Bermuda-raised chef Keith De Shields breaks into a broad smile as he recalls the aroma of Bermuda fish chowder simmering in the family kitchen of his youth. His father would often stand at the stove, dropping fish bones into a huge pot.
“That’s the secret,” De Shields says. “For good chowder, you have to have homemade fish stock.” But that’s just the beginning of creating the island nation’s much-loved and often-tinkered-with dish.
There’s the addition of finely chopped vegetables, fragrant spices and the local white fish, followed by the slow mixing of ingredients over a moderate flame.
And, right before the soup meets the bowl, the catalysts that bring it all together: a dousing of hot pepper sauce and a shot of dark rum. That’s the way De Shields makes it for guests of the Cambridge Beaches Resort & Spa—no modern reinvention; no short cuts.
“I didn’t see the need to change it,” says De Shields.
The History of Bermuda’s Fish Chowder
De Shields’ version would be right at home in the early 1600s when the first British colonists arrived in Bermuda.
The chowder the colonists prepared left locals unsatisfied, so they quickly made it their own. It was also an inexpensive way to fill bellies. Readily available vegetables and spices blended perfectly with leftover fish meat.
It’s a streamlined efficiency that today is a point of fiery national pride, as uncomplicated as it is delicious.
Authentic Bermuda fish chowder should always include these five elements:
1. White Fish
Local wahoo, similar to king fish, is the only way to go.
“It’s not too fishy, and it has a light, delicate flavour and its firm flesh stands up well in the broth,” explains De Shields.
Bermudians take joy in sport-fishing for wahoo. It’s plentiful in local waters and puts up a good fight when being reeled in—especially the bigger 75-pounders.
2. Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
Dating back to the 1850s, this rum was once bottled in reclaimed champagne bottles from the British Officers’ Mess. Fermented from molasses in charred oak barrels, it has a lightly sweet taste.
“Its roasted, caramel flavours add richness to the broth when added during cooking,” says De Shields.
Since the 19th Century, the British Royal Navy added hot peppers to fortified sherry to create an all-purpose seasoning. Now, it’s one of the defining ingredient for the chowder, thanks to its fruity picante bite.
Order it online, or buy some at the airport before boarding your flight.
4. Fresh Tomatoes
Some versions of the chowder swap fresh tomatoes in favour of ketchup, but that’s just wrong. Demand the fresh stuff to ensure the customary thickness and the chowder’s deep red colour.
And tomatoes thrive in balmy Bermuda, so no self-respecting restaurateur should cut corners here.
5. Bermuda Onions
In 1616, early British settlers planted the first onion and it’s been thriving since, captivating local cooks with its mild flavour and sweetness.
The Bermuda onion’s popularity grew among visiting traders, who began exporting them. Soon the island became synonymous with the bulb-shaped vegetable, so much so that Bermudians were nicknamed “Onions.”
Where to find the best Bermuda fish chowder on the island:
Lobster Pot Restaurant
Since 1973, chowder devotees have come here for a cup or bowl of soup with a broth that’s the colour of milk chocolate and fortified—amply—with rum. The décor, featuring lobster traps and underwater treasures like coral branches and seashells, makes it clear that seafood reigns here.
This eatery takes a different approach to its soup by venturing into stew territory with ample chunks of rock fish. Get there before your reservation time and pull up a chair at the wine bar that’s reminiscent of a Tuscan villa: all trailing vines and sun-drenched shades of gold and red.
Tom Moore’s Tavern
Housed in a 17th-century building, this tavern preserves much of its English heritage including the original casement windows. It claims to have fed more than 3 million guests. Many have dined on the chowder here made with fish stock for its hearty broth.
Overlooking the glittering blue waters of Mangrove Bay, this fine-dining restaurant presents chowder so delectable you almost forget about its great views. Swimming with fine pieces of wahoo and crowned by fresh flat-leaf parsley, it arrives steaming to the table in a deep white bowl, perfect for showing off its exquisitely red broth.