As a youngster, Osbourne Bodden recalls going for regular fishing excursions. “I did a lot of hand-line fishing, and later went out on boats. It’s something I enjoyed as a kid – and still enjoy today.”
He says in earlier times, the family meal would be consumed at home, cooked on an outside kitchen, called a caboose. Fried fish was a favorite – as it remains today.
It’s the star of Bodden’s popular venture, the Grape Tree Café, which serves up generous portions of fried fish with such inviting sides as roasted breadfruit, plantain and fresh-cooked festivals.
A born-and-bred “Bodden Towner,” Bodden grew up across the street from the Grape Tree’s seaside locale, next to Lorna’s Texaco, a business started by his mother in 1955 that he continues to run today.
He launched the eatery with his wife Nancy in 2009, after leaving the political realm. After a four-year breather, he is now back in the Legislative Assembly serving the people in the role of Minister of Health, Sports, Youth and Culture.
Taste of Caymanian heritage
The Grape Tree has been a growing success, and one that is also tied to his Caymanian heritage. “This is a part of me and a part of Bodden Town,” he says. “Residents and tourists come here and enjoy it. I like to think I’m preserving a bit of our culture. It was always the gathering spot, the meeting spot back in the day. It was a community hub, and it still is.”
Indeed, the fish fry is often a chance to get together over some good grub while catching up on the “marl road.” Today, there are a growing number of fish fry huts dotted around the island where one can sample island dishes and recipes handed down from generations. Many community associations, schools and nonprofit groups also hold fish fries as fundraisers.
For visitors to the island, it’s a chance to sample authentic local food and culture.
The Grape Tree has garnered some rave reviews on the influential travel site TripAdvisor. Among them: “The locals love it and so did we!” “Fried plate of awesome!” and “Everything was delicious, and there was plenty of it. I wish it were open more than just weekends.”
A tourist from Philadelphia found it a welcome change of pace: “I live in a very urban metro area and consider myself quite the “foodie,” with lots of experience with fine dining, and this is the perfect low-key restaurant if you want yummy, delicious food without the pretense or having to dress up. There’s no better experience than eating first-class food for under $20 bucks with the best view one could ask for.”
It’s those kinds of comments that make it all worthwhile, Bodden says. “I’m really proud of it. People come from all over the world, and they really enjoy it. One lady from San Francisco commented that it was the best reason to return to the Cayman Islands.”
The no-frills, open-air cafe can get busy, especially on Fridays when there are often lines. And it’s easy to see why – the fish is delicious. Bodden grew up “eating a lot of fish,” and along the way became an expert at preparing it. He says what makes the fish stand out is the special seasoning recipe created by Nancy. A good deal of time is spent seasoning the fish and prepping it for the plate. “The frying of the fish is the easy part,” he laughs.
The eatery regularly features snapper, mahi mahi, wahoo and swai (grouper-like fish) on its menu, along with such treats as conch fritters. On a busy weekend, the café can go through as much as 600 pounds of fish.
The fish can be topped with escovitch, a palate-pleasing mix of sweet pepper, onions and carrots in a tangy vinaigrette. Grape Tree also serves roast fish, which is stuffed with cabbage or okra, doused in butter, wrapped in foil and cooked in the oven. Prices vary depending on the portion, but average between $10 and $12.
The Boddens have added dishes from other cultures as well, such as chicharron – fried pork cracklings that are decadent and delicious – along with jerk chicken and pork.
Food enhanced by the setting
Grape Tree’s seaside setting adds to the flavor. The cafe is perched on a narrow stretch of white sand beach where cool breezes come in from the Caribbean Sea. You can sit at thatch-roof shaded picnic tables on the beach or eat on the small terrace attached to the hut. The area is surrounded by an abundance of grape trees – thus its namesake.
An integral part of Cayman’s history and development, fishing served as a lifeline in the early days when Caymanians lived off the land and fruits of the sea. It was a staple in their diet, with many casting a line to reel in dinner. Many recipes have been handed down from generations.
“There are so many ways Caymanians have done fish,” says Osbourne. “My forefathers all grew up on that: fish, with a bit of pumpkin and rice. There were no preservatives in their diet – that’s probably why they lived so long.”