Caymanian Farmer Q&A: Joel Walton of Plantation House

Sunday Morning's Island Style Organic Demo (left to right): Fisherman King Flowers, Chef Dean Max, Chef Brad Phillips, Chef Sara Mair, Chef Paula Desilva, Chef Michael Schwartz, Chef Cindy Hutson, and Farmer Joel Walton of Plantation House

Before we left for Cayman, we posted a poll asking readers what they were most curious to find out about on the island.  Guess what?  The most votes went to learning more about local products and producers.  As we say in the back of the house: “Heard dat!”

We finally had a chance to catch up with farmer Joel Walton, a Cayman Brac native (one of the smaller islands,) whom we met at Sunday’s “Island Style Organic” demo poolside at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. He gave a great presentation, while the chefs pictured above prepared dishes using ingredients from his farm, Plantation House.  Not to worry if you couldn’t be there, because below he offers many interesting details about Cayman farming and cooking cultures, and also gives a peek into the unique things he is doing in his operation.

If you would like to stay in touch with Joel and what he’s planting and eating in the future, check out his Plantation House Eco Site blog.  And big thanks to Chef Dean Max of The Brasserie for spilling the beans on his sources for our benefit!

How long have you been farming?

From childhood but really I ‘m just a hobby gardener (:

Has a movement toward eating locally-grown products taken root yet in the Cayman Islands?

It was the tradition prior to the 1970’s and now slowly but steadily taking root again.

Where is your farm located?

My farm (gardens) are at my house at #35 Doubloon Drive, South Cayman Palms, Bodden Town District. I have integrated my vegetable gardens, fruit, nut and spice trees in amongst my ornamentals and medicinals.

How big is it and how many people do you have working for you?

Just under 2 acres and 4 persons working for me.

What are you currently growing?

Tomatoes (many types, sizes and shapes, mostly heirlooms), sweet pepper, malabar spinach, regular eggplant, Japanese eggplant, Thai eggplant, pumpkin/calabaza, rosemary, sweet basil, lemon grass, parsley, dill, cilantro, culantro, sage, green onions, pak choi, Chinese cabbage, carrots, beetroot, radish, kohlrabi, Florence fennel, sugarcane, sweet potato, bananas/plantains, and 200+ types of fruit, nuts and spices.

Some of the fruits of Joel's labor of love. The peppers in the foreground aren't hot, believe it or not!

Of those products, what are favorites of the Caymanians and why?

starches such as sweet potato, breadfruit, plantains/bananas and pumpkin because the Caymanian diet was historically based primarily on locally grown foods traditionally found here (ie, prior to the massive economic development, commencing in the 1970’s.)

Your growing season is like it is in Miami, right? All year round? Describe it, please.

Very similar to Miami – starts in earnest in the late summer/early autumn and runs until late spring.  Caymanians have historically tended year-round “grounds” filled with the traditional starchy crops including cassava, yam, sweet potato, pumpkin, and banana/bottler/plantain suckers. Other crops including seasoning pepper, hot pepper, papaya, watermelon and coco-yam were also grown side-by-side. Not-so-traditional crops such as tomatoes, cucumber, peanuts and corn were often times grown at the “best times” by the more adventurous farmer. Vegetable gardening of the more “non-traditional” crops such as beetroot, turnip and leek in raised beds in backyards or on allotments (starting every spring) was not popular for Caymanians but for some of our new residents who hail from temperate climates, this has been their tradition. Many of these new persons to our Islands are from strong gardening cultures but are used to far different conditions than that found at 20 degrees north. We can successfully grow many of the same vegetables here as are grown farther North with some notable exceptions being asparagus, globe artichoke and rhubarb. In exchange, we have many more growing options such as okra, aubergine, watermelon, true sweet potato plus the usual suspects including tomato, cucumber, sweet pepper, cabbage, carrot, radish, and beetroot. This is a benefit of Cayman being located smack in between the Tropics and Subtropics – our growing palate is seemingly endless. I enjoy growing peach and strawberry and leek and mizuna as much as I do mango and naseberry and okra and tropical spinach. All are possible here at 20 degrees north.

Dean plays emcee. And does a mighty fine job of it!

Do you sell only to restaurants or to consumers directly, like at a farmer’s market?

To restaurants, at the farmers’ market and directly from my gardens.

How often are you harvesting and doing deliveries?

Harvest every 2 days and deliveries 3 times per week.

What are traditional island favorites that can be made with what you’re growing now?

Fried plantains (maduros), mashed sweet potatoes, fried breadfruit, boiled breadfruit, roasted breadfruit, breadfruit salad, pumpkin soup, boiled pumpkin, pumpkin dumplings, mashed pumpkin, to name a few.

More of Joel's bounty...

What is best just eaten raw, without any cooking or seasonings added?

For me, fruit or vegetables are best enjoyed raw or slightly steamed in the case of vegetables – for breakfast I love freshly picked, uncooked young okra and raw spinach leaves.

Do you cook at home and if so what is your favorite dish to make?

My favourite dish is vine riped tomatoes, fresh basil, sea salt, balsamic vinegar and E-V Olive oil. Sometimes I add fresh oregano, goat cheese, or whatever is at hand – if cook, I love fresh fish rolled in pimento (allspice) leaves, based in butter and stuffed with thyme, onion and a family heirloom hot pepper and seasoning pepper steamed on a grill for 5-7 minutes. oooooh, I forgot – with pumpkin/calabaza soup, my recipe!!

When you eat out at a restaurant you sell to, what is it like to see the products you grow end up on the plate?

If I tell you that I would blush endlessly (:

What’s the most unexpected preparation by a chef that you’ve seen with one of your products?

Pumpkin/calabaza ravioli.

What is your favorite ethnic or world cuisine?

Hard to say, torn between many really.

Are there new fruits and vegetables you’d like to grow which you currently aren’t?

I try to push the limits of growing here in Cayman – got peaches this year for the first time and Florence fennel last year for the first time – enjoy them both.

Anything else you’d like to share?

My perfect day – awake to watch the sun rise, work the day in my gardens, show visitors around, spend evenings cooking and enjoying the produce from the gardens with family and friends – maybe with a cigar and some aged rum in there somewhere (:

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