As I enter the media welcome party, with dozens of international journalists, I’m given a tropical-looking layered cocktail. “What’s this drink made of?” I ask. “Love,” says the mixologist with a flirty smirk. I know that smirk isn’t just for me — it’s a cultural Bajan thing — but still, I don’t ignore it. He continues, “It’s also made with a combination of passionfruit, spices and the best Barbados liquid gold, a.k.a. Mount Gay Rum.” It’s a delicious rum-based sangria that I go back for several times that evening.
Right then and there, I decide that over the next few days, I will drink all of the syrupy cocktails, I will not make the healthiest choices and I will not be shocked that my jeans don’t fit when I return home.
I’m here in Barbados for the annual Barbados Rum and Food Festival — a four-day fête that turns the island into a wonderland for lovers of good grub and liquor. This is where I’ll be sampling (read: overindulging) in cuisine from local and international chefs and, of course, drinking copious amounts of world-renowned rum. My liver may not be prepared, but I certainly am.
Unlike other festivals, where all events take place in one venue or neighbourhood, the Barbados Rum and Food Festival spans the entire island. The first event of the festival is Oistins Under the Stars, located in the popular fishing town of the same name. The smell of fried fish continuously wafts through the air against the backdrop of calypso beats, live music and so much dancing. The excessive heat coupled with the lineup of flaming grills creates an extra layer of moisture and smoke that contribute to my continuous stream of underboob sweat and glowing face. None of the locals seem fazed by the soaring temperatures.
The barbecues are crowded with swordfish, marlin, mahi-mahi, tuna, lobster and chicken, and the grill cooks manning them are ninjas at flipping, rotating and tossing food into takeout containers. Once I learn that flying fish are native to the island and difficult to find outside of the Caribbean, I know it’s what I’m having for dinner. It’s fried, salty and oily, and served next to cou cou, or Bajan grits, if you will, made from fine cornmeal and okra.
Oistins is also where I try my first macaroni pie, another traditional Bajan dish. It’s comforting to know that no matter the climate, the dish made with cheese and pasta is beloved around the world. This one is served as a cold square slice, and though it’s heavy enough to be a main dish, it’s often served as a side. I prefer it hot, but it’s cheesy enough that it works. The difference between North American mac and cheese and macaroni pie is that the pie doesn’t require making a roux. Instead, it’s made with evaporated milk.
On my Bajan food tour, I discover pudding and souse — which is almost as much fun to say as it is to eat. This dish, which I find pretty unappetizing in appearance, is a perfect example of ugly delicious food. “Souse” is made from pig meat and pig fat and comes with a sweet potato side known as pudding. The dish made with leftover pig scraps dates back to the end of slavery, and has since become Barbados’s most traditional Saturday lunch. It’s a balanced, sweet and salty dish, with slightly sugary mash and salty pickled pork. The Village Bar - Lemon Arbour and the Souse Factory both make fantastic versions of this Barbadian staple.
My second day ends with raucous festivities for Rum Route, a moving street party that winds its way through Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. All the bars along the main strip take part in the celebrations, making it a busy and unrelenting stretch. Spying a bar with no lineup for a drink, my journalist friends and I slip inside for a brief interlude. It’s nice to sit in the relative quiet, without having to scream over music to make conversation. However, once we settle in and realize they’re playing a non-stop loop of MTV music videos from the 80s and 90s, this hole-in-the-wall quickly becomes our own karaoke bar for the rest of the evening. Soon, my ears are ringing again. Let’s just say that not everyone should sing.
Despite attempts to cut my night off at a semi-respectable 1 a.m., there’s no rest for the wicked. On the third day of the festival, not long after getting back to my hotel, I’m pulled out of bed before the sun is up. It’s time to hit the beach at 4 a.m. for the Rise and Rum Breakfast Beach Party. The event has the air of a chill backyard party thrown by a friend, but the energy of a nightclub, and it firmly secures its place as one of my favourite events at the festival. Everywhere I turn, there are food stalls, cocktail booths and rum bars. There’s even a massage station that I am truly grateful for.
I quickly forget that I’m running on three hours of sleep — without the aid of electrolytes or coffee — thanks to the live reggae, afrobeats and soca performances, which locates a reserve of energy I didn’t know I had. Or perhaps it’s the countless rum shots that are giving me my second (and third) wind. Looking around the beach, I observe a sea of beautiful people, all of them dressed in sunshine yellow doing the dutty wine (a dance that involves a lot of gyrating and head rotating) and its slightly more conservative sister, the slow wine.
Of course, being one half of the festival’s name, rum is prevalent here. The exceptional quality of Barbadian rum comes from the smoothness of the water surrounding Barbados. The bedrock under this island is formed of coral limestone, which acts as a natural filter. While the island doesn’t have many rivers, lakes or waterfalls, it does have underground streams, cavities and wells that produce some of the purest water in the world. This is helpful because rum’s two main ingredients are molasses and water. Bajan molasses is also some of the best in the world because the island is so rich in sugarcane — so much so, that in the 18th-century, Bajan molasses became a lucrative global commodity, known as “black gold.”
Mount Gay Rum is the world’s oldest rum brand — and the nectar is a real staple for locals on the island. For over 300 years, the distillery has been making rum from light gold to dark, all of which comes from a distillation process that uses traditional copper pot stills. This process is still used today to remove sulfites and make sure that the liquid gold is as pure as possible. Despite ties to tradition, they’re still not afraid to break it: Trudiann Branker was appointed as Mount Gay Rum’s first ever woman master blender back in 2019.
For Liquid Gold Feast, the grand finale of the festival, they really pull out all the stops. The event takes place at the llaro Court, the official residence of the prime minister of Barbados (currently Mia Mottley, the first woman to assume the role). A red carpet marks the entranceway — this is a fancy and glamorous night I didn’t prepare for. I didn’t pack an Oscar-worthy gown, yet it appears that 90 per cent of the guests here did.
I may not have brought my finest fits, but I certainly brought my appetite. This soiree takes me on a gastronomic adventure, where I get an upscale taste of the cuisine that’s reflective of the Barbadian soul. Breadfruit, a staple Bajan fruit, which I usually find too dense and starchy, is transformed for me tonight. When served underneath saltfish, lobster and a pepper sauce aioli, I can’t get enough. Despite my sartorial concerns, this bougie and delectable ball turns out to be the perfect way to end a fabulous festival.
Over the course of the four days, I keep my eyes peeled for the Bajan queen, Rihanna, who is often spotted at the festival. I don’t see her this year, but maybe next time I’ll catch a glimpse of the Barbadian poster girl. And if not, there’s enough great food, delicious rum and fantastic memories to keep me returning again and again.