Mauritius is magical – sparkling blue lagoon, white beaches, green heart, and more. This dream island has a spellbinding history that’s best read from plates and glasses
Being a top chef is tough – always, even here on Mauritius. Beads of sweat gather on Michel de Matteis’ brow and his voice betrays impatience. A little man dances in front of him, his eyes sparkling beneath his pirate’s bandana, an octopus in his hands. This crazy scene is a price negotiation. “Too much, way too much,” says Michel, 55, chef de cuisine at the elegant Royal Palm. Grabbing the old fisherman’s catch by the tentacles, he squeezes, testing it, then lets it slip back into the tub of seawater. Splash. “Come on, let’s keep going,” the maître says to me. “We’re looking for red grouper.”
The best fish is found on Cap Malheureux, the Cape of Misfortune, at the rough north end of the island, where storms once tossed the colonial masters’ ships onto the rocks and tons of sugar meant for export poured into the sea, sweetening the surf. The Indian Ocean is as smooth as a mirror today. A pair of newlyweds from China are having their picture taken with the belltower of the Notre Dame Auxiliatrice church. A honeymooners’ paradise.
But the island nation is more than white beaches, blue ocean and scenery for braggarts on Facebook. Its 1.3 million inhabitants have a unique multicultural history, which ensures that every roadside snack becomes a tantalizing trip around the world. That’s what I’d like to talk about.
The Portuguese arrived on the island in the early 16th century, found only jungle and sailed away again. The Dutch followed in 1598, intended to stay, but were chased away by pirates. In 1715, the French conquered Mauritius, stayed, founded the capital Port Louis and imported slaves from the African continent and Madagascar to work the sugar-cane plantations. The British took over in the early 19th century, abolished slavery – and hired nearly half a million workers from India instead. Mauritius gained independence in 1968 and is as colorful a nation as its flag.
Michel strides toward me, his gold chain swinging. He’s holding some kind of perch the length of his forearm and as red as the chapel roof. “I love this fish. It has such a subtle taste.” Michel speaks the language of a Michelin-starred chef and follows every food-scene development in his native France even though he’s been in Mauritius for 13 years. What made him come? “I was cooking in Monaco: stiff collar, stiff cuisine, one Michelin star. After the first one, you want a second, after the second, a third. All you get is a heart attack.”
The offer from the Royal Palm came at just the right time, but the entire first year was a learning experience “I had to get to know Mauritius. The fish, the spices, the cuisine. It was a difficult time but also the beginning of a love affair.”
The affair is ongoing. Michel heads back to his team which is prepping the dinner. Tonight, he will serve a black tiger shrimp rougaille – his version of the island’s Creole dish. And the red grouper he stood waiting for beneath the hot sun? He’ll also throw that into the pan.
I drive along the coast to Mon Choisy, the most beautiful beach in the north. The branches of the casuarina pines seem to reach for the water, and in their shadow, I spot the islanders: Hindu girls in magnificent saris, giggling; elderly Muslims enjoying a smoke; Creole rasta boys smirking, their eyes never leaving the Hindu girls. Everyone is picnicking because that’s what you do on Sunday on Mauritius. “And attend church, of course,” says Nina Sansquartier, 68. Dressed in a sleeveless blouse and pleated skirt and sitting on a colorful blanket, she’s shovelling biryani, a spicy rice dish, from a giant pot onto a dozen plates. The food is for her extended family of about 40.
First church, then off to the beach. Picnics are all part of the Sunday round
“We’re Creole Christians on a pilgrimage,” explains Nina, “and there’s no chicken in my biryani because of Lent.” The Sansquartiers have visited 14 different churches in their rusty yellow bus today. Inside, some of Nina’s offspring have been performing any number of Bob Marley cover songs. He’s great for that.
“Buffalo Soldier” marches tirelessly through my head as I make my way to the island’s economic hub and engine of creativity, Port Louis. The capital (population 150 000) is buzzing with energy. I sit down on a bench in front of the Blue Penny Museum. Behind the thick walls of this colonial building lie the world-famous blue and red Mauritius Post Office stamps – paper-thin and worth millions.
Stamp collectors flock here from around the world, three quarters of them from Germany, but I’m not one of them. I’m more interested in meeting the historian Shakti Callikan, 36 – half Indian and half French, and very beautiful, too. “Most tourists to Mauritius spend all day on the beach and never leave their hotels. The only local people they meet are the pool boy or the waiter.” She wants to change that with her small MyMoris agency. Over the next few hours, I will have a chance to see, feel and most of all taste the real Mauritius.
Amina, 60, has yellow teeth and a broad grin, and makes the best roti in town: paper-thin flatbread filled with thick curry and water spinach. She has been cooking, baking and smiling beneath the tower of the Jummah Mosque for the last ten years. “Around 17 percent of the islanders are Muslim,” says Shakti as I chew. After Hindus (52 percent) and Christians (30 percent), they’re the third-largest religious group on this island of Eden.
