ROUGH, READY, HUNGRY
Rough, ready, hungry - Luxury Travel Magazine
|By: Jane O'Sullivan, Issue 50 Autumn 2012|
|(Reunion Island, Creole, Cuisine, Food & Wine, delicious, patisserie, luxury, travel)|
|THE CREOLE CUISINE OF REUNION ISLAND IS A JUMBLE OF FLAVOURS AND INFLUENCES AS WILD AND COLOURFUL AS THE ISLAND’S HISTORY AND LANDSCAPE WRITES Jane O'Sullivan.|
|If New York is a melting pot then Reunion Island, near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, must be a sticky fondue. The Creole towns are home to patisseries that sell samosas alongside baguettes and tartes fines. Restaurants serve gratins of palm heart and choko, and markets are filled with vanilla beans, combava limes and masala spice mixes. This kind of gastronomic dyslexia is the product of a jumbled past involving French colonial settlers, African slaves and, post-slavery, influxes of workers from India, China and Africa. Although the island remains a French territory, it’s the Indian and Sri Lankan influences that have really shaped Creole cuisine. |
The day starts with croissants but it always ends with curry, or cari as it’s called in the local Creole tongue. When cooking for friends the Réunionnaise usually prepare at least two curries with sides of French lentils, rice, vegetables and, in case things get too bland, several varieties of napalmstrength chilli salsa. The reason for all these dishes, it turns out, is rooted in the ethnic mix of the island. You never know if the person sitting down at your table is Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or Buddhist, so island culture dictates that variety is the best way to keep everyone happy. Restaurants, too, serve cari this way, often in the same marmite casserole dishes used at home. At the LUX* Ile de la Réunion, the only five-star hotel on the island, the Clapotis restaurant even features a cari bar where bubbling pots are lined up over a woodfire stove.
There are several to choose from, from staples like chicken to spicy sausage, duck, baby octopus and shrimp. The restaurant also serves more international cuisine – seafood is a strength – but with a Creole twist. The pan-fried snapper comes with julienned choko, songe chips (a kind of local root vegetable) and a garnish of deep fried chilli. Clapotis is one of three restaurants at the LUX* Ile de la Réunion. They are probably the most attractive options for travelling gastronomes. The nearby La Restaurant Saint Gilles, for example, is widely lauded as one of the best restaurants on the island but while the food holds its own, the restaurant lacks a little in ambience. The entrance is by a battery of rubbish bins, tablecloths have seen better days and the décor is rather more country café than Michelin star. Reunion Island has only very recently started catering to travellers with a taste for the finer things. If the Seychelles and Mauritius are known for their resorts, then Reunion has more of a reputation as an adventure destination. Most travelers come for the nature, the wild and breathtaking landscapes. And they are not disappointed.
The island is not large – a drive round the coastal road will take you only four to five hours – but it’s not short on surprises. The landscape is startlingly diverse. From the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and white sand beaches you rise into fields of cane sugar and then rocky jungle. Roads switchback through valleys smothered in passionfruit and choko vine up into the mountains. The highest point on the island is Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano which last erupted in 2007. A black brittle crust of lava reaches all the way to the sea. In places the coastal road cuts through it and even though it has been several years there are cracks and fissures where you can feel intense heat still roiling off the rock. The lava from the last eruption was 50 to 70 metres deep in places and all this heat is still working its way out. The west of the island is made up of three craggy cirques, round valleys ringed by mountains. Reaching these cirques is not for the faint-hearted, or the carsick. The road to Cilaos, a town in one of these cirques, is one of the most spectacular on the island. It creeps along the base of an 800-metre deep gorge and in 32 kilometres it makes 421 twists, turns and hairpin bends. It’s a spectacular cross between California’s Big Sur and Bolivia’s Yungas – which is known, not euphemistically, as the Death Road.
Another of the cirques, Mafate, is so inaccessible that the only way in is by walking or helicopter (although it’s probably the way of the world these days that even in villages where there are no roads, there’s still a 3G signal). Unsurprisingly, hiking is one of the most popular activities in these cirques, along with mountain biking, canyoning and horse riding. There are plenty of tour operators, but the most exclusive option is to hire a private guide who can take you out in a 4WD onto private land. On the coast, you’ll find scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, whale watching, fishing and cruising.
There’s no doubt Reunion Island is maturing. Since the opening of the LUX* Ile de la Réunion, established in 2007 as the Grand Hotel du Lagon and given a Philippe Starck led facelift in 2009, the number of quality hotels and resorts is growing. There are now four four-star options on the island, including the Palm Resort & Spa which has a bar perfectly poised for sunset cocktails plus a rather comfortable spa. It’s the LUX* Ile de la Réunion that continues to set the pace, however, in staff service, comfort and food especially. With Air Austral now flying direct from Sydney to Reunion Island on route to Paris, the island is now a stopover destination on the way to Europe. This too is likely to push the standard even higher as interest grows. But for all that there’s something very charming about Reunion’s rough and ready character. It might be underdeveloped but this also means the hideous side of tourism – the pirate DVD stands, the pushy taxi drivers – are all missing. The environment, too, has yet to be exploited or degraded. The people, culture and food of the island are wonderfully unstaged – this is how people live, and it’s no trouble to put another cari on the fire and invite you to sit down at their table.
LUX* Ile de la Réunion
2 kg large shrimp, peeled
2 onions, diced
1 kg tomatoes, diced
2 long green chillies,
3 cm ginger
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp curcuma saffron (or
Zest of one combava
(or kaffir lime)
1 tbsp fresh thyme
½ cup fresh coriander
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
Grind garlic and ginger in a mortar and pestle. Add oil to a large heavy-based saucepan. When hot add onion and salt and cook until translucent. Add ginger and garlic mix with the curcuma (or turmeric) and cook for about one minute until fragrant. Add diced tomato and chillies and cook for 10 minutes (taste regularly and remove chillies if getting too spicy). Add shrimp and water and cook for a further five minutes, don’t overcook. Before serving add chopped herbs and finely chopped combava (or kaffir lime) zest. Serve with rice and lentils.
|The LUX* Ile de la Reunion with a plantation look and feel.|
|The pool at the LUX*|
|WHEN TO GO|
|Temperatures average between 20 and 27 degrees Celsius, so there is never really an unpleasant time of year to go although the cyclone season is from December until March. Bear in mind that the east coast is often more overcast than the drier west coast.|
|Air Austral flies from Sydney to Reunion Island every Tuesday and Saturday. Return economy fares start from A$1,100. Return Club Austral business class flights start from A$5,100. The flight is around 11.5 hours, and for passengers from other states, Air Austral has an interline agreement with Virgin Australia for domestic flights. If you’re going on to France, there are same day connections from Reunion Island to Paris (less than two hours flight time), and Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nantes. airaustral.com.au|
|As a French territory, Reunion Island has good roads and it’s possible to hire a car but it’s more convenient to hire a private guide to drive you around. Prices are usually around €100 (about A$124) per person and guides are best arranged through your hotel concierge.|
|WHAT TO DO|
|The better question is what can’t you do – Reunion Island has plenty of hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and canyoning options, plus watersports like snorkelling, scuba diving and surfing. Hire a 4WD guide like Dodo Excursions (dodoexcurions.com) to take you into the mountains and helicopter tours are also well worth it. Try Helilagon (helilagon.com). Ask for a tour that includes the waterfall Trou de Fer.|
|WHAT TO PACK|
|Reunion Island is mostly temperate but pack warm clothes if you’re planning any time in the mountains. The temperature can drop as much as 10 degrees. Fast drying and wicking clothing is handy if you plan to try canyoning.|