In Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, they know their conch. You can sit in casual beachside joints like Flamingo Café on Grace Bay Beach and enjoy it served fried and cracked. You can savour it spun into handmade ravioli under palm trees at Coco Bistro. Or you can sample a gourmet conch tasting platter by candlelight at Anacaona restaurant.
My own gastronomic discovery begins the night I check into the Grace Bay Club resort. It’s a cool evening on the Grill Rouge restaurant patio, so I order a bowl of conch chowder. The soup reminds me of the classic Manhattan-style clam variation, with the taste of conch blending seamlessly into a satisfying and hearty bowl rich in seafood flavour. I’m encouraged by this first taste on the island and am hungry for more.
I’m up early the next morning to visit the Caicos Conch Farm, the only commercial conch farm in the world. Owner Chuck Hesse has been breeding conch since 1984. A marine biologist by trade, Hesse founded the farm after shipwrecking on the shores of Providenciales. In high season, his farm can yield up to three million conch, most of which will be sold commercially to local restaurants for roughly $9 per kilogram.
Touring the farm has made me eager to try hunting my own conch, so I book a dive with Caicos Dream Tours the following morning. I hop aboard a speedboat and soon I’m crashing over waves to the blasting tune of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry with guides Pop and Leaky. At Mangrove Cay, they drop anchor, pull out a box of snorkel gear and tell everyone to jump in. At first I see nothing more than seagrass and small fish, but after snorkelling around for about a half-hour, suddenly there, partly buried in the sand, is my prize. I dive down, grab my conch and return triumphantly to the boat.
We make our way to Half Moon Beach where Pop and Leaky turn my catch into fresh conch salad: a mix of green and red pepper, onion, hot sauce, lime and garlic powder. Raw conch has a slight chew to it—a bit like coconut meat in appearance and texture—but combined with the fresh lime and vegetables, it makes a beautiful ceviche. Leaky encourages me to eat my salad with nacho cheese Doritos; I feel like a true islander.
Back in Providenciales, I regale my Grace Bay Club concierge with stories from the hunt. He insists that for the true conch experience, I must head to Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills. Soon enough, the hotel SUV is whisking me to the seaside café, famous for its fresh conch and potent rum punch. On a beach where sand is as fine as powdered sugar, I pull up a chair and order a conch salad, a seafood platter with cracked conch and conch fritters, rice and peas, a side of coleslaw and a round of rum punch. The two varieties of deep-fried conch here are the best I’ve tried, and of them, the cracked conch (so called for the tenderizing it takes to make the meat doughy soft) is my favourite. Lightly breaded, it’s delicious dipped in a sauce of mayonnaise and ketchup.
Though the week in the Turks and Caicos has come and gone, I feel completely satisfied, and dare I say, even a little conched out.