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Often, eating during round the world travel is purely about survival, and you might never know where or when your next meal is going to be – or whether it will even be safe. Indeed, you can go an entire day on nothing more than a pack of salty nuts and a Fanta, so rare might be the opportunity to chow down.

However, other times, food can be the Epicurean delight I love it to be. In Belize, for instance, despite being there for a mere 10 days, I was amazed by the variety and quality of the simple but tasty fare on offer.

Reliant on seasonality and availability, cooks prepare food that is by and large genuinely local and fresh. Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about meals of startling compexity, but the reality is they don’t need to be. Fruit and vegetables taste like they’re supposed to – not the hormone-pumped, artificially-ripened and preserved excuses for produce we suffer routinely in the East Dulwich Sainsburys.

Belizean food has three key influences – Caribbean, Latin American, and Creole. What could be better? Of course, you can sprinkle in a little French, American, Chinese and so on – you can literally taste the multi-ethnic cultural flavour of this hot, humid and wonderful land in its genuinely varied recipes.

Anyway, I’m bound to discover more delicacies along the way, and I’ll blog about ones that I think you might find interesting. Now, however, as I sit here in a darkened Nicaraguan hotel room wondering what my food experience I this poetic country will be like, I’m hustling together a quick list of the top five Belizean foods you must try before you can say ‘ready, steady, cook’.

1. Best street snack: Pupusas

These corn meal pancakes are stuffed with meat, cheese and beans. Originating from El Salvador, pupusas are soulful folk food snacks usually served on street stalls at night – and they’re insanely good. Anyone I have asked about them from from Belize, Honduras, or Nicaragua goes all misty-eyed on the subject. My favourites were in San Pedro, the scene of “the great pupusa war“. A young upstart faced off against an older mama in the classic youth versus experience food fight. Rather than take sides, I sampled both. Each was excellent.

2. Best breakfast treat: Fry Jack.

Of course, I should have put in some healthy fruit fare here, given the sheer quality and delicious flavour of the Belizean produce. That’d be to easy, however, so let’s stick with the unhealthy stuff.  This breakfast favourite, fry jack, is a puffed-up pastr. Flavourwise, it seems halfway between a brioche and a Yorkshire pud – with the flavour of the former and consistency of the latter, only a bit lighter. Have it savoury or sweet, though my favourite is served cashew fruit jam and cashew syrup. The best one so far is Stephanie’s at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree.

3. Best tastes-like-home dish: Mennonite steak

When it comes to meat, chicken rules the culinary roost (I have no shame) in Belize. No matter how many different ways you eat it, you will get bored of out of your clucking mind with the white meat. However, when you just gotta have some red flesh, decent steak is hard to find. That’s where French cook Valerie, at Chez Didi in Sarteneja, comes in handier than an horloge for timing a boiled oeuf.

This intense woman, who dropped out of rat race to live simply by the sea and cherish every moment of her life with her two men – husband and son – is a stickler for simple classics using using good quality ingredients. So where does she get them? It would be easier to stop Gordon Brown insulting his target voters than prise Valerie’s supplier details from her. She did tell us however, that she bought her steak and dairy from Mennonite farmers, two hours drive away acoss croc-infested rivers and past steaming jungles in West Belize.

The Mennonites live life as if they’re in the Little House on the Prairie, stuck in time living as they did so many years ago. Shunning technology in favour of traditional methods, they may look weird in their blue dungarees and stetsons, but man, they produce the goods like they’re the Jedi knights of farming. And their steak – which Valerie, unusually for a French cook, actually showed to the grill – was delicious. Who needs progress when the past tastes this good?

4. Best regional classic: Rice and beans

With so much of the country situated in the Caribbean, how could rice and beans not feature in Belizean menus? There’s no doubt about who makes the best version – anyone who is a woman and over 40, a long-suffering wife and mum with a bottomless resevoir of love for her kith and kin. Experienced mum-food is often characterised by a small but tight repertoire of around 10 dishes, cooked countless times until highly personal and  perfected. So it goes with rice and beans.

It sounds so simple, yet it can be so tasty. I remember when I simply had to get a recipe, but shunned the regular cookbooks (pointless reference sources for this kind of dish). In a market in Caribbean Grenada, I practically accosted this lovely old lady and quizzed her about her recipe. Pigeon peas were her secret ingredient but even those little beauties couldn’t rescue my sorry gruel.

