Mark Twain wrote that ‘Heaven was copied after Mauritius’, but there’s more to
this island than palmy good looks. Stray from the beach to explore how
centuries of immigration have created a diverse culture, a relaxed prosperity
and a richly mixed cuisine.
By half past nine in the morning the old Central Market in
Port Louis has become a swirl of colour, the sultry air filled with voices and
redolent with scorched chillies, street-hawker curries and over-ripe mangoes.
Every kind of spice, fruit or vegetable you can think of is crammed in here,
piled high along with a good many things – chayote root? – you have probably
never heard of. Every daybreak this glorious cornucopia is trucked in from the
market gardens and plantations scattered in the hills around the island, or
brought up fresh from the harbour, just a few streets away. Here, local
fishermen land their catches of tuna and amberjack, giant prawns and curious,
brightly-coloured tropical species netted out among the coral reefs.
Since 1844 this noisy, pungent, crowded market, down on
Farquhar Street in the heart of town, has been where Port Louis – capital of
Mauritius – has come to buy its groceries. The cheerful jumble of French, Creole,
Chinese and Hindi spoken by shoppers and traders tells a story of Mauritius far
richer and more piquant than anything found in a history book.
And what a rollicking story it is: of pirates and explorers
and East Indies spice traders and the Napoleonic Wars; there are Arab
seafarers, early Dutch navigators, Portuguese galleons, the English navy,
French plantation owners, slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar and migrant
labourers from India and China. And this magnificent saga is set on a flowering
Indian Ocean paradise that – until its chance discovery in the early 16th
century – was one of Earth’s last Edens.
‘Here is where it all comes together,’ says Curtis
Saminadas, a 42 year-old Creole chef who often comes down to the Port Louis market
to shop both for his own family’s groceries and in his capacity as sous chef at
the Angsana Balaclava resort, a 20-minute drive up the coast. ‘The story of
Mauritius is a blending together of different cultures, races, religions and
spices – and then making this into something special, something that is unique,
all our own.’
Nowhere does this find more joyful expression than in
Mauritian-style cooking, with its seamless blend of Creole, Indian, French and
Chinese traditions. Once best known for its crystalline beaches, turquoise seas
and as a palmy honeymoon spot, the tiny island is increasingly being celebrated
for its accessible yet unique cuisine, full of richly spicy native-inspired
dishes such as biryani and rougaille.
Just last year a 29 year-old British-born Mauritian woman,
Shelina Permalloo, came out of nowhere to win the BBC’s Masterchef competition.
Only the second woman in eight series to take the title, she wowed the judges
with traditional Mauritian flavours and fusions they hadn’t encountered before.
‘I really wasn’t doing all that well in the contest until I decided to go back
to my roots,’ Shelina recalled when we spoke on the phone before my visit.
‘Although I was born in England, I have been visiting Mauritius since I was 11
years old. One of the tastes that most reminded me of home was the pickled
octopus that street vendors sell on the beaches, so I made my own
interpretation of that, accented with mango and apple cider vinegar. That dish
marked the turning point for me.’
Now the former project manager has a cookbook coming out
this year, plans to open a restaurant in London, and in March (and again in
October) will be running a cooking school at Maradiva, one of the upscale beach
resorts clustered along Mauritius’s southwest coast. ‘We’ll be taking people
into local gardens to pick fresh spices and curry leaves, then showing them how
to use them all together to create the flavours of the island.’
Shelina is in good company. An increasing number of
Mauritians are realising that – in a much-photographed world, where crystalline
beaches and azure seas are two-a-penny – their colourful past has bequeathed a
legacy that sets their pretty little island apart from the rest.
That said, it is still a beautiful setting. When American
travel writer and humorist Mark Twain visited Mauritius on his round-the-world
journey in 1896 he wrote that – having seen the place and talked to locals –
he’d gathered ‘the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then Heaven, and
that Heaven was copied after Mauritius.’
