Culinary Adventures and a Bermuda Short Story
The Bermudian Prohibition Restaurant Act of 1997 forbids the opening of food franchises on the island. The one exception is a KFC on Queen Street in Hamilton, which was grandfathered in.
The result is an island architecture of Easter-egg colored buildings and an ocean so turquoise it’s as if someone added food coloring to it. Storefronts aren’t cluttered with oversized signage or posters in the window advertising the menu with pictures of bundled food selections.
The reason for the prohibition, our cabbie told us, is that they want to preserve the island culinary culture. Which is ironic, because no one could tell us exactly what that cuisine was. There’s a Bermuda fish chowder made with sherry peppers and topped with black rum, and an island breakfast that includes boiled cod, boiled potatoes, sautéed onions and hard-boiled eggs (a white breakfast that would make Minnesotans proud), plus plenty of pleasant-looking pubs and bars featuring Barcardi rum. Barcardi has been headquartered on the island for more than 50 years and is a big supporter of the arts and other recreational activities.
Menus include British pub fare and, of course, seafood. Instead of a crab cake, the local version here is a codfish cake, with salted cod mashed with boiled potatoes, fresh thyme and parsley and then fried. The famous sherry pepper sauce is made from hot bird peppers marinated in sherry, herbs and spices and then strained to form a liquid. Its taste is very different from the traditional hot sauce.
When I asked for salt at the Fairmont Southampton’s steakhouse, I was given a half-pint mason jar of salt crystals.
One of the best meals we had during our one-week stay was at Marcus’, the Bermudian version of Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster soul-food restaurant in Harlem. (Minnesotans will remember the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised award-winning chef’s upscale Aquavit in the IDS Center that had a run in the early 2000s.) We wisely chose the Obama Short Ribs for two with green onion pancakes and pickled cabbage. Other options were chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and Rooster (deviled) eggs. It’s located at the tony Hamilton Princess & Beach Club and overlooks the dock. Entrées at lunch and dinner were the same price range, $21-$40.
There are also no car rental places at the island’s one airport, because tourists aren’t allowed to drive cars here. Another cabbie told us there were 600 cabs in Bermuda, one for every hundred people. There’s no Uber, but there is a similar ride-sharing company and a few renegade jitney drivers. I don’t know about the other 594 drivers, but the ones we rode with could have collected a second paycheck from the tourist bureau. Everyone in Bermuda was a brand ambassador.
Bermuda is expensive because almost everything is imported. At KFC, I ordered one piece of chicken, a side of peas and rice (which is actually rice and beans), and a small drink for $6.55. Two doors down the street was a local version that looked similar except its décor was blue instead of red. Most of our meals were in the $100 range, without alcohol, and gratuities were a mandatory 17 percent at the resorts. Marcus’ also added in a 17 percent gratuity but added a line in case diners wanted to include an additional tip.
Bermuda is an easy place for U.S. citizens to visit. The official language is English, with a charming British accent, and although Bermuda has its own currency, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Since the conversion rate is one-to-one, change is returned in either U.S. or Bermudian dollars.
We expected to see men at the resort wear Bermuda shorts with a blue blazer or a shirt and tie, but were still a bit surprised to see some businessmen in the capital of Hamilton going to work in shorts. Women didn’t seem to take advantage of an equal opportunity to wear Bermuda shorts.
In a couple of months when the America’s Cup sailing madness descends here, the tranquility of the island will be challenged by 10,000-plus people all vying for the same seat at the bar and the 600 taxi drivers. We saw a few moments of the Oracle in a practice race with the Japanese boat, and for me that was enough. Better to return to my own cold rat race than to have that cup runneth over.