No, the perfect rice and beans is all about a ruthlessly-protected secret recipe made over and over again until you feel that it’s all you have lived to do. So my favourite version was from a random street stall in San Ignacio, deep in the West Belize jungle (where we saw our first Mennoinite farmers, coincidentally). Naturally, it was made by a glorious mama, who had clearly been serving it up to her brood for years. Sorry Ainsley Harriot, but your recipe is shite.

5. Best side dish: Squash and onions

Ah Stephanie, your warmth would see us through a Russian winter, but it’s your food I’m honouring here once more. And this particular side dish is a breakfast speciality of Stephanie’s, who happens to be one of the most charismatic and loving cooks I have ever met.

It’s not an easy dish to get your head around at 7am, when your brain thinks it should be eating cereal or something equally uninspiring. However, I was mentally prepared.  Previously, the most confusing breakfast I had was in Vegas. It was a salad  that cost about $15. The most perplexing element was actually eating salad for breakfast. However, it was a buffet and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in a week in America – and my body was literally promising me amazing things in return for a mere leaf or two. It really threw my tastebuds though, they just weren’t expecting it – indeed, they later compared it to coming out of a coma (until I countered that they had no refernce point for such a claim). And, my body kept its promise to go the extra mile; ever since, I have occasionally eaten some suspect food in seriously unhygenic places in the past 10 weeks – and haven’t heard so much as a whisper of protest from my guts.

Creating a new food dawn, at least for breakfast, really paves the way for future surprises, so powerful is its trick on the mind. And it certainly helped me to enjoy Stephanie’s spiced squash and onion as a tasty brekkie side dish in Crooked Tree. Sure, spiced pumpkin in the UK feels like quite a warming lunch or dinner side dish in late Autumn. Yet here, squash is ubiqitous, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, and quite rightly so – it tastes amazing.

Indeed, the way Stephanie cooked it, mincing the squash, shredding the onions, adding her special Belize spice mix, and adding in some garlic powder (fresh would create too harsh a flavour) was pure heaven. And incredibly healthy too – so much so that it gave me license to down a case of beer before lunch. Kidding. Only a quarter of a case.

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This ash thing in the UK is hilarious. Ah, a country, its media and its politicians always need to manufacture a crisis (bird flu, swine flu, maybe gerbil next) – and here’s a big grey one landed in their lap. I can almost sense their exhilhiration from here – their uncalloused, sweaty sausage fingers rubbing together in glee, their booze-swollen spongey noses twitching excitedly as they sniff out some new twist every day.

In the jungle I’m on a news blackout, so I heard the news from locals in Sarteneja in north Belize. Over here, even the Spanish-speaking guys speak ‘Henglish’ with a Caribbean haccent. So they when we learned of the Icelandic ‘hash’ grounding everyone, I thought it was the promising beginning of some laid back new era. Initially we thought that a kind of psychedelic cosmic event had caused an entire continent to suddenly snap to its senses and get stoned as one, making the whole concept of travel pointless – and also terrifying.

If so, the media would have unlimited crises to stoke up, as a hashed-up nation could be easily spooked. You could run scare stories, for instance,  about 24 hour garages shutting down, thus making urgent access to munchies and cigarette papers limited.

Having looked at the BBC news website only once or maybe twice the whole trip so far, the daily freakout passes me by – the news vulture flys by toward a pile of reader carrion whose nerves it can better gnaw on.

The President flies to Earth's rescue

Bless wee Willie Winy Walsh, hurling himself into the cloud, like the President of the USA of America in that corniest of popcorn flicks, Independence Day. Why the hell didn’t big Gordy Brown jump into a silver cat suit with red lightning flashes and jet into the heavens in a rocket-powered jumbo jet screeching Bible passages back to Earth via live satellite feed – crazed Earth saviour, David Icke, could have piloted him into the heavens. Surely, our political leadership couldn’t get any dafter than it already is. Big opportunity missed there, Gordy, and in an election year.

Aye it’s like Hell, in a way, being held in the grip of constant crises, the way the politicos like it fine enough. Fir me, it was a different kind of hell today – we went through the gates of the Mayan underworld.

Swimming into the underworld, in 'ATM' cave

Unlike being roasted over the devil’s bbq in the fiery pits, the Mayan underworld is cool, oh so cool, and an incredible respite from the oppressive, heat and humidity of the Belizean jungle. The entrance to the great Jaguar god’s kingdom is through Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, where we waded, swam and climbed through the 9 levels of darkness.

