Since the year 2000, jerk enthusiasts have gathered in Port Antonio in the Jamaican parish of Portland to celebrate the country’s most famous food. The Portland Jerk Festival has been a bucket list destination for thousands of spice lovers seeking an aroma, taste, and experience that you can only get in Jamaica.
But Jamaican locals are not the only supporters of this iconic Jamaican food-fest. Tourists from all over the globe are also drawn to the tantalizing tents every year. What’s so intriguing about a few spices and some smoke, that it’s enough to lure food-loving tourists to a far-away island?
Who Invented This Irresistible Spice?
Some believe the word Jerk came from "charqui", a Spanish word describing dried meat. Over time, "charqui" became "jerky" and now, "jerk". Others believe that it describes the poking of holes in the meat, to be filled with spices before cooking. Either way, "jerk" is both a verb and a noun identifying the seasoning and the method.
According to The Takeout, jerk spice and technique are a mashup of the island’s African and Arawak influences. Runaway slaves in Jamaica (called Maroons) fought the British and escaped into the mountains before later settling in the town of Boston in the parish of Portland, Jamaica. While in hiding from their captors, the Maroons employed African cooking techniques, but used seasonings and methods inspired by the Arawaks – the island’s original inhabitants – to preserve meat to cook when it was safe to do so without getting caught by their former slave masters.
The result was a unique, spicy seasoning, and a method of cooking similar to barbecuing. Truly authentic jerk involves slow cooking over wood sticks in underground fire pits, a process that infuses the meat with a strong smoky flavor. These days, most cooks uses sticks of pimento wood to hold the pork above a fire, rather than underground, but the meat is still slow-cooked just as when it was centuries ago.
When The World Shuts Down
The Maroons had set their spicy roots in Portland, and centuries later, the cooking method they devised would be celebrated with an annual Jerk Festival attended by thousands. But as with so many gatherings in 2020, the annual festival was canceled this year due to the global pandemic.
Now, as everyone adjusts to a new normal, how will jerk lovers cope? Enter: Walkerswood Caribbean Foods.
Founded in the hills of St. Ann Parish, just west of Portland, in 1978, Walkerswood was the first company to export authentic jerk seasoning from Jamaica. The 42-year old company has earned a reputation as a leading international brand supplying quality Caribbean foods, and now ships over 15 different products and flavors around the world.
The company’s lifeblood is the Walkerswood Farmers Cooperative, an association of local Jamaican farmers that supply their facility with fresh ingredients, including Jamaican Scotch Bonnet peppers. No Scotch Bonnets, no Jerk: it’s that simple! To increase accessibility to authentic jerk spices, Walkerswood distributes in the USA, Canada, Australia, UK, Germany, New Zealand and, of course, the Caribbean too.
Walkerswood Jerk Products
Walkerswood offers a traditional jerk seasoning and traditional jerk marinade. If you’re a bit hesitant, there is a mild jerk seasoning designed for anyone who wants to try jerk, but might be fearful of the heat. However, one of the company’s most popular jerk products in the U.S. is its Jerk BBQ Sauce.
The sauce coats your tongue in fruity sweetness married to fiery spice. And you’d never guess where the sweet side of the sauce comes from - ripe Jamaican bananas!
Unfortunately, while most of the other Walkerswood Jerk products come in three sizes, Jerk BBQ Sauce is one-size-fits-all. Still, the 17oz/500ml glass bottle will serve you well for several meals, and it’s easy and fairly inexpensive to buy on Amazon.
If you’re running low, the company’s website suggests stretching your few precious ounces of Jerk BBQ sauce by adding honey, but personally, that would just make me more inclined to consume it, defeating the purpose of stretching it in the first place!
Hope For the Future Of Jerk
Until this pandemic passes, Portland jerk fest will be missed: no crowded streets, no rustic aromas, and no bellyful of jerked pork (or chicken, or beef, or conch - hey, Jamaicans jerk anything!). And though you may not get to feel the smoky breeze of the Portland Jerk Festival in your face, by buying jerk seasoning straight from the source, your home-cooked meals will come as close as you can get.
In fact, I want to call the Walkerswood Jerk BBQ sauce, "Portland Jerk Festival in a bottle!"