Certainly the island was a pristine paradise when Portuguese
explorer Diogo Fernandes Pereira happened upon it in February of 1507, while
pioneering a new route to the East Indies. Up until then, the 700 square mile
island had been sitting in splendid sunlit isolation for about 10 million
years, since it first emerged from the Indian Ocean in a series of volcanic
Over countless millennia it evolved its own vibrant
ecosystem, its volcanic peaks cloaked in deep tropical forests still riot with
life: exotic birds, flowers and reptiles, many of these species found nowhere
else on the planet. With the exception of a few probable but unrecorded visits
by Arab seafarers centuries earlier, the island had no human history at all.
Nobody lived there. Its white sand beaches were a blank page waiting to be
But its pages weren’t written upon by Pereira, nor the
Portuguese for that matter – or at least, not very much. Pereira named it Ilha
do Cerne, the Island of the Swan, after his ship, then sailed away to
obscurity. Although the galleons of the Portuguese spice trade would call in at
Ilha do Cerne occasionally over the next few decades, to refill water casks or
re-stock their larders with fresh fruit, fish or meat from the giant flightless
birds – the dodo – found in abundance there, nobody settled the place.
It was the Dutch, nearly a century later, starting in 1598,
who wrote the very first chapters, introducing sugar cane, importing the first
slaves, and giving the island the name by which we know it today, Mauritius,
after a wealthy shareholder of the Dutch East India Company. It was they who
famously hunted the poor old dodo to extinction, killing off the last of the
forest-dwelling creatures sometime around the year 1680.
By 1715 Mauritius was in French hands, the Dutch having
abandoned it a few years earlier. The money men of the Dutch East India Company
back in Amsterdam had been dissatisfied with the island’s profitability. Not so
the French. They came to stay and, thanks to the efforts of an aristocratic sea
captain-turned-governor named Bertrand Labourdonnais, the island – renamed Ile
de France – blossomed into one of the most prosperous places in the Indian
Ocean. Gone were the primeval rainforests, replaced with mile after mile of
sun-drenched sugar cane, and grand plantation houses that look lifted from Gone
With The Wind (and indeed are occasionally used as movie sets).
‘They say that it is fangourin, the first juices of the
sugar cane, that runs in the veins of the Mauritians,’ says Edwige Gufflet,
director of L’Aventure du Sucre, as she walks through the gardens of the
museum. Devoted to the history of the sweet stuff, it is set in a restored
19th-century mill in the Pampelmousses district in the north, near the village
where Governor La Bourdonnais had his villa. ‘Sugar is the lifeblood of the
Few Mauritians could claim fangourin-filled veins better
than Salim Soobun, a cane cutter and seventh-generation Mauritian whose
ancestors came over from India more than 150 years ago. Sunrise in a nearby
northerly field finds him and his fellow cutters taking a breather from
harvesting. ‘We’ve been out since 2:30am,’ he says, sitting shaded by a patch
of tall cane. ‘We start early to try to avoid the heat.’ Because of the rocky
ground on the island, much of the sugar cane still has to be cut by hand, with
machetes, rather than with the big harvesting machines used elsewhere.
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.
‘He is my friend,’ one of the men, a Creole named George,
proclaims, throwing his arm around the shoulders of an Indian colleague. ‘I am
a Christian, he is a Hindu and my friend over there is a Muslim – but here in
Mauritius we are all friends and we all get along beautifully.’
The crew, who have been building a new resort on the island,
have come together to mark a successful end to the project with a sega dance,
an intensely emotional and improvised form of music and movement that evolved
out of the days of slavery in the 18th century. Like the platters of food they
have brought, it is an intermingling of African and European elements that has
blossomed into something all its own. With drums and singing and the air heavy
with fragrant barbeque smoke, they celebrate their lives as Mauritians. And
when the dancing and feasting is finished, they pick up every scrap of litter,
wish each other the very best and go home to their families.