The Turks and Caicos Islands are home to some of the most enchanting beaches in the world: Powder-white sands, crystal clear waters and shores dotted with conch shells. Having lived here for eighteen months, I feel I could write an entire book about this destination.
Above: Pictures taken during the 18 months I lived on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
However, this particular post is purely dedicated to the Turks and Caicos Annual Conch Festival. Held on the island of Providenciales every November, the Festival showcases around 30 or so local chefs, who participate in a conch cook-off on the beach in a bid to compete for the coveted title of ‘Grand Champion’.
For around a $20 USD entrance fee, conch-revellers can try over 100 different dishes which range from: miniature conch burgers, conch crepes, wontons, hot dogs, stew, canapés, curried conch, conch on a stick as well as many weird and wonderful twists on the traditional conch salad, fritter and chowder. The list really is endless. One of the best dishes I savoured at the festival, which has repeatedly won awards at the Conch Festival year after year, is from Bay Bistro – and can be ordered from their restaurant menu all-year-round. They create a seriously addictive combination: wafer thin light crepes stuffed with tender princess conch, earthy baby mushrooms, a robust roasted red pepper pesto and served with a smooth light cream sauce and shavings of nutty parmesan cheese, which for me, was simply paradise on a plate.
Below: pictures taken by the organisers
But before I start harping on about conch, what exactly is it? It’s not an ‘old man’s nose’ as my Dad once assumed. It’s the archetypal beach shell you see in imagery of mythical sea-Gods, mermaids or Hindu deities. With a pearly pink exterior, deep inside this mollusk is where you’ll find the ‘meat’. Once prepared and tenderized, it tastes and looks a little like squid or octopus. Conch has a great nutritional value – it’s a good source of protein, very low in fat and packed with iron and calcium. Couples can forget oysters and Champagne, islanders swear that conch is the only aphrodisiac you’ll ever need. In East Asian cuisines, conch is often cut into thin slices and then steamed or stir-fried. However, Caribbean cooking is a melting pot of rich and creative flavours influenced by European, Indian, Chinese and African methods. So there’s little wonder that you can find every kind of conch dish at the Festival in Provo.
A big contributing factor to the Festival’s success is its beachfront setting in the area of Blue Hills. It’s a stone’s throw from pure white sands, vistas of turquoise and overlooked by small colourful shacks lining the strip. Blue Hills has a traditional and rugged charm when compared to the rest of the island. It is also the home to one of the first settlements and where many of the islanders still live today. This coupled with the welcoming charm of the area is what makes it the perfect spot for the festival. If conch-goers need a breather from the tasting tents, there is live Ripsaw music played throughout the day, a special Conch Blowing Contest and a Conch Knocking Contest staged for participants. And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite, local rum producers offer rum based drinks until the supplies run out. This mixed with the samples left over from the bar-tenders’ mojito contest, marks the beginning of the end for any faint-hearted rum drinkers. But for most, as the rum begins to flow and as the sun sets on Blue Hills, the party starts as soon as the live Junkanoo performers begin.
Sustainably Speaking: The Turks and Caicos is the world’s leading exporter of conch, and unlike other islands, that have banned conch fishing due to shortages, the TCI has a very watertight environmental policy when it comes to conch fishing. Home to the world’s only conch farm, where conch is raised from veliger to adult, the farm which has been running for over 20 years is a big contributing factor to the sustainability of this popular delicacy.
The next Conch Festival, the 11th Annual Turks & Caicos Conch Festival, is taking place on 28th – 29th November 2014. The main event will take place on Saturday afternoon (November 29) in the charming Blue Hills area of Providenciales, outside Three Queen’s Bar & Restaurant.
For more information check out: facebook.com/TCIConchFestival or go to http://www.conchfestival.com
Paradise Photography The above pictures carrying the watermark, were taken by a very talented friend of mine who I met in the Caribbean, Christine Morden from Paradise Photography in the Turks and Caicos, who offers a full service photography company including: portraits, weddings, commercial work, events, and stock photography. Its team of award-winning photographers has the only two Master & Certified photographers on island.
A version of this article also featured within NU Woman magazine (2010): Written by Leah Larwood.