Origins: Eleuthera, The Bahamas - #105

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The Bahamas are a group of 2,700 coral islands. Most of them are small and uninhabited -- little strips of land scattered in a chain that starts off the coast of Florida, and runs down to the tip of Haiti.

The capital city of the Bahamas is Nassau. It’s an important port for Caribbean cruise ships, a center for duty-free shopping and a popular vacation spot.  Most of the tourists coming to the Bahamas end up in Nassau.

But there’s another side to these islands, a side which is quieter, softer and gentler.  A side that will allow you to leave the commercial world behind and just relax. A side that is found on what are known as “the family islands.”

The first European to arrive on a family island in the Bahamas was Christopher Columbus. He looked around, didn’t see any gold and moved on.  And that was pretty much the story for everyone else who came by.  “No gold? No silver? No treasures?  Hey!  Let’s go!”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first settlers to show up in the Bahamas with the intention of setting up a permanent colony were a group of Puritans who came down here from Bermuda in 1649.  They were looking for a place where they would be free to practice their religion -- the same situation that sent a different group of Puritans out of England to establish a colony in Massachusetts.  The group that came here were under the leadership of Captain William Sayle.  They were known as the Eleutheran Adventurers.  Eleuthera is the Greek word for freedom.

Their ship was wrecked on the reef out there, but they were lucky enough to be able to make their way to this shore. Their search for shelter led them to a cave just off the beach. They had lost most of their supplies when the ship went down, and were forced to live, as best they could, off the land and the sea. This cave was their only shelter. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Captain Sayle built himself a small sailboat, and with eight of his men headed off to get help from the British colony in Jamestown, Virginia.  And, amazingly, he pulled it off.  He returned with enough supplies to last the Eleutherans for two years, at which time they needed help again.  Not wanting to tap the same source too often, his second request was made to the British colony in Massachusetts.  They responded by sending a shipload of supplies and the Eleutherans thanked them by sending back a shipload of hardwood and a request that some of the proceeds from the sale of the hardwood be used to support the development of Harvard University.

The Eleutheran Adventurers used this cave not only as a place of shelter but as a place of worship. They carved this rock into a form that could be used as a pulpit and conducted their services. With its cathedral shape and light shining down from the holes in the top of the cave, it’s easy to see why they thought themselves blessed. Today it’s called Preacher’s Cave.  

As the early settlers began to spread out, they took up residence on an island called Spanish Wells.  Spanish Wells is just off the northern tip of Eleuthera and it got its name because it was the spot where Spanish ships would stop to take on fresh water just before they made a quick right turn and headed back to Seville with the treasures that they had stolen from the local natives. Almost all of the people who live on Spanish Wells are descendants of the original Eleutherian Adventurers and most of them still speak with a distinct British accent.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Spanish Wells has the distinction of being the wealthiest community in the Bahamas, and they owe it all to changing fashions in food.  For about three hundred years, they tried to earn a living by bringing in the local lobsters.  But for 250 of those years, nobody really cared.  Lobster was considered to be junk seafood.  As a matter of fact, farmers along the Atlantic coast of North America would use lobsters as fertilizer on their farms.  Then, in the early decades of this century, everything changed.  Lobster became the seafood to eat.  Supplies went down, prices went up, and the guys on Spanish Wells got rich.  And if people continue to pay big prices for big lobsters, people on Spanish Wells will remain in ship shape.

And speaking of shapes, Eleuthera has a rather unusual one.  It is 110 miles long and for most of that length it is only about a mile wide. At its widest point it only thickens out to about five miles.  Its thinnest point is about five yards, which is a spot known as the Glass Window.  On one side you have the Atlantic Ocean and on the other the Caribbean Sea. You can stand on this small bridge of land and see the difference between these two bodies of water.  The Atlantic: aggressive, uninviting, often covered with waves and whitecaps. On the other side, the Caribbean: smooth, gentle, inviting you to pull up a beach chair and relax.

Beaches are Eluthera’s big attraction, miles and miles of them, one stretch more beautiful than the next and always uncrowded.

Most tourists to Eleuthera pass their days on Harbour Island.  It’s just off the coast of the mainland of Eleuthera and you get there by water taxi.  The center of Harbour Island is Dunmore Town.  It was named after Lord Dunmore, who was the Governor of the Bahamas during the late 1700s.  Dunmore Town was once a center for shipbuilding, sugar processing, and the production of rum.  The rum business was particularly successful during the period when the United States was under the influence of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution -- the one that outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.  The law did not extend itself to Eleuthera but Eleuthera did extend its rum distribution to the United States, proving once again that a friend in need is a friend in deed.

