Our sense of smell is a remarkable gateway to our past. There are scents that transport us to a time and place with the inertia of memory on auto-pilot. Zest soap: my great-grandmother’s bathroom. Tiny Tom donuts: the CNE fairgrounds, Labour Day weekend. Gasoline on a still and frozen winter morning: snowmobiling with my grandfather. Alone, they are generic smells, but they take us to individual and treasured parts of our being. I could type out a list of words and I bet five bucks you have a story or person attached to it. Pot roast. Drakkar Noir. Those grade school purple-inked ditto machines that we all got high on before a pop quiz. Wet dog. Sulphur. Mothballs. Root cellars. Lilacs. Tequila. Espresso. See?
When I leave Body Blitz at day’s end, I distinctly smell like spa. If I’ve been to Jimmy’s coffee shop on my break, then I smell like a hybrid: Americano meets spa. Both accessible and instant escapes. Mid- January, a sexy Italian fusion joint opened beside our spa. As I exit the spa’s back door now, I am spirited away by the best smell I know. Fire. The kitchen’s Tuscan wood fire grill cuts out the King West neighbourhood I stand in and throws me headlong into Africa. I’m taken to the Tuesday night markets in Entebbe where vendors beg for your business, motorbike taxis insist on their services, skeletal dogs pick at open garbage heaps and wood smoke clouds the air.
The smell of fire takes me a lot of places around the world, and as I walk towards home, away from Gusto and their Tuscan grill, I find myself back in Belize.
Lonely Planet had warned that Belizean food wasn’t remarkable enough to rave about, but not terrible enough to complain about. Arriving with few expectations we readied ourselves for a solid three week feed of starchy rice and beans, wimpy chicken and dismissable warm beer. Kim and I quickly found ourselves with not enough hours to eat all that we wanted.
Caye Caulker, a car-less island 45 minutes from Belize City, was the most satisfying eating safari I’ve been on. Mobile vendors presented a carousel of inviting snacks in the form of warm, spice-hopped corn and chicken tamiltos. We bought jugs of just-blended melon, mango, orange and banana juices (to help balance the local paint-thinner vodka). A sinewy boy sold us iPhone-sized squares of his mother’s prized coconut fudge at the Split for less than a dollar. We had thick and dense banana bread and impromptu pillowy brownies at Wish Willy’s. We didn’t order the brownies, it was merely part of the Wish Willy experience that night. Maurice, a giant chef with a giant personality, made his way to each table, regardless of whether customers had been served or were midway through dinner, to offer them a generous wedge of his signature brownies, straight from the pan they were just baked in.
By far, our experience at Wish Willy’s was the most comical. We could tell by the number of Belikin beer bottles on each table that “rush” or “fast” was not on the menu (and adherent to the Belizean motto of “Go Slow”). In fact, there was no set menu. A few entrees scratched out on a blackboard offered suggestions, but nothing that was advertised was available. I asked for conch skewers and was served spicy shrimp. Kim requested the curried pork but was convinced to try the snapper. Maurice later insisted she had chops because he ran out of snapper, but a beer later he asked Kim how the snapper was.
Syd’s Fried Chicken took my Top Swoon Meal award. For $4.50 US we had a chicken leg and breast that was the equivalent of a wayward Thanksgiving turkey. A small army of vocal cats joined us in the garden area for dinner, expressing their mutual love of Syd’s chicken. It was like a Belizean take on Shake n’ Bake served with enough rice to throw at three weddings. With a petting zoo underfoot.
Reina’s Bakery was a carb-load sanctuary after a night of rum-heavy panty-rippers at the Thirsty Lizard. For $2.50US we had Bon Appetit magazine-perfect waffles with ham and (say it isn’t so!) Cheese Whiz. Kim was reduced to moaning over that brunch (mostly due to the Cheese Whiz and ham fusion, somewhat due to the panty-rippers). The syrup was dark and heavy and the punchy coffee helped realign our rum-logged heads.
