Driving along Jamaica’s north coast highway, we reach the small town of Priory, near the resort town of Ocho Rios and head inland. Winding our way up a narrow country road through lushly vegetated hills of small farm holdings we are headed to Zionites, a small organic farm, owned and run by Lisa and Chris Binns.
Parking by the side of an unpaved, rutted road, we are met by Chris who will transport us down the steep drive, a former cattle path, to the farm in his workhorse of a four-wheel drive Pajero. The surrounding hills are shrouded in a story tale mist that breaks every so often to reveal a dazzling stretch of azure coastline far below. The 15-acre and growing farm has been in Chris’s family for over four generations and he recently returned from Canada to take it over.
The headquarters of Zionites farm is a small octagonal wooden room built on top of an above ground 34,000-gallon capacity water tank. The room is accessed by a tree house- style set of steep wooden steps. From this unlikely base that serves as kitchen, office, and home for the couple, they produce a line of innovative and delicious sauces, jams, chutneys, vinaigrettes, tapenades and vegan cakes which they have called “Stush in the Bush.”
“Stush” is Jamaican patois meaning “stuck up” or “superior.” However, Jamaican sister chefs Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau who are fans and who featured Zionites in their culinary and travel TV series 2 Sisters and a Meal, put it best when they say that “stush” is more a sense of pride, a way of demanding and enjoying excellence and living out one’s aspirations. It also neatly reflects the lifestyle the couple has chosen to live, a simple life attuned to the natural rhythms of the countryside, the “bush” they embrace with utter pride and style.
It is mid-morning and despite getting up at the crack of dawn to prepare an order, Lisa, still manages to look chic in a long tie-dye halter-necked dress and cowboy boots. She busily whips up some of her signature dishes for us to sample while regaling us with anecdotes and recipes without missing a beat, her less loquacious husband at her elbow assisting when needed. The attractive couple met five years ago. It is a romantic story of eyes locked across a crowded room and a whirlwind courtship resulting in the Bajan-born Lisa moving from Brooklyn, where she was a public school principal and English teacher, to set up home in this small farm deep in the hills, as far from the streets of Brooklyn as could be imagined.
“When we first met he told me ‘I am a farmer,’ and I said I had never met one and I can’t even grow a tomato,” Lisa says, laughing.
The interior of their home is a virtual cornucopia of the tools of their trade and the wooden central island from which she works is groaning with produce from their garden. All the wood used in their home’s construction is culled from the woodlands on the farm and the local Free Hill community. The result is a rustic organic chic enlivened by bursts of colour. A section of wooden panelled wall has been given a coat of blackboard paint for messages, important telephone numbers, and orders. Painted shelving houses hand-thrown pottery cups, mugs, and dishes from Jamaican potter David Pinto as well as a few examples made by Lisa in his studio. A concrete- topped high counter serves as a bread-making station.
Seated at a wooden topped table on their tiny deck, we are served mulberry pancakes with a mulberry sauce and slices of naseberry fruit. This is followed by a salad of rocket and warm red onions sautéed in vinegar sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and drizzled with their own passion fruit vinaigrette. This is served with slices of Lisa’s black bread right out of the oven, made with rye and oats enriched with hints of chocolate. They are passionate about spreading the word about organic farming and the delicious and healthy meals that can be made with the produce.
“People are falling in love with eating healthy and vegetarian,” Lisa says, “and that does not mean tofu and veggie chunks. For us it’s about ‘sexy’ vegetarian.”
She admits to how lucky she is. “I just like food and a husband who likes to eat.”
“I do the cooking, she does the cheffing,” Chris adds, with a smile.
“What’s important about our line is that it’s very seasonal,” explains Lisa.
Their popular Blow Fyah Sauce is a perfect example of this. A fiery concoction of scotch bonnet peppers, cilantro, coconut oil and spices, it was the inspired result of Lisa being faced with an overabundance of cilantro and peppers one day. Working with whatever is in season and readily available has only increased her creativity, from boldly adding dried scotch bonnet to cookies to conjuring up a roasted watermelon radish in basil pesto.
Chris, who took a while to be converted to the idea of permaculture farming, now eagerly shares this knowledge with local farmers and the youth. Zionites offers tours of the farm including lunch.
Firmly community-minded, Chris and Lisa host a summer camp in partnership with the Peace Corps that brought 28 young people to the farm. They also are advocates of “Trees That Feed,” a programme that supplies trees for planting in small farms, agro-forests, and urban backyards, most especially breadfruit trees which they hope will encourage the use of breadfruit flour for which they also supply a simple grinder.
Taking a pause before the next course, we stroll through their enchanted garden. They have deliberately left existing vegetation and the property is bounded by trees and bushes which also staves off invasion from neighbouring use of chemical fertilizers. They employ contour farming, their vegetable beds following the natural curves of the land and plant using flowers and herbs that discourage pests. As we walk, Chris points out the medicinal qualities of some of the plants and picks and slices fruit including a small pineapple that is sensationally sweet and juicy. As we stroll, we bend to pluck wild arugula, and snap peas, radishes and fruit, all growing together in happy abundance.
As a gentle rain begins to fall, we return to the house followed by the couple’s two dogs and an adventurous puppy, settling inside to sample Lisa’s famous vegan chocolate cake served with mulberry jam, feeling blessed by the company, the food and the bucolic surroundings.
Writer: Alexandra Edwards
Photographer: Cookie Kinkead
Featured in MACO Caribbean Living Issue 16 Volume 2