There… that’s the jerk tree,” Samuel told me, gesturing at a small, quite elegant-looking shrub, festooned in spikey white blossoms. We were winding our way along the rutted road from coastal San San to our Rio Grande destination in the interior of Portland, Jamaica. Samuel was my driver for a planned river rafting adventure and, as it turned out, for much of the week I spent in the north-east of this beautiful island.
Passing by, and occasionally stopping at, heady-smelling jerk stands – usually converted oil drum barbecue smokers, protected with thatched roofs – Samuel and I had been talking about the origin of Jamaica’s most famous dish. The country’s national dish might be salt fish and ackee, but there’s little doubt that jerk is its best-known culinary export. Sam had much to say, including tips on where to go for the good stuff.
There is much pride that this part of Jamaica, the parish of Portland, is considered the birthplace of jerk. And it’s in Portland you find the Boston Jerk Centre at Boston Beach, home to the original jerk pits of the 1940s, and now a collection of colourful, open-air stalls offering pork, chicken, goat and fish, all “jerked.” It is, inarguably, the most fragrant block in Jamaica. Possibly in the world.
Now, I knew the word “jerk” was many things. Other than a descriptor of my brother for much of my early life, it’s an adjective used to label how a dish is prepared (“jerk pork” or “jerked chicken”) or as an understanding of a particular blend of spices (jerk seasoning). It’s used as a verb (to “jerk” a piece of meat) and as a method of cooking (“jerking”). But a jerk tree? Samuel, kindly explain. So, we pulled over to get a better look at the star of jerk: its wood.
Other than the generally approved jerk flavourings—Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice (pimento) berries, cinnamon bark, fresh thyme, scallions, and ginger—the woodsmoke used in jerking is critical. And it’s this tree, the native pimento tree (also known as the allspice tree, Jamaican pepper tree, or the jerk tree to Samuel) that gives jerk its inimitable fragrance.
Pimento has been used for cooking in Jamaica for centuries and nowhere, in the tropical world, is it grown more successfully in terms of quantity, quality and commercial value than in Jamaica. Historically, the indigenous population of the island used pimento for curing and flavouring the wild pigs that roamed the Blue Mountains. When the Maroons (formerly enslaved Africans by the 17th century Spanish conquerors) escaped to the hills and mingled with the island’s original inhabitants, they learned the technique, Samuel explained, of preserving, perfuming and roasting tough cuts in underground pits. Originally the meat was cured with salt and bird pepper, but slowly, the method evolved to using Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, pimento leaves and wood. The method of slow-cooking in a covered pit, without telltale plumes of smoke, was essential in evading re-capture. And so the tradition of jerk was born, a relic of slavery, and now a culinary treasure.
My jerk education was bolstered at Belinda’s Riverside Restaurant, a charming pit-stop on the Rio Grande, with some of the finest jerk pork ever tasted (along with curried goat and other treats). But it ended, after a futile search at the Norman Manley International Airport en route home, with disappointment. Pimento wood is banned from export. Only a few carefully controlled companies are allowed to import the wood in North America. And those seem to be only in the US. But with Samuel’s “It isn’t jerk, without the jerk tree,” ringing in my ears, I did a bit of research and learned I could use fruit tree chips (I’m thinking apple) and a smoke tin filled with allspice berries as next-best-thing. I secured a recipe from the “Jerk Chef” at Geejam Hotel in San San, Port Antonio, for his famous jerk marinade and, as soon as the snow is off my smoker, I’ll be off to buy a bird.