When I imagined the kind of nature I might find in the Cayman Islands, I didn’t picture this. Instead of the sunny day on a palm-tree-lined beach I had envisioned, it’s nighttime and I’m standing in an enclosed greenhouse.
A string of fairy lights overhead is illuminating brick pathways connecting neat rows of garden beds. Potted plants hang from the ceiling and small trees reach up to meet them; and in other areas, leaves of different shapes and sizes emerge from layers of soil.
It all looks remarkably like the type of plant-fringed patio space where I might find myself sipping beer on a summer evening in Toronto; but Toronto is over 2,000 kilometres away. The aforementioned beach isn’t particularly close either: we’re in Georgetown, the main business district of Grand Cayman, a few kilometres away from the nearest stretch of coastline.
What I’m discovering instead reflects the new reason why tourists and expats alike are heading to the Cayman Islands – not for the sun and sand (though there’s plenty of that to go around, too), but for the food.
Perched between Cuba and Central America, the Cayman Islands are an autonomous British Overseas Territory. The country consists of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. As its name suggests, Grand Cayman (the setting for my exploration) is the largest of the three, at 196 square kilometres and home to a population of around 50,000 people.
We know when it was caught, so we have the best fish on the island
Thanks to its lovely weather (and well-known tax haven status), the Caymans have become popular with expats from around the world, with over 135 different nationalities represented on the islands. The Brasserie restaurant – whose greenhouse I’m wandering around – is at the forefront of a growing farm- and sea-to-table dining scene that’s further adding to the Caymans’ appeal. Not only has the Brasserie been embracing local cuisine for longer than most (they’ve been open since 1997), but if there’s a way to grow or source any given ingredient on the island, you can pretty much bet they’re doing it.
The Brasserie grows dozens of fruits, vegetables and herbs in their on-site greenhouse. Arugula, carrots, tomatoes, callaloo and herbs like basil, thyme and mint are just some of the produce I spot as manager Corey Blohm walks me through the glass-enclosed space.
And the greenhouse is just the beginning – avocado, mango, guava, starfruit and too many other plants to name are grown elsewhere on the property. The Brasserie also has a chicken coop with around 60 laying hens, plus it cultivates over 50 beehives around the island.
As we round the corner, exiting the greenhouse, I’m introduced to another aspect of the Brasserie’s wide-ranging locavore dining program: Freshly caught wahoo, mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna are laid out in large coolers filled with ice (the ice is swapped out regularly to ensure the fish stays fresh and never needs to be frozen).
The Brasserie’s two fishing boats bring a steady stream of seafood from the waters off Grand Cayman and nearby Cayman Brac. “We know when it was caught, where it was caught and that it was caught and handled correctly,” says Blohm. “So we pretty much have the best fish on the island.”
The seafood, like the produce grown on-site, vary with the seasons and the restaurant switches up its menu daily to reflect what’s freshest. My dinner that night was delicately-seared tuna served on a bed of zucchini noodles, but on another day the menu might feature lobster risotto or grilled wahoo with roasted beet gnocchi.
While the Brasserie takes a grow-your-own approach to the farm-to-table movement, other restaurants on Grand Cayman, like the Kimpton’s Coccoloba, are looking for new ways to work with the produce from local farmers’ markets.
Coccoloba’s beverage manager John Stanton, who moved to Grand Cayman from Chicago, says that learning to adapt his mixology techniques to highlight the island’s locally grown ingredients was a welcome challenge. “I was really excited about working with local fruits and produce,” says Stanton.
Stanton visits the farmers’ markets at least once a week to hunt down potential new cocktail ingredients for Coccoloba’s menu. “Last week we were working with soursop, which is something I’d never even heard of before coming here,” says Stanton.
Coccoloba doesn’t use any bottled ingredients, instead making their syrups, fresh juices and other cocktail components in-house in a bar prep kitchen. In addition to using mainly local ingredients, Stanton says the team also aims to minimize waste – for example, they mash citrus peels left over from making fresh fruit juice, extracting the flavourful oils to create oleo saccharums that can be mixed into cocktails.
Stanton and the team at Coccoloba aren’t the only ones using Grand Cayman’s fresh, local produce to make creative cocktails. The next afternoon sees me in the middle of a more typical Caribbean island scene: sitting on the sun-drenched, oceanfront patio of Cayman Cabana restaurant, sipping a cocktail (albeit a booze-free one). This particular drink features brown sugar, lemonade and locally grown bitter orange.
The restaurant, run by Luigi and Christina Moxam, has been open for six years but shifted focus four years ago to emphasize farm-to-table cuisine. Luigi was born and raised in the Cayman Islands (his wife Christina is from Vancouver) and grew up with an appreciation for the region’s farming community. “We don’t have massive farms; we don’t have massive production, but the fruits and vegetables have always been abundant,” says Luigi Moxam.
As more restaurants begin to focus on locally sourced cuisine, however, it poses obvious challenges for a small island with limited available farming land. “You want to be able to facilitate dinner for 100 [people], but can I get enough carrots for one dish for 100?” says Christina Moxam.
The pair source food from multiple farmers in order to keep up with the demands of their busy restaurant, supplementing these regular farm deliveries with visits to local farmers’ markets – they sometimes turn to friends and family for fresh produce. “It’s hard for one farmer or a couple of farmers to sustain what we need for the whole restaurant,” says Luigi. Almost all the fruits and veggies they serve are picked within 12 to 24 hours of arriving on diners’ plates.
It's hard for one farmer to sustain what we need
Most of Cayman Cabana’s fish comes from a fresh market located next door to the restaurant. Luigi jokes that he often helps the fishermen unload their boats so he can claim the freshest options. He also reaches out to fishermen over Instagram, where some locals will post photos of their recent catches.
Serving the freshest possible food, however, means the Moxams have to be ready to make menu changes on very short notice. A failure to source enough of a particular ingredient, or unexpected access to another often causes their entire menu plan for the day to change. “It’s all part of being a farm-to-table establishment,” says Christina. “You have to be willing to think quickly on your feet and modify your dishes based on availability.”
As the demand for locally sourced cuisine in the Cayman Islands grows, the Moxams say that local farmers are rising to meet the challenge. “Our farmers have grown exponentially in the last five years,” says Christina. “Places that used to be two or three thousand-square foot greenhouses are now five, 10, 30 thousand square feet.”
She says also that more local farmers are beginning to experiment with vertical farming operations – a perfect solution to the problem of growing produce on an island where the amount of land to grow on is finite.
“Earlier this year, our farmer said: ‘is there anything I can plant for you guys this season?’” says Christina. “They’re willing to work with us because we’re substantially influencing their business.”