The Indian Muslims of Port Louis have been trading in spices for generations. Lentils and chili peppers of every possible color are displayed on 19th-century wooden shelves in shops hidden behind black basalt walls. Shakti introduces me to Abdullah Ibrahim, 82. What do you sell, Abdullah? “Rice, flour and oil.” How long has your family been doing this? “For four generations. I was born in this shop.” And how is business? “Bad. Taxes are high, and people don’t have the money to buy things.” The old man returns to his ledgers.
Because Mauritius is an island, it has to import a large portion of its food supplies and that drives prices up. And because the European Union has abolished export subsidies, sugar cane has gone from being a lucrative export to dead stock. In an attempt to branch into other industries, the government is building a “cybercity” just outside Port Louis in hopes of attracting start-ups. What about tourism? “Most hotels are foreign-owned,” says Shakti, “so a good share of the profits flows out of the country.”
We wander up Queen Street past street vendors – the smell of roasted peanuts fills the air. Stepping through a red gate, we find ourselves in China Town. “The first Chinese arrived around 1820, when Port Louis harbor began growing in importance,” Shakti explains. Now, some three percent of the islanders are of Chinese origin.
Shakti guides me down a narrow corrider into which three tables and a tiny food stand have been squeezed. Miss Yong, 60, rules here with an iron hand. She doesn’t want to talk – “No, no, no!,” but sets down many, many plates of food. Fried noodles, dim sum with chicken in a rich broth, sweet sesame dumplings: Cantonese food in the middle of the Indian Ocean. “There are also advantages to prices being high,” says Shakti. “People appreciate good souls like Miss Yong, who serve delicious but inexpensive food.” The islanders will only eat at a U.S. burger chain “on special occasions,” says Shakti, laughing, herself included. But not, of course, Miss Yong.
Highway M2 circles the island like a gray ribbon on a green carpet. I drive south, no – I creep south. All hell appears to have broken loose on this road. Half a million Hindu pilgrims are heading to the Grand Bassin, a small crater lake near the village of Le Pétrin. The word is that the lake is connected to the Ganges River underground, and so its waters are sacred. Quite a theory, I think to myself, but the semi-nude young men on the road in front of me are convinced that this is true. So, with a five-meter-tall statue of the god Shiva hoisted on their shoulders, they march along in the midday heat, singing. Their faith is evidently a jolly one.
The Chamarel Rum Distillery buildings at the foot of the 828-meter Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire appear painted onto the plain. The estate is alive with the spirit of the old sugar barons but without the cruelty of slavery, of course. Sugar cane is still cut by hand, a backbreaking chore, but today it’s called “organically grown.” Dany Ramsami, 41, stands among the copper kettles and brass pipes in a blue shirt and crewcut, sniffing the contents of a glass. He smiles. “Organic rum: This is our top product. It’s double-distilled and aged for six years in oak barrels from Bordeaux.” Only 800 bottles are produced each year, and annual production comes to a good 180 000 liters.
Of this, 80 percent is sold domestically and only 20 percent bottled for export. Compared to giant rum manufacturers like Bacardi, this is a tiny business. “We’re more interested in quality than quantity,” explains Dany, adding, “the worldwide organic trend is a big help, of course – orders from Europe are increasing all the time.”
Almost half of Mauritius is devoted to growing sugar cane, and most of the plantations are near the coast. But to produce good rum, it’s important for the cane to grow tall, as it does here in this hilly, 70-hectare plantation on the edge of the Black River Gorges National Park. I survey the armada of bottles before me. There’s white Chamarel rum with a hint of bananas, and brown rum that has been enriched with coffee aromas. Dany says I have to sample them all.
As my sight begins to cloud, I decide it’s high time for some food. Fortunately, there’s a restaurant right next door to the distillery. It’s called L’Alchimist and serves creative island food. Shall I once again order rougaille, that fantastic stew full of wonderful things plus lots and lots of garlic? I decide to opt for roast wild pork served with pumpkin mousse and a rich gravy, instead – a delicous example of Creole cuisine, poetry for the palate.
Mark Twain once said something that every marketing brochure should contain: “God first made Mauritius, and from it he created Paradise.” Twain was brilliant and said lots of things worth quoting, but this is obviously nonsense. Adam could never have bitten into the apple on Mauritius because apples aren’t native to this island.
What to see and do in Mauritius
At the restaurant of the luxury Royal Palm Hotel, head chef Michel de Matteis serves up a glorious blend of island and French haute cuisine. Don’t miss his fiery tandoori lobster.
My Moris Tours
Shakti Callikan and Maya de Salle-Essoo know the real Mauritius well. Their excellent tours take visitors to food stalls, markets, tea rooms and artisans’ workshops.
Flying Dodo Brewing Company
Named after a famously extinct bird, this brewery is very much alive and producing the best craft beer in the Indian Ocean. Beer hunter Oscar Olsen invites brewmasters from around the world to Mauritius.
This five-star hotel lies at the foot of Le Morne Brabant mountain. If lounging on the beach does not appeal, there’s a wide selection of water sports as well as golf to pass the time. The spa is one of the best on the island.