Guests who attend the Slow Food Day cooking class lunch at Bon Vivant or the dinner event on the Mizu Patio with Pani Indian Kitchen may find it surprising that some of what they’re eating could have come from deep in Grand Cayman’s interior, often referred to as “the bush.”
That’s because Jack Barwick, the featured guest chef for this year’s Slow Food Day, is a forager extraordinaire.
“I’ve always been into it,” says the 25-year-old Caymanian. “I think foraging and knowing about local plants is ingrained in me.”
Jack says his family has played a big role in developing his knowledge of local plants. His grandmother is Margaret Barwick, a well-known gardener and landscape designer in the Cayman Islands.
“It’s something my mom and dad like, too,” he says of his parents, Babbity and Simon Barwick.
His foraging nature helped Jack earn the title of UK Young Chef of the Year 2017 in a competition presented by M Restaurant and Bookatable by Michelin, in association with Champagne Pommery. Unlike many other culinary competitions that focus on the taste and presentation of prepared dishes, this one also required the chefs to maintain a stringent per-serving cost budget. Jack, who was living in London working for well-known chef-restaurateur Robin Gill at the time, foraged for chickweed and sorrel in the city parks to help keep his food costs down.
Although Jack says he’s always been interested in the plants in the Cayman Islands, it was only after he went away to culinary school and started working as a chef that he became particularly fascinated with the culinary uses of various plants.
“My grandmother sent me five or six books when I was in London and I did a bunch of other research, too,” he says. Although he found a lot of information about how plants in the Cayman Islands could be used for medicinal purposes, there wasn’t a lot written about their culinary uses.
“I was more interested in whether they taste good or not,” he says.
Once he was able to determine whether a particular plant was non-poisonous and safe to eat, he started tasting. One of the surprisingly tasty herbs he found is called wild rosemary in the Cayman Islands and it is usually used for medicinal purposes.
“It tastes like liquorice,” he says. “I roasted a whole goat seasoned with that and it came out great.”
Another plant that is known to have many medicinal benefits and also tastes good is moringa, a tree that produces seeds, leaves and flowers that can all be eaten.
“The flowers make the most amazing tempura,”Jack says, adding that the dense green leaves can be used to make a spinach-like greens dish that he might incorporate into his Slow Food Day dinner course.
Perhaps his favourite local ingredient that he’s found on a foraging expedition is the red chanterelle mushroom, a much sought-after delicacy with local chefs.
“I found two plots of land with them and I won’t tell anyone where they are,” he says. “To me, they’re the most interesting thing that grows here. It actually makes no sense that they grow here because they grow in sandy soil.”
Because the red chanterelles grow only during certain times of the year, Jack says he pickled and preserved many of them to be used later on.
The Indian almond tree is a common plant that produces something edible on Grand Cayman, although its fruits are seldom used here. Jack says the nuts are a lot of work to get to, but that he might use some in the Slow Food Day harvest dinner.
One edible plant part he’s found while foraging in a surprising place — in Camana Bay — is the fruit from the Pereskia, a type of cactus, which he plans on using to make a surprise treat for guests on Slow Food Day.
Jack says the plant in Camana Bay where he found it is very rare in that it produces an extremely large number of fruits while typical specimens produce only a few.
FROM THE FARM
Several of the plants Jack has found while foraging will fit into the general “India meets Cayman” theme for the Slow Food Day dinner. But he’ll also source ingredients from local farmers.
“There are many things that are farmed here that can be used in Indian cuisine,” he says, noting that eggplant and tomatoes both grow very well on Grand Cayman and are used for many Indian dishes.Leaves from curry trees, which were imported to Grand Cayman long ago, are also used in many Indian dishes.
On the animal protein side, goats are often used in Indian cuisine and excellent quality Cayman Islands-raised goat meat is available.
Although the Slow Food Day dinner will contain many readily available, common ingredients, Jack will still go out to see what he can find while foraging in the bush.
“I’m always looking for underutilised ingredients,” he says. “There are loads of things that are untapped here.”