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Food & Travel

From one pot, a melange of St. Lucian flavors

Irene Alphonse forms round-bottomed canawí. Irene Alphonse forms round-bottomed canawí. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2010

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ST. LUCIA, West Indies — Irene Alphonse raises her pickaxe, cutting chunks of brown clay from the hill beside her Choiseul home. In the shade of a lean-to studio, she beats and hand-forms the clay into round-bottomed canawí — the Creole word for cooking pots — and flaring coal pots, which are the vessels of St. Lucia’s one-pot cuisine.

In a swamp near Vieux Fort, Mary Magdaline Nelson chops wood to make fuel. “Red mangrove makes the strongest, longest-burning charcoal,’’ says the 69-year old, who is raising 10 children on her own, and who learned charcoal-making from her mother. Nelson’s precisely angled cuts allow the plants to regenerate. She’s been sustainably reusing this mangrove forest for 52 years.

Although St. Lucians enjoy modern conveniences as we do, charcoal-fired coal pots are as ubiquitous in their homes as barbecue grills are in ours. So are one-pot meals, handed down from generations of West Africans, Caribs, and Amerindians.

Resort chefs like Anse Chastanet’s Jon Bentham romance the island’s locally grown ingredients for global tastes. This is “tropical world cuisine,’’ as Bentham calls it, but one-pots are humbler stuff. Bouyon, a Creole word from the French bouillon, is a local staple. The melange of meat, vegetables, and hard dumplings harkens to Africa and the French colonial past. Ask your taxi driver how his family prepares it, and a long conversation is likely to ensue.

Chef Charles Perpie sometimes serves it at Almond Morgan Bay Resort. “The vendors at Castries Market always have bouyon because it’s so popular,’’ he says. So do roadside stands around the island. Bentham and The Landings St. Lucia chef Pat Pascale offer pepperpot on their resorts’ casual dining menus: a cinnamon-laced stew of meats thickened with juice from the cassava root. This one-pot has been in circulation since Amerindian women kept food on the fire to feed their communities, adding fresh ingredients to the simmering mixture every day.

To experience St. Lucian foodways at their most unvarnished, head to the rural villages south of Soufriere. Here’s where residents live closer to the elements, their coal pots tucked handily near the front door for an extra stove burner or a farm worker’s lunch in the field. The south is also where women potters, like the Carib-African Alphonse, are concentrated. Uta Lawaetz and daughters Verena and Anitanja offer bed and breakfast lodgings near Choiseul in artful cottages scattered over the grounds of Balenbouche Estate, a former sugar plantation. The Lawaetzes support the potters and other artisans of their community in countless ways, offering tours and introductions for interested guests.

Near the southern village of Laborie, Barbara Burke, who goes by her St. Lucian nickname Debbie, has grown her restaurant Debbie’s Place from two chairs and a table under a tree, to an open-air pavilion decorated with wheelbarrows of fresh “ground provisions’’— yams, pumpkins, potatoes, dasheen and other root vegetables. Locals from around the island fast on Saturday in order to enjoy the all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet consisting of some 24 home-style entrees and sides prepared by the England-trained but proudly Creole chef. On weekdays Burke shows off her way with fresh fish. Laborie is a working fishing village where a conch shell’s blast announces the catch. If you request ahead, she may fire up the coal pot and make bouyon; in her version, it’s a thick pumpkin-tinged broth succulent with spinach and lamb.

Dale Harris strides across Laborie’s vanilla sand beach with the makings of bouyon in a clay pot balanced on his head. Like Burke, who used to earn a living as a hotel singer, Harris, a career resort chef, has his heart in the south as he commutes two hours each way to work in Castries, the capital. His new venture, Dale’s Restaurant, Bar and Night Quarters, is scheduled to open soon in a lime-green aerie steps from the beach.

“When St. Lucians get the bouyon, it’s never enough,’’ says Harris, starting his preparation in the shade of a sea almond tree. He deftly peels and chops root vegetables, pausing to emphasize the trick of skinning a green banana by first slathering one’s hands with oil to repel the sticky sap.

As the water boils and heat concentrates, steam rises and swirls around the coal-and-cookpot ensemble. The sea twinkles. Wavelets slap the sand. With lentils, pig’s tails, and plantains, the meal bubbles along.

Almond Morgan Bay Resort, Choc Bay, Gros Islet, 758-450-2511, www.almondresorts.com

Anse Chastanet Resort, Soufriere, 758-459-7000 or 758-459-6100, www.ansechastanet .com

The Landings, Rodney Bay, 877-657-7625. landings.rockresorts.com

Debbie’s Place, Sapphire Estate, 758-455-1625

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.