The Zing of the Thing: A deep dive into jerk chicken from a wild weekend in Jamaica

Treehouse at Kanopi House, Jamaica

It didn’t seem to bother anyone that we couldn’t find the place. In fact, they might like it that way. There had been talk about a bigger sign, but it kept getting mysteriously put off. Of course that’s part of the charm of Kanopi House, a guesthouse in a jungle-y corner of Portland, a parish known for the most untouched nature in all of Jamaica, with place names like Goblin Hill, Fairy Hill, and Dragon Bay Road. 

At Kanopi House the rooms are houses built sturdily on stilts in the rainforest. Lianas trail from towering 100 foot banyan trees. The jungle vibrates with cicadas, a noise like maracas. When the rain arrives, it’s like standing under a bucket, a sluicing that comes and goes, leaving bright shaky sunbeams through wet shimmering leaves. 

Kanopi sits on the famous Blue Lagoon, very blue—just like the name—and striped with cold sea water and the rising heat of underground springs. Float on your back and turn your head to the right, and you can see the whole bay, lined with grand houses ornamented with the finials, fretwork and the jalousie windows of classic West Indian architecture. 

Many of them are owned by Jamaicans and rented out for weddings and parties. Bob Marley songs drift across the water from the lit mansions at night. Directly across from the mouth of the bay is the wooded hump of Monkey Island, and the whole thing is ringed by a reef, the water inside calm and clear. 

Portland was once known for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and Ursula Andress in Dr No, the Bond film, sporting a white bikini with a knife at her belt. The Flynn family, as in actor Errol Flynn, still own much of the land around here. After the booming banana trade went bust, Portland sank back into the quiet and lack of development it’s prized for today by both tourists and locals. Goats wander around freely in church yards. Farmer’s markets spill over with jackfruit, breadfruit and sour sap by the road. There are still beautiful beaches like Winnifred’s and Frenchman’s Cove.

Kanopi House was built as a family retreat by Brian and Jennifer Hew. As time went on, more and more family members wanted to come, and then friends, and then friends of friends, and pretty soon they opened it as a guesthouse. 

The thrill of staying in treehouses is one thing, but it’s also worth swinging outside on your vine to explore the neighborhood. Each parish in Jamaica is famous for a specialty, and Portland happens to be the epicenter of jerk. The epicenter of the epicenter is a place called Boston Jerk Centre, a narrow strip of seven smoke pits by the road. 

Upper Deck treehouse at Kanopi House, Jamaica
A sumptuous breakfast spread at Kanopi House, Jamaica

Terri Jarret, the quietly confident chef at Kanopi House, has her own special version, and isn’t fazed when we tell her we’ll be checking out famous Boston first. 

“Be my guest,” she says. “You’ll like mine better though.”

It’s an island tradition, going towards the end of the afternoon after the pork and chicken has smoked all day over pimiento wood. The spicy hot jerk is handed to you in packets of foil with extra hot sauce and yams cooked in the coals. It’s easy to chill with your Red Stripe, listen to the resident DJ spinning tunes, and enjoy the delicious spicy chicken or pork. 

If not at Boston, family members gather on Sundays for jerk. The recipes get handed down through the generations, just like with Indian curry or Southern barbecue. When the time comes at Kanopi, all Terri will tell us is that she steams the chicken before she grills it, and she has her own spice mix, which she won’t give away—what self-respecting jerk-master would?—and, anyway, we won’t be able to recreate it in LA because, in Jamaica, all the spices are fresh. She’s right, of course. Here, cinnamon comes in great strips of bark. Pimiento wood flavors the meat. Allspice, bay leaf, Scotch bonnet chiles, nothing is powdered or processed— everything is right off the tree. 

“You can’t do better,” Terri says. “That’s the secret right there. We say it’s the zing.”

Terri’s jerk is exceptionally tender, as well as spicy and delicious along with rice and peas (more like our kidney beans), fried plantains, and a spicy slaw on the side.

At lunch we’re joined by Donna Anderson, quick-witted and elegant, as well as her daughter Krysta, a journalist for the well-known local newspaper, The Jamaica Gleaner, where she chronicles her relationships beat by juicy beat (Single and Iffy to Mingle) and has competed in dance hall as well. 

We go out on a boat with them and Boxer, a former heavyweight champion and the caretaker at Kanopi House. Motoring across to Monkey Island, we pass the partiers in their gorgeous white houses, then slip off the boat into the clear water. Below us are waving fields of sea grass as the current pushes us gently towards the beach. Clouds mass on the horizon. A couple of kids in kayaks pass. Donna laughs at something, and Krysta does too. Boxer joins in, full of pride showing us his gorgeous little corner of the world. It’s hard to ever want to leave. 

If you’re up for adventure after being COVID-cooped up, Emily Lutz with Beyond Travel Company, a Travel Leaders agency (818) 624-1089, knows all things Caribbean and beyond, and can set you up at Como Parrot Cay or Kanopi House.


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