I passed a day on Harbour Island walking through the streets, looking at the architecture, talking to the people, and enjoying the food.

FISHERMAN:  Bahamian conch... that’s for conch salad, cracked conch, conch chowder... a delight!  That’s the conch!

One of the more unusual sights in Dunmore Town is called the Aura Corner.  It’s sort of like a giant collage of... well, it’s like a collection of thoughts that... actually, it’s whatever Ralph Sawyer wants it to be.  Sawyer is the curator of Aura Corner.  Uncle Ralph, as he’s called, collects slogans, sayings, words of wisdom, whatever.  He gets them from the visitors who stop by.  Then he paints them on wooden slats and hangs them up in front of his house.  And anyone can leave a memento of their own -- hey, Jimmy Buffett did.  My favorite is Uncle Ralph’s Recipe For A Happy Marriage:  3 cups of love... one cup of forgiveness... one barrel of laughter -- a recipe!  How appropriate.

I began my gastronomic day with a traditional Bahamian breakfast at Angela’s Starfish Restaurant -- pineapple juice, yellowtail fish on grits, and johnnycakes.  Angela Johnson, who runs the place, is also an expert on the science -- and the art -- of using everyday plants as medicines.

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Well, bush medicine began from before my time.  My grandmother, she used to take care of people that were sick.  And she used to boil up medicine and give them medicine to drink.

BURT WOLF:  So you’re making a tea, really.

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Yeah!  I put a little salt in it, like you get the lime, or the sour orange -- a big sour orange -- and you squeeze it in there and you drink that down.  That wakens up that flame...

BURT WOLF:  What are some of the herbs that you use?

ANGELA JOHNSON:  We got the bay leaf, you know the bay leaf is good, too.

BURT WOLF:  What’s that for?

ANGELA JOHNSON:  If you got diarrhea, you can boil that and make a tea, too.  Yeah, here... smell it... It smells real good.  You see?  Mash it... You cook with it...

BURT WOLF:  Mmmm...It smells good!

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Yeah!  It’s good!  And then you got the sweet basil, which you can make tea also, good for the stomach.  And they’re also good to cook with, you know that.


ANGELA JOHNSON:  They grow, I guess, all over America.

BURT WOLF:  Ah, so what does sweet basil do for you as a medicine?

ANGELA JOHNSON:  It’s good... It cleans the stomach.  Yeah, it’s good, mash it!  If you got fish on you -- you been fishin’?

BURT WOLF:  Yeah...

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Wash your hands and the scent not leavin’?  You rub that in your hands, it take away the scent.  But sometimes the fishy scent doesn’t leave for a while, you know?  And you just take that and rub it in the hand there and wash the hand again.

BURT WOLF:  They smell sweet!

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Yeah!  You smell like a loverboy.

BURT WOLF:  Plus, a lot cheaper than Calvin Klein, let me tell you.

ANGELA JOHNSON:  Yeah!  That’s right, it’s good stuff.

If you take a mid-morning coffee break, the place to do it is Arthur’s Bakery.

ROBERT ARTHUR:  Basically, we do about thirty different items every morning.  Our mainstay is bread.  We start with a base of the Bahamian white bread -- we do a lot of Bahamian white bread -- and then we do interesting things with it.  We do a cinnamon raisin bread, we add jalapeño and cheese to it, we do a jalapeño-cheese bread, herbal bread, coconut bread, and that’s the basis of our breads.  We do a nice baguette, and then we get into the pastries.  We do danishes, donuts, cookies, cakes, pies -- we do an excellent key lime pie.  We began in our house.  My wife enjoyed making cheesecakes.  She was an accountant and she was bored, so she started baking cheesecakes. Other people on the island had heard about these wonderful cheesecakes and they started ordering cheesecakes from her.  The people at the Pink Sands Hotel, they heard about it, and they asked if she would come work for them as a baker.  And she said, “No, I don’t want to work for anyone, I’d sell you my goods, though.”  And we started baking out of our little house for the Pink Sands Hotel and other customers, and that’s how Arthur’s Bakery got started.

Well, if Pink Sands is good enough for Arthur’s Bakery, it is certainly good enough for our lunch.  It has a three-mile private stretch of pink beach; it’s pink because of the coral deposits that have broken down and washed ashore.  The resort also has some of the best and most imaginative food in the Bahamas.  The specialties include Tandoori Chicken Spring Rolls with a tamarind and guava dip... Marinated Black Tiger Shrimp on mixed greens with caramelized tropical fruit... and a warm tuna salad.  Chef Stuart Betteridge explains the preparation.

