In St. Croix, a Culinary Awakening
Katherine Wolkoff
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In St. Croix, a Culinary Awakening

Anyone who’s used the phrase island time has never gone foraging for whelks with Digby Stridiron. The exuberant, 33-year-old chef helms the kitchen at Balter, the most ambitious new restaurant on St. Croix. When I visited his Christiansted establishment this past April, a month after its opening, the bright dining room, with its wooden tables, iron railings, and brick-and-stainless-steel open kitchen, was still figuring out its aesthetic, and the eager servers were checking on their tables so often that I considered asking ours to join us for dinner.

But what a dinner it was. A friend and I worked our way through popcorn dusted with leek ash; local wahoo accompanied by pork-belly mofongo and mango kuchela, a Trinidadian chutney; and a slab of pork belly cured in shaddock, a local, pomelo-type grapefruit, and served with Haitian pickled slaw, chayote coulis, and a sauce made from caramelized yucca juice. Cocktails crafted with ginger beer and herbs from the restaurant’s garden kept us hydrated. Not every dish reached its goals, but you could taste the promise of magic down the line, like the right word moving toward the tip of the tongue.

After I introduced myself, Stridiron invited me to go foraging. From our loot, he would improvise lunch. “Like, seven tomorrow morning?” he said. My eyebrows rose. “Eight, maybe?” I replied.

St Croix Food
Left: Shaddock-cured pork belly at Balter, a new restaurant on the island of St. Croix. Right: Just-caught fish at La Reine Farmers’ Market. Katherine Wolkoff

St. Croix is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the most elusive. If St. Thomas offers cruise ships and commerce, and St. John unpeopled majesty (two-thirds of it is a national park), then St. Croix is “where the real people live,” as the local saying goes—it’s the best of both worlds. No beachgoer could wish for sweeter shoreline than Point Udall, the easternmost point in the territorial United States. Meanwhile, there are two vibrantly disparate versions of Crucian life: one on the western end, in Frederiksted—scruffier, louder, and more “Crucian”—and the other in Christiansted, a Danish-colonial jewel heavy with “Statesiders,” to the east. Such distinctions are more freighted in a place where, as a local acquaintance told me, “we’re still healing” from slavery, which makes the island’s relative racial harmony feel all the more miraculous.

Over the past several years, St. Croix has experienced a radical shift toward better food—which is remarkable in a region where importing ingredients is still the norm, and farm-to-table cooking is a relative rarity. Balter, which sources more than half of its products locally and intends to increase that figure by 15 percent every year, feels like a culmination. It has its own garden, and infuses its own oils, vinegars, and liquors with local fruit and other flora. The restaurant uses no plastic foam, saves gray water for its garden, and will soon invest in solar panels. The wood I saw was native red mahogany, the iron railings came from the local metal works, and the bricks were 240 years old—they served as ballast for Danish ships on their runs to the island (rum was the ballast on the way home).

While Balter finds its way, Zion Modern Kitchen, a casual, two-year-old Christiansted restaurant run by chef-owner Michael Ross, offers St. Croix’s most consistently satisfying menu; its tuna in citrus beurre blanc and gooseberry gastrique has infiltrated my dream life. Ross also makes his own breads, pastas, and mozzarella, but Zion is most effusively Crucian behind the bar. “There are fewer rules, fewer people,” Frank Robinson, the restaurant’s resident cocktail wizard at the time, said of St. Croix when I stopped by one afternoon. (This past fall, Robinson opened his own farm-to-glass spot, Bes Craft Cocktail Lounge, leaving two mentees behind the bar at Zion.) “You can get lost in it—it’s like New York in that way. But it can uplift you, too.” Robinson, who was born and raised on the island, produces his own bitters and infusions: ginger and gooseberry rums, guava and marjoram vodkas, sweet-pepper-and-cilantro tequila. He squeezes all his juices from fresh local fruits. “If you’re consuming alcohol, why not make it as healthy as you can?” he joked. Robinson told me to pick a liquor, and he’d invent a cocktail around it.

