Welcome to Zimbali
Claudia Gardner, Gleaner Writer
Tucked away in the hills of Canaan Mountain, near little London in Westmoreland, is Zimbali Retreat's Mountain Cooking Studio, Westmoreland's unique addition to the culinary and agro-tourism industries.
Zimbali's farm-to-table culinary excursions boast an afternoon lunch and an evening dinner excursion, with meals skilfully prepared by head chef Obrian Heron and sous chef Oraine Murray. The cooking studio is part of the Zimbali Wellness Retreat operated by Mark and Alecia Swainbank, which also offers accommodations and a respite for those seeking to gain or maintain health and wellness, or to simply just get closer to nature.
The cooking class is preceded by a guided tour of Zimbali's organic farm, from where most of the ingredients for the dishes are hand-picked. From there, guests are escorted to the cooking class, where their meals, whether lunch or a four-course dinner, are prepared on spot for them to experience the entire preparation process.
According to Heron, the three-course lunch menu varies each day, but chicken and fish are the only protein they use, as red meat is not promoted at Zimbali. He said that both himself and Murray have used their creative flair and experience to generate several signature dishes for Zimbali.
The Zimbali Wellness Retreat's Mountain Cooking Studio places emphasis on good health and wellness. "Eighty-five per cent of the vegetables used are from the farm here or local neighbouring farms," Heron explained. "Only coconut oil is used at Zimbali because coconut oil has a long smoke point, which means that unlike other oils, it can stay on the fire long before it starts smoking or loses its flavour."
When Food visited Zimbali last week Thursday, the lunch menu featured banana leaf-wrapped steamed fish, which utilised banana leaves instead of the typical aluminium foil. The alternative meat was cedar plank chicken, consisting of chicken stuffed with garden vegetables and pineapples, and oven-baked on a small slab of cedar wood, which, according to Heron, gives the chicken a delicious cedar flavour. These were served with hash brown green plantain, another signature recipe from Zimbali, which consisted of shredded unripe plantains bound with ripe bananas. This was accompanied by a garden vegetable salad and carrot juice made only moments earlier from freshly picked carrots, as well as red wine.
This main course was preceded by coconut sushi, using grated coconut instead of rice as the main ingredient, along with ripe bananas, cucumbers, carrots and papaya. At the end came a deliciously soft gluten-free black bean cake made with chocolate.
Zimbali's offerings, it appears, have not been lost on the many Jamaican and international visitors as they have voted the Mountain Cooking Studio No. 1 of 135 restaurants in the Negril resort area, on the world-renowned travel site TripAdvisor.