STUART BETTERIDGE:  Okay, we start off with some locally grown cucumber, which is sliced, we arrange this on the plate.  We then use some of the Eleutheran tomatoes that a farmer locally grows for me.  We then have some warm wedge potatoes that have been marinated in garlic and thyme that have been roasted through the oven.  We also add some eggs; this is a sort of a play on the classic Niçoise Salad that we’ve just broken down with the same ingredients, only actually we’ve made it our way.  The plate looks like that -- then we take some home-grown red lettuce that we grow in our garden here at Pink Sands... this just finishes off the dish.  And then we get the tuna; it is a yellowfin tuna that’s caught locally, and we have that cooked medium-rare.  Thank you, Terence.  That goes on the center of the plate, giving it a very nice decoration.  This is kept medium-rare to keep all of the moisture inside of the fish.  We then finish it off with a balsamic and caper vinaigrette.  Thank you, sir.  We put the vinaigrette and the capers over the top of the tuna, this gives it a nice flavor and also keeps in the juices.  Then pouring it around the plate, and over the top of the salad and all of the ingredients.  And the final touch we use is crispy yams that we get locally grown and this adds a little bit of sweetness to take away from the sour of the vinegar.  And then some nice fresh lime wedges just to squeeze onto the fish.  And that is the warm fish salad.

The Landing was built in 1800 by a wealthy fruitgrower and remained a private home until 1992, when it became an eight-room hotel and a restaurant.  We settled in for supper and started with conch salad... followed by lobster with a Catalan sauce, which is made with olives, capers, tomatoes and celery... tuna with shrimp, served on a bed of rice... lobster with homemade fettucini... and for dessert, poached pears, crepes suzette, and strawberry cheesecake.  (There were six of us and we split everything.  I don’t want you to think that was just for me.)

The water taxi from Eleuthera crosses the harbor in four minutes and ends up at the dock of the Romora Bay Club.  There are thirty-eight small houses on the property, lots of local vegetation, a few tennis players, and a very laid-back main lounge.  As a matter of fact, the whole place is laid-back and quiet.  Rosie and Goldie are the two noisiest guests, and fortunately they have a very limited vocabulary.

ROSIE:  Hello!

Everyone I saw at Romora Bay was taking it easy, with the exception of the guests that were taking to the sea.  Romora Bay has an exceptional watersports program, under the direction of Jeff Fox and his diving dog!

BURT WOLF:   So that’s the famous diving dog, huh?

JEFF FOX:  This is the famous diving dog.

BURT WOLF:  How did he learn to dive?

JEFF FOX:  Well, we do a introductory SCUBA program here that teaches people to dive in shallow water.  And during the shallow water diving section, he would swim out and circle the divers as they were down below.  Eventually, one day we were teaching, and he swam by!

BURT WOLF:  Just dove down?

JEFF FOX:  Dove down, swam by, went on up -- which obviously caught everybody’s attention.  And we’ve progressed from that point using weights or swimming masks -- anything that we could -- to get him to retrieve.  He would swim out, circle, and eventually go down to get it.

BURT WOLF:  That’s amazing!

JEFF FOX:  And we’d move it deeper, and deeper, until he finally got down to close to twenty feet.

BURT WOLF:  So at some point he actually had to grasp the idea of holding his breath...

JEFF FOX:  Oh yeah!

BURT WOLF:  ...and not trying to breath underwater.

JEFF FOX:  That’s the amazing thing; he coordinates a running, jumping entry, times his breath hold, fights his way down against the buoyancy of the saltwater, and picks up, sometimes, a four-pound lead weight.  So, we tell everyone, if they can do that, they’re certified.

BURT WOLF:  So let’s see him dive!

JEFF FOX:  Sure!  Bri, you up for a little diving today?  All right!

BURT WOLF:  He certainly is up!

JEFF FOX:  Oh yeah!  Come on, Bri, you ready?  All set for this?

BRI:  Woof!

JEFF FOX:  Okay... Look at the object...See that mask, Bri?  You see that?  Wait for it to go all the way down.... Go!  Good man, Bri!  Excellent!  Good man!  All right, Bri, go on to the shore, now.  Okay, there you have it, guys.

For many years Eleuthera was a major center for pineapple production. It has a number of large pineapple plantations and because the pineapples are allowed to ripen slowly without chemical assistance they’re extremely sweet.

FRANCES THOMPSON:  There are two different kind of pineapples, so the pineapples that you get in the Bahamas are not the pineapples you would get in the United States.

BURT WOLF:  Ahh...

