’s smoking during our visit is the barbecue for our Jamaican cookery lesson. Led by the extremely patient Chef Irie, we work our way through Jamaican classics including steamed callaloo and festival — dense and crispy fried flour and cornmeal dumplings.
Chef Irie’s petite waistline suggests that festivals are an occasional treat for her. We eat the results of our hard work in the sunshine while gazing at the lush vegetation — cassava, banana, coffee and allspice growing all around the handsome 18th-century Great House.
Back at the resort, chef Gayle gives us another cooking demonstration, focusing on more Jamaican classics. I am still stuffed from our plantation lunch but his food demands that I find room in my stomach.
First up is jerk fish — just the right side of spicy, the seasoning distinct without overpowering the subtle flavour of the fish. Next it’s time for Jamaica’s national dish: ackee and saltfish, a breakfast favourite. This is my first try and chef Gayle has likely ruined me for all other ackee and saltfish variants.
As the Jamaicans say in lieu of goodbye, I’ll have to “come back soon” to taste it again.
The Rum, Rhythm & Roots culinary holiday at Sandals Ochi Beach Resort costs £1,599pp, including seven nights’ all-inclusive accommodation in a Poolside One Bedroom Butler Villa Suite, return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, airport transfers and No 1 Traveller Lounge passes, two cooking masterclasses and a visit to a local food market with Levi plus an exclusive gala dinner with the man himself. Sandals Resorts (0800 597 0002; sandals.co.uk).