St Croix Food
Left: The beach near the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort, on the northern shore. Right: Chef Digby Stridiron picking yucca flowers on one of his foraging missions. Katherine Wolkoff

I asked Mary Orr, the manager, why she had made her home on St. Croix. She shrugged: “You have to bring a book to the post office, and there are forty-seven potholes on the way there. But those are little things when you can put your feet in the water on the way to work.” Robinson set down my drink: plum-infused Bulleit bourbon mixed with lemon juice, orange juice, tamarind, and tarragon, poured over unstirred passion-fruit juice. It tasted as good as it sounds.

It was 4 p.m., the sun molten and the air heavy with late-April heat, but even with the flames and steam of dinner prep in the open kitchen several feet away, the bar felt cool—no doors and no windows means a draft all the time. Pressure Busspipe’s “Run Away” was loud on the stereo system, and little by little, the entire staff, from the servers laying out silverware to the line cooks, picked up the words until the whole place was rumbling in one voice: “Run away...you can’t run away...from yourself—”

And then the power went out.

“What happens now?” I asked, a rookie ready to go home.

“What happens now,” Robinson said, “is we finish on the grill, and break out the lanterns and flashlights.” He laughed. “Price of paradise, man.”

By evening, the outage had endowed the Christiansted streets with a decadent air. The cooks at 40 Strand Eatery, another newcomer that focuses on local fish and produce, were working a grill in the street between tables whose inhabitants were only too happy to have an extra cocktail while waiting. Away from the emergency lights, the town’s warren of boutiques, restaurants, and hotels—each somehow accommodated to a centuries-old Danish-colonial edifice—felt like a ship that had temporarily submerged under the nearby waters.

That night, I had dinner at Savant, a veteran of the island’s fine-dining scene. Passing through its cave like front room on the way to the low-lit stone grotto that serves as its courtyard, I found it easy to forget that the electricity had come back. But St. Croix, it turns out, feels that way a lot of the time, even when the power is on. By 9 p.m., Savant was out of most of the day’s catch, mahi mahi, so I settled for the fish tacos and beer-battered fritters, both made with wahoo. That late in the day, after a power outage, no less, that fish had no reason to be as good as it was.

On an island as fertile as St. Croix, the shift to locally sourced food shouldn’t have been so recent or so challenging. St. Croix, which flew the flag of five nations, plus that of the Knights of Malta, before becoming a U.S. territory in 1917, was once the breadbasket of the Caribbean. Unlike many of the region’s islands, it enjoys relatively flat, nutrient-rich, arable soil: here, foraging is just another word for walking. The profusion of plants and fruits—breadfruit, Moringa, maubi, guava, golden apple, mespila, eggfruit, dragon fruit—was dizzying to me after a New York winter of old apples and pears.

St Croix Food
Star fruit at La Reine Farmers’ Market. Katherine Wolkoff

“St. Croix was under sugarcane production as late as 1966,” Dale Browne told me. He runs Sejah Farm, near the old Bethlehem Sugar Factory in the interior, and supplies produce to Balter. We spoke in a lean-to surrounded by boxes of peppers and papayas that doubled as the market stand most mornings. “But then the Department of the Interior decided light industry and tourism would be the thing. People moved into government jobs, and agriculture disappeared.” Soon, St. Croix was importing nearly all its food.

In 1998, Browne and his wife, Yvette, decided to “get some goats so our children could understand eating right, being connected to the land, what it means to care for another life. They got really into it.” Today, the Brownes farm vegetables and raise livestock on 15 acres and supply four CSAs. It’s a time of great promise. “For forty years, the land has been dormant,” Browne said. “It’s as virgin as land can be.”

The Department of Agriculture is offering subsidized plots to aspiring farmers. Many Crucians have been asking not only what the island lost in its embrace of industry but also what food dependence means during a time of weather extremes caused by climate change. “The supermarkets are asking for local, because customers are asking for local,” Browne said.

