In the lush forests that cover much of Grenada, there is a particular tree that stands out. It’s tall, with sprawling branches – more akin in look to an English oak than the ubiquitous coconut palms that span the length and breadth of this tiny Caribbean island, but it’s not its appearance that differentiates it from the other trees.
Its bountiful leaves conceal a hidden treasure. Look closer, and you’ll see fleshy pods clinging to its branches. Open one up and, caged within a protective layer of webbing, you’ll find a nutmeg. Crack open the shell – known to you and me as mace when it’s dried and ground – and there it is: a humble seed, about as big as a 10p coin, whose cultural significance is far greater than its size suggests.
Because this is Grenada, a nation that loves its chief export so much that a nutmeg adorns its blue and yellow flag. Perhaps most strangely of all, it’s not actually indigenous – it was brought here from Indonesia in the 1840s – but this Caribbean nation now produces between 20-40% (depending who you believe) of all the nutmeg in the world.
It’s a statistic put into perspective when you travel around the island, purely because this is, even by the Caribbean’s standards, a tiny nation. Home to just under 110,000 people across its 345sq km, the island is easily traversed pretty much in its entirety in a couple of days. And that’s what I’m trying to do: I’m venturing out from the beautiful Sandals Grenada Resort and Spa (the country’s second-largest employer, just after the university) on a day trip to find out what makes this country tick beyond its pristine beaches and luxury resorts.
We start the day driving towards the capital, St George’s, down Maurice Bishop highway, the longest road on the island, drenched in sun even in October. Passing through a tunnel cut out of the mountains, flat roads turn to the sharp inclines and crowded streets of a harbour town built on a series of impossibly steep hills. As well as the aforementioned nutmeg and mace, there’s plenty to be had at the stalls in the town’s main market. Reggae tunes float lazily through the air, and stalls – like Margarets, where we leave with a shopping bag full of spices for less than $20 – groan with cinnamon and cloves, pimento and ready-made jerk spice mix, as well as brightly coloured fabrics and chocolate.
After this, we drive up to the top of the town, and once we’re there, the vista is spectacular: terracotta roofs of St George’s hint at a French colonial past, and the town sweeps down the hill to meet the sparkling blue waters off the harbour. After leaving St George’s, the scenes turn more typically Caribbean: we swap between roads tucked right up to the shores of the island and greener roads higher into the mountains. The country is, largely, incredibly lush and verdant, and banana trees are ubiquitous outside porches in mountain townships. At Charlie’s Bar, a tiny roadside venue a few miles from the capital, old tyres are stacked up against the other side of the road and painted in that vibrant Caribbean triumvirate of red, yellow and green, with messages and historical timelines. Elsewhere, murals of recent prime ministers including Maurice Bishop hint at past wounds that are still being felt.
Because Grenada is a nation scarred by history. Like many of the Caribbean nations, it has been occupied by many different rulers, including the French and the British, and there’s bloodshed in its recent timeline, too: in 1983, deputy prime minister Bernard Coard attempted a coup on the hugely popular Bishop. After a tussle for power, Bishop was executed by firing squad, and the country mourned a prime minister who had ushered in momentous advances in infrastructure, including what would become its international airport.
The response of the US to this development was to forcefully occupy the country for two months, a move condemned by many UN states. Two decades later, after a period of relative political peace, emotional wounds would become physical ones: in 2004, after half a century hurricane-free, the island was hit by the catastrophic Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed a staggering 90% of its homes and almost all of its infrastructure.
It’s for this reason that the disposition of almost every Grenadian I meet – from a taxi driver who grins as he tells me he was “born, bred and buttered” here, to Margaret at St George’s market, countless staff at Sandals, people on the street, my tour guide and more – is so surprising. But this is a country that runs on exotic spices, by soca and reggae, tropical weather, fresh seafood, good rum and chocolate, so perhaps it shouldn’t be.
reggae tunes float lazily through the air and stalls heave with cinnamon, cloves, jerk spice mix and chocolate
I find the latter at the lush Diamond Chocolate Factory site, a couple of miles from the sleepy fishing village of Gouyave, home to chocolate manufacturer Jouvay. As is probably natural for a nation too small for large-scale industrial manufacturing, the chocolate scene in Grenada is artisanal – factories are small, traditional-looking and run by people – and flavour is king. After meeting a guide among its lush nutmeg groves, we head into the small factory to see fresh cacao being fermented, dried and processed by hand, and try some of Jouvay’s chocolate in the tasting room after. It’s just as craft chocolate should be – bittersweet, with notes of dark berries and a fresh, lively aroma.
Down the road in Gouyave is one of the island’s processing stations for nutmeg. It’s a sight to behold – still largely hand-processed, without the need for too much industrialisation, and breathtaking in its speed and efficiency. A team of women sit at tables shelling the fruits and separating them from the seeds, before putting them in rough hessian sacks which are then marked according to where they’re going. No part of the nutmeg is wasted: the webbing becomes mace, the fleshy pod is cooked and used in syrups – some of which are available in the factory’s shop – and the shells are dried, crushed and used to line paths like those that weave among the cacao groves at Jouvay.
With the edible parts of the tour done and dusted, the final stop is the Rumboat Retreat, another few miles away. As the name suggests, I’m here to taste rum – although the retreat also functions as a boutique B&B. Its owner, Lisette Davies, a second-generation Grenadian who was born and raised in Notting Hill, moved to Grenada a few years ago after years spent working in the drinks industry, and her knowledge of rums from Grenada and the rest of the Caribbean is second to none.
The retreat is beautiful – lemon-yellow walls and red roofs give way to breezy kitchens and bedrooms, and the view over a section of forest and out to the ocean. After a three-course lunch cooked by Davies it’s on to the tasting, and today she’s aiming to give me a complete picture of Grenada’s rum scene. We start with the overproof (an eye-watering 75% ABV) Rivers Rum, a little like a rhum agricole, distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses – jagged and sharp, but with some fruity flavour notes to it, too. Distiller Clark’s Court is featured twice, in its Original, an unaged rum made from molasses, and its Old Grog, an aged variant that’s golden brown in appearance, with big notes of banana and caramel. Westerhall No 10 is another aged rum that brings with it hints of ginger snap biscuits and a touch of coconut, while the 2004 vintage from the excellent – and very well-thought-of – expert blender Plantation is full-to-bursting with the flavours of juicy stone fruits and toffee.
It’s a great tasting, partly because it shows such a diverse range of styles, from the rough-and-ready – the type drunk quickly and without too much thought in beachside bars in towns like Gouyave by locals – to the kind that hoover up titles in world spirits competitions, and lots in between. And it’s also a great reminder that, while spices, chocolate and rum might be made, bought and sold across the Caribbean islands, homogenising them would be a huge mistake. There’s kinship in the Caribbean, of course – a shared love of music; commonalities in its food and drink, carnivals and soca; red, yellow and green – but each is as distinct in its way as European or South American countries are to each other.
In its beautiful holiday resorts, Grenada is about piña coladas on pristine beaches; boat trips along Grand Anse beach; jerk spices and fresh seafood. But at its heart, more than anything, Grenada seems to me to be about making the most of what it’s been blessed with; about being “born, bred and buttered” here; about patriotism created through past political trauma; of rebirth coming after destruction; about a natural larder that gives way to a few products that distil that essence into the edible and drinkable. And while the islands of St Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua and further out to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica remain beautiful, vibrant destinations in their own right, Grenada’s beating heart is a tiny seed so important it’s on the flag, and one that’s all of its own.