FRANCES THOMPSON:  So there is a difference.  In the United States, they’re from Hawaii and they’re very chewy; they have less juice.  But the ones you get from the Bahamas, they are very meaty, and they have a lot of juice, and they are very sweet.  They don’t grow as big as the ones that you get in Hawaii.

BURT WOLF:  But they taste better.

FRANCES THOMPSON:  One hundred percent better.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Every June, Eleuthera has a pineapple festival during which they celebrate the history, folklore, and culture of the pineapple.  There is an Olympic-like Pine-a-thon in which they do a little running, and a little swimming, and a little bicycle riding.  There are pineapple growing contests, and pineapple cooking contests, and the dreaded whole pineapple bobbing contest.

Pineapples have been cultivated in the Caribbean for thousands of years. Scientists have reached that conclusion because the Caribbean pineapple no longer produces seeds, and that is a sign that the fruit has been farmed by man for so long that it no longer feels responsible for its own reproduction.  Talk about getting lazy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Caribe Indians would hang a pineapple in front of their hut as a sign that they were home and visitors would be welcome.  But they would also plant a row of pineapples at the edge of their village so that the sharp edges on the pineapple leaves would keep intruders away.  Another sign with a mixed message.

Pineapples are high in vitamin C,  which made them perfect fruit for sailors who wanted to take something along to prevent scurvy. They also discovered that the tops of the pineapple could be planted in the sandy soil of tropical islands, and when they would sail back months later there would be a fresh crop. Even then they knew how important it was to plan for dessert.

BURT WOLF:   Do you ever get tired of eating Eleutheran pineapples?

FRANCES THOMPSON:  Well, to tell you the truth, me myself, I can only eat the core of the pineapple.  I don’t eat the meat of the pineapple, just the core.

BURT WOLF:  How come?

FRANCES THOMPSON:  Because I’m just sick and tired of them.

The job now is to have the chef at the Romora Bay Club come up with a few recipes that use the local seafood and the local pineapples.  Ludovic Jarland, who is from France, is the chef at the Romora Bay Club and today he is going to prepare a freshly-caught grouper.  It’s presented in a tomato-based sauce with scales of zucchini.

He starts by taking two zucchinis that have been carefully washed and sliced into rounds that are about an eighth of an inch thick. You should end up with about two cups’ worth, which are transferred into a pan of boiling water for two minutes. At which point they are drained from the pan, run under cold water to stop the cooking, and set aside.

Now Ludovic starts the sauce. An onion is diced. Two tablespoons of vegetable oil are heated in a saucepan. The diced onion is added and cooked for three minutes. Four cups of canned tomatoes and their juices are added to the onions.  A little salt and a little pepper go in, plus some fresh thyme and ten leaves of fresh basil. All those ingredients cook together for about ten minutes.

While the sauce is cooking the fish is prepared. A boneless, skinless fillet of grouper is salted and peppered and placed into a non-stick sauté pan. The zucchini slices are placed onto the fish, forming an overlapping pattern that looks a lot like the scales of a fish. A little more salt and pepper are added and a half cup of dry white wine. Wine is optional; you could do this with chicken stock or fish stock or plain water.  The pan goes onto the range top and gets heated until the wine starts to boil. Then a cover of aluminum foil is carefully formed over the pan and the pan is placed into a 300 degree Fahrenheit oven for ten minutes.

While the fish is cooking, the sauce goes into a blender and is processed into a smooth puree.   A serving plate is given a light coating of the sauce. The fish is taken out of the oven and carefully transferred onto the sauce. The dish is ready to serve.

The chef’s second recipe is for a pineapple upside-down tart.  It starts off with a few pineapples being peeled, cut in half, cored and sliced into pieces that are about a half-inch thick. Then three ounces of sweet butter go into a hot sauté pan. As soon as the butter is melted, a cup of sugar is added and the mixture cooks for about three minutes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At first the mixture looks very dry, but the heat causes the water inside the sugar to come out, and everything gets liquid again.  Then, the heat and the water combine to turn the sugar brown.  That’s caramelization.

When the sugar has caramelized the pineapple slices are layered into the pan and allowed to cook for ten minutes.

While the pineapples are cooking, a standard pie dough is rolled out to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch. The pan of pineapple is taken off the heat. The disc of dough is placed on top, trimmed to the edges of the pan and tucked in around the pineapples. Then the pan goes into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour.  When it comes out, a serving dish is placed on top and the tart is flipped over and out. The pineapples end up on the top and the tart is ready to serve.

Well, that’s a brief look at Eleuthera in the Bahamas; please join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.