Sugar and spice on the island of Reunion

A culinary and cultural exploration of the island of Réunion.
The volcanic landscape of the French enclave of Réunion, which sits between Mauritius and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The island still experiences almost annual eruptions. Eric Nathan / Loop Images / Corbis
The volcanic landscape of the French enclave of Réunion, which sits between Mauritius and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The island still experiences almost annual eruptions. Eric Nathan / Loop Images / Corbis

Without the volcanic activity that leapt through the floor of the ­Indian Ocean three million years ago, Réunion, between ­Mauritius and Madagascar, wouldn’t exist.

The inactive volcano, Piton ­des Neiges, is the highest point on the island, which is a department of France popular with holidaymakers from the mainland. The volcanic activity sculpted the vast, rugged interior of amphitheatres or “cirques”. The terrain here is challenging, with treacherous mountain paths, spiralling waterfalls, Alpine-like forests and remote hamlets, such as those at Mafate, only accessibly by foot – or helicopter.

The island’s other volcano, the youthful Piton de la Fournaise, is less than 400,000 years old. It has erupted almost annually since 1998, and glowers like the Eye of Sauron, providing a spectacle that’s on most tourist’s itineraries. It’s also a stark reminder that life on this tropical island – which has about 200 biomes, and moderate average temperatures of 24°C (chilly in the verdant mountains and often blustery along the black-sand coast) – is at the mercy of an uncontrollable natural force.

Many of the Réunionnaise I speak to see themselves as inhabitants of a volcano floating in an ocean close to continental Africa, but they also consider themselves French.

“We Réunionnaise, we eat, we drink, we discuss,” says Nicolas Barniche, my guide, of the locals’ favourite pastimes. He promises a “discussion” over a cup of the country’s most precious export, but not at a regular cafe – instead, we venture to the source.

The rich volcanic earth has been particularly good for one crop reintroduced in 2003: coffee. This is Bourbon pointu, a sought-after varietal that costs more than €200 (Dh796) per kilogram. Sugar cane replaced coffee entirely from about 1880 until its 21st-century reintroduction. Now Pointu is produced in small batches, and sells out long before the cycle is complete.

Maximilia Vitry, the managing director of the Bourbon Pointu Coffee Cooperative, invites me to her small estate, Café Hier, in La Chaloupe, in the hills south of the main town of Saint-­Denis, which is wind-lashed on the day of my visit.

Pointu evolved naturally from Arabica that was brought to the island, which was known then as Île Bourbon, from Yemen in 1715. Réunionnaise coffee was declared one of the best in the world by King Louis XV’s court. By 1771, pointu’s mutation had stabilised, with smaller leaves, and petite, pointed cherries that, when ripe, are a deep burgundy hue.

We examine the fruit with Vitry and her mother, Marieta Payet, who helps to hand-harvest the crop, part of a seven-member, all-woman team. Labour to harvest in Réunion is costly, and producers are paid “a fair price”, explains Vitry, a certified coffee “sommelier”.

We zip up our windbreakers while Vitry prepares everyone for the perfect brew. She announces that the piquenique, a local tradition of cooking and eating outdoors, will move to her sister’s house 10 minutes away, where it’s warmer. On this island, which is 63 kilometres by 43 kilometres, unless you hit the single-carriageway traffic or the neck-whipping bends in Cilaos, most places are easy to drive to.

At our destination, Vitry uses a ratio of seven grams of coffee to 100 millilitres of boiled water, and measures the temperature with a kitchen thermometer – 94°C is ideal. “I fell into it like Obelix and the magic potion,” she laughs at her self-confessed “coffee obsession”.

First, we inhale the aroma – hints of citrus and floral notes; it tastes fruity, with no bitterness. Its 0.4 to 0.8 per cent caffeine is one of the lowest levels of all varietals. There’s no need for sugar or milk. The terroir, or characteristics of the soil, will affect the taste of the crop each year, and so will the weather, Vitry tells us. ­Cyclones have previously destroyed entire crops.

But there are plenty of reasons to celebrate today. At our picnic by the pool at Vitry’s sister’s house, we dine on slow-cooked lentil stew, Chinese chicken stir fry, and rice and mango achard (pickle). Payet discovers that she knew Barniche’s grandparents, having stayed on one of their properties as a child where her parents worked. There are hoots around the table, and declarations about how connected the island is.