Ridge to Reef, the only certified organic farm on St. Croix, sits deep in the rain forest in the island’s northwestern corner. (Its name refers to the watershed that runs from the farm’s 134 acres toward the sea.) Here, owners Nate Olive, who grew up in Georgia, and his wife, Shelli Brin- Olive, who is from St. Thomas, grow vegetables and raise livestock, lead educational tours, and offer off-the grid lodging and wilderness-survival workshops, in addition to supplying organic produce to schools. But they’re best known to visitors for their Slow Down dinners, for which local chefs use the farm’s bounty to prepare all-organic, all-local meals for upwards of 60 people. Many guests build their entire trip to St. Croix around the Slow Down schedule. When I stopped by, Nate was away at the University of Georgia defending his PhD dissertation on whether eco and cultural tourism alone could sustain the island. “Nature versus casinos, basically,” Shelli said, as we walked through a bamboo grove.

St Croix Food
Bread pudding with guavaberries at Balter, Digby Stridiron’s Christiansted restaurant. Katherine Wolkoff

The farm’s bounty was making me feel like I’d stepped through some prelapsarian wormhole. Shelli pointed out an Antillean crested hummingbird, the only bird that can fly backward; a “painkiller bush” known for the anti-inflammatory qualities of its leaves; and a Moringa tree, a handful of whose leaves could be enough for a day’s nutrition. Ridge to Reef was hosting 39 young Danish volunteers—a crowd big enough to warrant an unscheduled Slow Down dinner—and I was invited to stay. Michael Matthew, who cooks at the Eat at Cane Bay restaurant on the northern end, braised a Ridge to Reef lamb in a stock made from bones and herbs. He served it alongside Ridge to Reef farm greens tossed with a dressing he’d devised by shaving down and puréeing a ball of cactus fruit. The dinner talk was about pelicans, terns, and the reappearance of a certain mockingbird after two years of drought. The food was worthy of seconds (and thirds). At some point, Shelli’s phone buzzed. It was Nate, texting from Georgia. He had passed.

That young man can fillet a 20-pound tuna with a machete by the light of an iPhone,” said Susan Kraeger, proudly, as we walked through La Reine Farmers’ Market, already humming shortly past dawn on a Saturday morning. Kraeger, an escapee from New Hampshire, had picked me up at 5 a.m. for her weekly visit to the market, which is located not too far from Sejah Farm. Any later and all the good stuff would be gone.

The rise of eco-minded farms and restaurants on St. Croix makes it easy to forget that some local farmers have been working the land responsibly for decades. “This is a big word today, organic,” said Violet Drew, who farms papaya, sour oranges, and more on three acres in a neighborhood near Upper Love. (St. Croix has the best neighborhood names in the world— Upper Love is surrounded by Jealousy, Hard Labor, and Hope.) Her stall also offered golden-apple juice and cassava bread. “I grow what I eat,” she said.

“I would come here just to hear ‘Good mornin’, darlin’,’ ” Kraeger said as we watched fishermen hack and sell fresh catch on pickup beds for half the supermarket price. “People from up north will turn their noses up: ‘Fish from the back of a truck? How do you know it’s good?’ I buy from these people every week, that’s how.”

What thrilled me was that I was beginning to recognize the items in the market stalls. That milky-yellow beverage was unfiltered ginger beer, as bracing as a mouthful of the root. That was maubi juice, from the bark of a tree. In my farm less New York life, this kind of aptitude had always seemed reserved for the select. No— you just had to spend time in a place that lived by the soil.

“St. Croix is home—the people, the culture, the beaches, the food,” Stridiron said when he showed up for our foraging session. “Everybody cares about everybody here.” Born and raised on St. Croix, Stridiron joined the Air Force, then studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta and worked under Florida chef Norman Van Aken before returning.

Our first stop was the beach at Judith’s Fancy, where I had been staying in a friend’s guesthouse without the least idea I was near a forager’s paradise. Stridiron gathered sea grapes, miracle grass, and sea purslane, at once briny and sweet. “I just ate the beach!” he exclaimed.