Sometimes Things to Eat For Less Than a Dollar proved to be not-so-great gastro-intestinal ideas in Belize. This was discovered after buying grapefruit juice (to finish off the rocket fuel One Barrel rum we’d been nursing) and tablate from a singing Rastafarian on the bus. He hopped on as we idled at the Dangriga station with a cookie tray and a song and sold us a coaster-sized tablate for 50 cents. It was definitely a member of the fudge family, heavy on the sugar, butter and coconut frontier. Probably made with a little E.coli in less than sanitary kitchen conditions. But, c’mon, for 50 cents? It became our version of a cheap and instant cleanse when paired with the river juice probably made with ditch water.
The buses in Belize offered a convenient assortment of local ’fast-food’ options. Vendors randomly jumped on the buses at unmarked stops along the Hummingbird Highway to hawk massive cinnamon buns, hot tamales and durosa. The durosa was another under-a-buck option that was questionable. Wrapped in a corn husk it was enticingly described as shredded plantain in a sweet coconut milk-tamale stuffing. It was more like wet barf in a corn husk. Kim wouldn’t let me finish it.
Better finds were the Irish Moss seaweed shakes at The Shak in Placencia (also available pre-made at convenience stores in plastic bottles). The shakes had an egg nog consistency and a subtle-not-sickly sweet custard taste with a good hit of nutmeg. The peanut shake was too much like Kraft peanut butter blended with table cream. Whipped a little thicker, it could have been served on a bed of noodles with cilantro as a Thai dish, not as a sweltering afternoon thirst-quencher.
Cheap eats were easily found near the beach in Caulker, allowing us to ditch our Pee-wee Herman one-speed bikes in the sand and kick off our flip flops while our order made its way to the grill. Budget Man and Fran’s pumped out hefty coconut curries and slaw (Budget Man by day, Fran by night) that were full of heat and authentic Belizean kick. Fran’s communal picnic table was never empty. Her blackboard seafood specials varied and when she sold-out, she went home.
In Hopkins Village we made dusty and dark treks to IRIS Sunnyside cafe for golden coconut-crusted grouper and collards. (Since our return home I’ve given the coconut-crust treatment to shrimp and chicken). We subjected ourselves to the wind-whipped patio of The Barracuda Bar and Grill at Beaches & Dreams Resort (warm and boozed by the 2 for 1 sunset drinks) where we had blackened Cajun barracuda bites that we still rave about. Alaskan expats and chefs Tony and Angela Marsico also impress with killer flatbread pizzas, high octane cocktails and spoiled resort views.
And the ceviche! Electric lime and generous amounts of conch and shrimp…we had it everyday. I couldn’t get enough of the soursop juice, Marie Sharp’s grapefruit hot sauce, The Shak’s banana pancakes, mango-coconut shakes and salty plantain chips. Kate’s Bakery baseball-sized pumpkin muffins in Hopkins set the bar too high for anything I might find in Toronto. And the street hotdogs in Placencia with embarassing amounts of mayo, chopped onion and jalapenos? The jerk snapper and Dog House coconut water and rum sundowners? Unmatched.
Yeah, big sigh.
I drift back to Placencia and our most expensive beers of the trip ($15US) which we downed sitting all fancy and rich-like at Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn. On the flip side, I smile bigger at a flashback of our last Belikin beers which we had in plastic cups with (more!) of the infamous Belize steamie dogs at Jet’s Bar in the Belize City airport (on AOL’s Top 10 Airport Bars in the World list). I think of the charming simplicity of Mrs. Bertha’s tamale stand. The mmmm-inducing lobster and baked breadfruit at Rose’s in Caulker. The greasy and dangerously good fry-jacks (deep-fried dough) in Cahal Pech, immersed in a cacophony of tropical bird sound.
All this because I smelled a fire.
We can travel to places so easily. The best part is we can bring them back with us too.