Before we leave, I spot a large jar of vanilla pods on a shelf. Vitry tells me that most families keep some in the kitchen, and even cultivate them in their gardens. Réunion was known for its vanilla well before coffee arrived. Like coffee cherries, vanilla pods take nine months to mature.

At La Vanilleraie, a plantation in Sainte-Suzanne in the north-east, an agricultural engineer, Bertrand Côme, takes us through the process from hand pollination (there are no bees here) to “killing” the beans in water at 65°C (which transforms them from green to brown), drying, sorting and packing. The aroma of vanilla drying, plump and chocolatey, is heady.

In 1819, the French brought vanilla orchids to Réunion from its native Mexico, but for 20 years, Côme says, there were no flowers. When one appeared, it was a 12-year-old slave, Edmond Albius, who pollinated it by hand, having learnt basic botany and gardening from his master. For a long time, however, Albius wasn’t credited with the ­discovery.

At Côme’s plantation, workers handle the vanilla pods at eight different stages. “I don’t think technology can ever take over the job of the hand,” he says. “Even the length of the bean depends on the hand that pollinates it.”

In the plantation’s store, vanilla-­infused creams and stacks of pods are arranged invitingly. Large chests contain pods in tubes with spiky crystals called vanillin. These, Côme says, are the “diamonds of vanilla”, created through oxidation in the glass. Vanilla ice costs €1,000 (Dh4,008) per kilogram. I leave with a stack of pods, and pages of Côme’s recipes and meticulous storage tips.

After all that sweetness, it’s time for lunch, and cari is what I’m hankering after. It’s declared by many to be the national dish, a “curry” that’s less spicy than the Indian version. Caris may contain the ubiquitous goat (cabri massalé), duck, tenrec (a local hedgehog), seafood, chicken and aubergine. The food in Réunion is much like holding a mirror to the cultures that have remained, merged and gently shaped the island into what it is today.

For all the vocal Réunionnaise allegiance to France, there’s uncertainty when the question of identity materialises. It’s a mixed pot – the French former ­colonisers, Indians, Chinese and Malagasies make up the core of society, with everyone born on the island, such as Barniche, known as Creole. Technically, though, Creole heritage refers to that of mixed-­ethnicity locals such as Vitry and Payet.

While many identify strongly with the mainland, stories of rejection are not uncommon. Yves Severin, the co-owner of the chambre d’hote Le Grand Pavois Gîte in Les Avirons, smiles. His immense handlebar moustache rises. His ancestors can be traced back to the Anglo-Indian Goan women who arrived as brides in 1763. Severin mentions his struggles with being accepted as French when he fought as an officer in the French army.

We step out of the kitchen for air, leaving his wife, Elourda, to tend the pots of zamboukal, a local pilau-and-garlicky-sausage rougail, on a charcoal stove that fills the room with a smoky haze. A passionate home cook, she takes me through the spices and herbs essential to Réunionnaise Creole cookery, including spice leaves, turmeric, curry leaves, ginger, garlic, garam massalé (every family has their own treasured recipe) and piment, or chilli.

Their son, Sebastian, who’s in his early 20s, faced similar discrimination when he left to work in a factory on the French mainland. “I didn’t understand why they were laughing at me when I said I was French. They called me a Kanak,” he says, referencing the indigenous French New Caledonians. Sebastian has returned from an outing with his friends, to eat his mother’s food. “It’s the best,” he says to ­Elourda, who beams, covering her smile with her apron.

Less showy than the neighbouring islands, with glamorous resorts frequented by honeymooners and wealthy families, Réunion is well known for its long-standing adventure scene – white-river rafting, canyoning and abseiling down tricky ravines, rock climbing for seasoned mountaineers and multi-­day hikes in remote regions.

There aren’t many brochures advertising Réunion’s subtler heritage and cultural aspects. In pursuit of this, I visit the fine French-style restaurants, traditional boulangeries, rustic beach diners and the chaotic markets groaning with tables of polished produce, freshly churned coconut sorbet and samoussas. However, few places give me the insight into Réunion’s cuisine, culture and the inextricable link to identity as my visits with Côme, Severin, ­Vitry and other families. Once you start conversing with the locals, the recommendations may overwhelm you – a much-loved stretch of beach; which traditional ­Creole houses accept guests; which festival is the most colourful (try ­Cavadi or Deepavali); what makes a garam massalé exceptional; and who makes the best baguette.

The propensity for gossip and chatter on the island is all part of the national pastime: “To discuss.” Though in some cases, that’s not an altogether bad thing.

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Published: February 4, 2016 04:00 AM


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