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A Dining Adventure on the Island of Anguilla

Mal7 I was walking on the island of Anguilla, about half a mile from Johnno’s bar in the hamlet of Sandy Ground, when I was stopped in my tracks by what looked like a whale-sized pile of skulls. I was looking for Ivor Carty, a conch diver, and those "skulls" were actually thousands of discarded conch shells, bleached white by the strong Anguillan sun.

As I picked my way to Carty’s small cement house next to that pile, I stepped over discarded rum bottles, fish heads and engine parts. Memo to self: this is not the Anguilla most tourists see. And there, wrapped in nothing more than a green towel, was Carty, shaving on his front porch. It was five in the afternoon.

"How’s your day going do far" he asked, looking at nothing in particular as he shaved.

Carty is deeply handsome, with skin the color of Honduran mahogany, and he has been diving for conch longer than he cares to remember.

"I can go about 60 feet deep," he told me. "When I don’t have to go so far, its like 40 feet. That’s my boat."

He was pointing to a seriously battered 12- foot wooden rowboat that should have been turned into a planter years ago. Or an altar, since the best local chefs make pilgrimages here to get buy conch.

"Where are your tanks?" I asked.

"I free dive, I don’t scuba dive," he said, a tad indignant. That explained his taut body, one that a 25 year old destined for the cover of Men’s Fitness would be proud of. But Carty’s unruly mane of white hair signaled that he was closer to 70.

Then it was time for the show. He removed a old rag and uncovered a small pile of his prize shells. I’ve seen plenty of conch shells, but these were like seeing Technicolor for the first time. They were of the deepest pinks and cream with hints of gold. They might have been blown glass from Murano, here on a beach littered with fish skeletons and old transmissions.

Indeed, if you wanted a metaphor for Anguilla, this might be it. It’s a thin, scrubby island surrounded by arguably the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, with some of the most rarefied resorts in the world, including Malliouhana, Cap Juluca and Cuisinart. Yet the conundrum of Anguilla is that while nothing edible grows naturally on the island, it has a reputation for some of the best food in the Caribbean.

Anguilla means "eel" in Latin, and that’s a brilliant description of this flat, sun-bleached island’s narrow, wriggly shape. But while the amniotic waters surrounding Anguilla’s sugar-sand beaches contain plenty of triggerfish, crayfish, conch and spiny lobster, there’s nary an eel to be found. As for the land, it’s hot, dry and stark, populated by enterprising herds of feral goats who gnaw everything in sight.

Anguilla4 (Malliouhana) 

I first ate Carty’s hand-picked conch in the rarefied surroundings of Malliouhana, in a dining room perched over the Caribbean with a 25,000 bottle wine cellar below. Brittany-born chef Alain Laurent, trained in the two-Michelin star Michel Rostang restaurant in Paris, served it as carpaccio, wafer-thin and prepared with lime and olive oil.

Anguilla1_2 I had it again at Tasty’s, a local roadhouse, where chef Dale Carty marinated it with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, onion and slivers of fiery pepper on a bed of greens.

(Tasty’s) But Carty, no relation to the diver, chided me into expanding my local gastronomic horizons.

"Curry goat is very local and our big seller," he said, and indeed it had a true West Indian kick. "Our secret is that we use very young goat and serve it with plantains and some rice and cole slaw. Cole slaw is a very Anguillan thing and every house has it on a Sunday."Anguilla2_3

(Chef Dale Carty at Tasty’s)

Cole slaw must have been Anguilla’s homage to salad until Cuisinart Resort came along in 1999. Set on the beach overlooking St. Martin, it’s that rare upscale resort that not only has a cooking school but organic gardens and an 18,000 square foot hydroponic greenhouse garden. In the latter, the ripest tomatoes and the tastiest Thai basil are scientifically supervised by Dr. Howard Resh.  

"You’re going to sweat quite a lot," said this lanky man with a professorial air as he donned a broad brimmed straw hat for a tour. He was correct. It was a soggy stroll among the perfect plants but I was also struck by the fact that two dozen Cuisinart guests had forsaken precious beach time to visit this giant salad bar under glass.

In the organic gardens behind the resort, I ran into the mustached Franklyn Brooks, jaunty in his work shirt and pants and Wellingtons. Like a tropical wizard, he was mixing anti-insect potions for Cuisinart’s ever-expanding organic garden.

‘I call it "natural chase" he said. "It’s my pleasure to walk around and see a pest and I work out my combat for him."

The next day, I went in search of the perfect lazy lunch, piloting my tiny Suzuki Ignis along potholed roads to Hibernia in Island Harbour, a restaurant known for its Southeast Asian-style cuisine. Local fishermen show up at the door of Hibernia with dripping tuna, mahi mahi and wahoo.

Anguilla3_3 (Hibernia)

And Hibernia’s co-owner and chef, Raoul Rodriguez, buys the fish and then lightly cold smokes them with wood chips.

"I had to make friends with local carpenters" he explains, grabbing a fistful of oak chippings. Indeed, smoking and grilling is at the heart of the best local food. And you don’t have to look hard for it.

"B&D’s is a fine thing," whispered Sonny Richardson, a local who has served as maitre’d at Malliouhana for 21 years. "You can chit chat with the locals and eat spareribs and chicken."

And indeed, the grillin’ was good on the front lawn at B&D’s, where ramshackle picnic tables are packed and there’s deep smoke coming from oil drums halved to serve as grills. But it got even better after I headed down a rutted, sandy road to Palm Grove Bar & Grill (264/497-4224), a plywood shack overlooking a deserted beach on Junk’s Hole Bay. Owner-chef Nat Richardson, with a smile as wide as the bay, fed me grilled lobster and johnnycakes. The lobster was heavenly, and Richardson confessed that his secret was "the local charcoal."

One wall is papered with the business cards of visitors, though I did not find the cards of guests like Liam Neeson or Brad Pitt among them. Anguilla is now mentioned in the same breath as St. Bart’s, whose peaks I could see on the horizon over the sea grapes.

"Anguilla’s changing," Richardson confesses. "Now people call from Italy and tell me they want butter fish when they come next Wednesday."

You can see why. The fish is great, the laid back setting everything you could want in the Caribbean.

"It’s just a little shack on the beach," says Richardson, "But I guess fame is the price you pay for a little piece of heaven."

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