Nigel Spence: A Culinary Adventure in Jamaica’s Port Antonio

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Above: Port Antonio

By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

FROM MY EXPERIENCE, I have found that the best way to introduce squeamish people to new foods is to include lots of familiar ingredients along with the unfamiliar.
This became particularly apparent when I recently visited Port Antonio, Jamaica, a small town on the north coast that has the most rainfall on the island. I am all for new adventures and experiences, so I foolishly agreed to accompany some so-called friends on a journey into the hills to capture and, ultimately, cook a wild boar. What man (especially a Jamaican) in their right mind, would ever refuse a dare — well, in this case, an offer to hunt a wild animal?

Our guide, a maroon, a direct descendant of the original runaway slaves, was quite adept at hunting boar and living in the bush and was very much in his element. I, a “town bwoy,” wasn’t having a good time slipping and sliding along the mountainside, almost falling off the side of the cliff, battered, bruised, panting and sweating like the wild boar itself.

After quite a few grueling hours, I had had enough and was ready to head back to civilization and ponder the day’s futile hunt over a cold cocktail in an air-conditioned saloon. At just about the point where I was losing my sanity, we came upon a majestic river complete with cascading waterfall.

I was so hot, tired and covered with sweat, I immediately jumped in! I was greeted with the coldest water I have ever felt in my life, and screamed in a most unmanly fashion upon impact. What bliss, though! Within seconds, I screamed again because I started feeling little uncomfortable pricks at my toes and legs. Something was eating my toes, I exclaimed while high tailing it out of the water.

The guide told me that I had just met “River Janga” or river shrimp to the rest of us. Since not too many people make their way through these rivers, they get really excited and attack anything that gets into their waters.

As I cupped my hand and made a pass thorough the water, I picked up a few large Jangas, super fresh and jumping excitedly. Upon closer inspection of the river banks, I also noticed a little snail-like creature hanging on the side of the rocks.

That was Bussu, the guide explained. As I expected, they were of the snail family and are found in abundance in the rivers of the area. Naturally, my next question was if they were edible. He went on to explain their culinary importance in the area. They are most commonly used to make soup, and occasionally a curry stew. The same goes for the river janga.

Needless to say, my mind started working on the many different ways I could use them in the kitchen. Since that experience, I researched and realized that they are not well known outside of Port Antonio and so not much has been written about them as far as their culinary uses.

I have yet to find a recipe for them in a Caribbean cookbook. I also realized that Jamaicans in general are not big fans of eating snail-like creatures that grow on river banks. Though the flavor may be briny and pleasing, it was next to impossible to convince someone to try it because they simply looked like snails. I had to find a way to dress them up a bit.

I remembered my first time trying oysters, specifically Oyster Rockefeller. This is an oyster on a half shell that is smothered in spinach, cream, a bit of parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. I also remember how unpleasant and slimy the oyster looked after just being shucked and was not willing to try them until I saw the fully prepared dish with all the other ingredients that were high on my love list melted over and covering the slimy oyster underneath.

So since I now love oysters in all forms, even raw, I am applying the same strategy to the bussu, to make it more approachable. It’s a bit poetic, too, actually, as the original protein meant for the Oysters Rockefeller recipe that was invented in the late 1800’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, was actually snails, but due to a shortage, the chef decided to substitute with oysters and the recipe was born.

So my trip to capture a wild boar ended up with me capturing only a recipe for river snails.

May I present to you – Bussu Rockefeller. Close your eyes and try it … you won’t be sorry … I promise.

BUSSU ROCKEFELLER:

1 pound Bussu Meat (removed from the shell)
8T Butter
2 T Parsley
2 T Cilantro
2 Tablespoons Garlic, chopped fine
1/2 Cup Medium Diced Tomatoes
1/4 Cup small diced Spanish onions
1/2 Cup Red Stripe Beer
2 Tablespoons Coconut oil
2 cups Callaloo leaves, fresh cut leaves only, no stems
3/4 Cup Coconut milk
Pinch of Nutmeg
1/4 cup Bread crumbs
1/3 Cup Parmesan cheese, grated fine
Salt & Pepper to taste

Melt 1/2 of the butter in a saucepan. Add garlic and onions, cook until softened – about 2 minutes – then add tomatoes and bussu and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Turn the heat on high and add beer to deglaze pan. Cook over high heat till the beer evaporates and stew begins to bubble, about 3 minutes.
Remove from heat. Add cilantro and 1 Tablespoon of the parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste and mix well to incorporate. Reserve.

In another sauce pan over medium heat, add coconut oil and callaloo, sauté over medium heat for 10 minutes until leaves are softened. Add coconut milk and nutmeg and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat until mixture thickens. Reserve.
Mix together the parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.

In very small ramekins, add 2 tablespoons of the bussu stew to each ramekin, then 2 tablespoons of the callaloo mixture, then top with a light coating of the breadcrumb and parmesan mixture, approximately 1 tablespoon per ramekin. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and spoon about a tablespoon of butter over each ramekin. Top with chopped parsley. Put all the filled ramekins on a baking sheet, then put in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned and mixture is heated through. Serve piping hot!

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.