Blending of cultures in Mauritius
Even today more than 80 per cent of arable land on the island is covered by cane fields. The soft, hazy, eroded nubs of ancient volcanoes form an almost painterly backdrop – reminders of the rich, red, volcanic soil that made the island perfect for growing sugar. To work this abundant crop, slaves were imported from French possessions in West Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar. Later, after the English seized the island from the French in 1810, and abolished slavery in 1835, indentured workers were shipped in their tens of thousands from India and China, each bringing their own cultures and traditions to add to the mix.
Most of these workers remained after their term of indenturement was up, so that by the turn of the 20th century an island which 200 years earlier had no human population had been transformed into one of the great cultural melting pots of the Indian Ocean – and one of the most successful. Mauritius is tolerant, colourful, cosmopolitan, and its calendar is filled with a huge array of festivals, rites and observances. Some, such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, are large and formal; others, like the sega dances common to Creole parties or beach picnics, small and spontaneous. One hot Sunday evening at the Draupadi Amman temple in the Vallée des Prêtres in the island’s north, a boisterous firewalking ceremony unfolds. ‘This is not part of any particular festival,’ one of the worshippers explains. ‘Each temple conducts these throughout the year – it’s an expression of our faith.’ Men, women and even children each take their turn to walk serenely across the hot coals, before sitting down to a shared meal as the sun sinks behind the hills.
Even after three centuries, Mauritius’s rich stew of nationalities, flavours, spices and styles is still continually evolving, becoming ever richer and more complex. It is carried abroad in the minds and imaginations of Mauritians who live overseas, such as Shelina Permalloo, as well as freshened with ideas brought to its shores by 21st-century settlers.
When Venetian-born chef Fabio de Poli decided to open a restaurant of his own, after years of trotting the globe working for others, he returned to the place he had fallen in love with 15 years earlier – Mauritius. His bright, airy, modern restaurant, La Table du Château, on the grounds of the grand old Labourdonnais plantation house, is a counterpoint to the château’s tropical colonial architecture.
As with generations of earlier migrants, de Poli brought something from home to add to the pot – in his case a modern European spin on an old and rare Mauritian ingredient: coconut-palm hearts. ‘It was always a delicacy,’ he says of the subtly flavoured pith from the trunk of the coconut tree. ‘But since you have to cut down an eight or 10 year-old tree to get it, it wasn’t often served unless a cyclone happened to flatten a grove of palms. Over the years it was all but forgotten.’
De Poli made an arrangement with nearby coconut planters to supply him with a few trees for the kitchen each week. He removes and finely chops their tender hearts and serves them with an Italian twist: mingled with mascarpone and lemon juice and garnished with thinly cut slices of local smoked marlin. ‘You could say it has become my signature dish,’ he says. ‘What I like best is the look on the faces of the old Mauritians when they discover we serve coconut-palm hearts; their eyes just light up.’
Mauritius’ effortless and amiable fusion of cultures finds daily expression in the countless vignettes and tableaux that unfold around you as you explore the island. It’s sundown, and a boisterous barbecue is being held by a couple of dozen construction workers on a beach near Le Morne Brabant, a jungle-clad volcanic nub near the southern tip of the island, whose caves once harboured runaway slaves.