“When you want fine dining, the Virgin Islands has everything,” he said as we drove away, “but it’s not local. When I was thinking about Balter”—the name tweaks a Danish word that means to dance without particular skill but with joy—“they said I should do it in St. Thomas, where the fine dining is. But then I’d just have to fly the food over from here. St. Thomas is the energy. But St. Croix is the motherland.”

Stridiron’s mission with Balter is to cook the way Mom and Pop used to, but with modern technique and gastronomy. “They used salted codfish because that’s all they had. But what happens when you do local steak with maubi bordelaise? Chlorophyll soda over citrus-cured wahoo? We’re part of America, but a different part of it.” We pulled over at a nondescript spot on the northern shore and made our way down to a jagged outcrop, where we dodged rushing waves while peeling whelks off the rock. “When I came back here three years ago, there was no farm-to-table in the restaurant scene. Now I’ve watched twenty farms pop up in the last couple of years. A farmer is more powerful than an army. You control your life because you control what you eat.”

In Balter’s gleaming prep kitchen, he laid out what he’d foraged, adding ingredients as they occurred to him: yucca flowers, sweet peppers, pungent leaves of Spanish thyme, and green garlic from Art Farm, a small property owned by Luca Gasperi, who was born and raised on St. Croix, and his ex-pat wife, Christina. (The couple, who also have an art space, welcome visitors.) What was he making, I asked. “I don’t know yet!” he replied. That was the way it went for the next hour, as the whelks went into a whey broth on one induction cooker and ginger began steeping in sorrel juice on another: I would ask, and Stridiron would still be figuring it out.

St Croix Food
Christina Gasperi, the co-owner of Art Farm. Katherine Wolkoff

In the end, Stridiron served grilled mahi mahi steaks in a salty-sweet mix of plantains, pork belly, whelks, white wine, butter, and many of the plants, herbs, and spices I had watched him lay out, along with Art Farm escarole and dandelion dressed with ginger infused sorrel juice. Patrick Kralik, Balter’s co-owner and sommelier, who runs a farm-to-glass program to complement the cooking, dreamed up a gin-based cocktail with mint, sea purslane, shaddock, yucca flower, holy basil, and tarragon from the garden. The three of us ate at the bar, the shutters closed against the heat, the crunch of wheels echoing down the street, and the sound of passersby calling good day to one another.

The Details: What to Do in St. Croix

Hotels

The Buccaneer This luxe property, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year, has an 18-hole golf course, eight tennis courts, three beaches, and more. Christiansted; doubles from $299.

Starfish Cottage at Judith’s Fancy A cottage with a thoughtful aesthetic, a full kitchen, a wraparound porch, and pool privileges in the gated community of Judith’s Fancy. 340-690-6616; doubles from $100.

Restaurants

Balter A contemporary West Indian kitchen that epitomizes Crucian haute cuisine. Christiansted; entrées $17–$34.

Galangal A white-tablecloth temple of French–Southeast Asian fusion. The couple who run the place spend part of each year hunting new flavors in Asia. Christiansted; entrées $24–$36.

Savant This lovely haunt has been serving creative cuisine, like baby-back ribs marinated in blackstrap rum and root beer, since 1998. Christiansted; entrées $18–$39.

Zion Modern Kitchen Serves the island’s most consistently satisfying food and drink, including house-made pasta, bread, and mozzarella. Try one of the cocktails infused with local fruits. Christiansted; entrées $25–$42.

Activities

Historical Tours Choose from a variety of hikes or sign up for a walking tour of Christiansted, Frederiksted, or the Works at Butler Bay, a former sugar factory.

La Reine Farmers’ Market Arrive around 4:30 on Saturday morning to find the best on offer at one of St. Croix’s thriving local markets. You’ll find soursop, breadfruit, and a variety of homemade hot sauces and jams.

Slow Down Dinners at Ridge to Reef Farm About once a month, local chefs use Ridge to Reef’s bounty to prepare multi course, all-organic meals. The farm also offers educational tours, off-the grid lodging, and wilderness survival workshops. Frederiksted.

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