Here, we crawled and clambered back 5km through a rock, and hundreds of years through time, trancing out in our swaying torchbeams in the dark, and the Mayan shaman rituals and sacrifices to the great, dark god that sprang up in our imagination.

The Jaguar God awaits you

Anyway, it’s morning now, and as I plug this into the old jungle mojo wire (blog), the forest is screeching and the sun is rising. Another hot one in front of us and 6 hours of rickety old buses on dirt tracks criss-crosing the country.

Ah well, it’s a fine enough way to spend the day. As for you Britain, hang in there – get some hash goggles and stock up on munchies.

The water is around 80F, cobalt blue, darker in places, and the visibility is about 25 ft. We are seven divers, 90 ft (about 6 stories) deep down in the Carribbean sea, of the coast of Belize, on the second bigest barrier reef in the world, near San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) where we’re enjoying a fasntrastic holidasy.

The main pack of divers is in sight, but swimming about 15 foot away from me, some flailing enough to frighten away the fish. It’s my 50th dive, and I’m finning smoothly, trying to disturb the water as much as possible. Then it happens – something with fins of its own emerges from the gloom.


Sh-sh-sh-shaaaaark!

It’s a shark. Or should I say, sh-sh-sh-shaaaark!, as they say in Jaws. About 6ft long, with a large dorsal fin as well as a smaller one, and looks like the most confident animal in the water. Ignoring me, it either cares not a jot or is sizing me up. Its posture isn’t intimidating  but – with a perfect design that, fundamentally, has barely changed since the dinosaur era – that could change all too easily. With wild animals, I have an observe but don’t touch policy – I wonderwhat code of conduct the shark has?

Perfectly adapted

Its a real wonder to watch it its environment. Perfectly adapted, its long tail sways side to side rythmically, effortlessly moving the fish through the water. A quick flick turns it on a dime, and it powers off into the darkess, leaving me far beind in seconds. No-one else sees it. It disappears.

Then  it comes back for another run,  coming closer to me, and disappears again. Finally, the rest of the dive group sees what’s going on, and fin over to join me in witnessingn this graceful predator in motion…but then it disappears into the darkness. We’re just about to head back on course when it reappears. And it has brought a friend.

This time, the shark swims right at me. We’re on a chicken course, swiming at each other, me as hydro-dynamic as a Xmas tree, the shark like a torpedo. We’re practically nose-to-nose when we split.  It’s either not bothered or its trying to suss me out – friend or foe.  What’s shark for ‘friend’?

Fortunately, these guys are nurse sharks – harmless to humans. Unless you wiggle your fingers, that is, which they might mistake for squid, their favourite meal. As it goes, almost all sharks will only eat what they can fit in their mouth, and attacks on humans are infesstimally rare. Of course any attack is reported wih disproportionate drama thanks to Jaws, which has in turn made it socially acceptable to slaughter these magnificent creatures to the point of extinction.

Even these docile sharks give us a shiver, though – they just look sharky. Sharks are often bigger than other fish you see – and sharing the same water in such close proximity with such big creatures is a rare pleasure. Before long, we’re seeing more and more.

Where there’s big sharks, there’s big fish

Where there are sharks, there tend to be other big fish. We see the biggest reef fish in these waters, the goliath grouper. At about 6-7ft long, and really chunky, they are massive. Images of fish and chips keep flashing into mind – they also look tasty. There’s a big turtle having varous diseases removed by cleaner fish, and giant moray eels, one of which ugly animals comes righy up to my face,  inches away, as if for a twisted kissing experiment. I feel like I’m being stalked by a 10-pinter in a regional nightclub.

The dive ended on an even bigger high. In additon the to huge fish and large schools of smaller ones swirling around this mother of all aquariums,  more and more gentle nurse sharks appeared. Big and small, there were about 15 in total, some swimming in a school, others all alone, each one masters of their domain. Everyone is capivated, non-one terrified, in spite of the shouty propoganda.

Back on the boat, speeding away from San Pedro Canyon and Esmerelda dive sites on a twin 200 engine speed boat (fast), the group is buzzed. Munching on fresh pineapple and gulping down water, it’s all shark tales from the from the group that lived to spin the yarn. For my 50th dive, it couldn’t have been much better.