Looking for restaurants in Mauritius? Want to know where to eat in Port Louis? Food and travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip though Mauritius, stopping off at sustainable hotels, roti stalls and fruit markets.
Ten minutes from the sleepy village of Clemencia, an organic smallholding is blanketed in thick, rubbery vegetation, a verdant tangle of coconut, banana, lychee, sugarcane and taro. It’s off the beaten track, and a million miles away from the clichéd, honeymoon images of Mauritius. There’s a makeshift shelter and mattress in a clearing, and red flags fluttering to ward off bad spirits and wild boars. “I love being up here on my own,” says young farmer, Denis Aristide. “I’ve just planted some chilli bushes and curry plants,” he says, as he points to some spindly stalks. He is also gradually replacing the sugarcane with taro plants, because he can get a better price for the root vegetable. Crouching down, he shakes a plant free from the soil. The leaves are one of the ingredients in a traditional Mauritian curry, the speckled stalks used to make very snackable taro chips.
Denis, who farms without pesticides, supplies Salt, the new community-centred, food-focussed, environmentally savvy resort on the east coast (where I’m staying) with taro leaves. He’s also the head bartender.
One of the hotel’s aims is to get guests out meeting Mauritian people, and this window into Denis’s life adds an extra dimension to my stay. I pull up a stool at the rooftop bar and watch as he whips up one of the hotel’s signature cocktails: No Smoke Without Fire. Each drink comes with a background story relating to the island’s heritage. In this case, I learn that sugarcane was once the most important crop on the island. And that, as far back as 1639, Dutch settlers used it to produce an alcoholic drink called arrack.
My own, very 21st-century Mauritian tipple is a mix of oak-aged rum, burnt cane, home-smoked cinnamon syrup, savage pepper bitters and sweet orange oil, served over ice with a stick of cinnamon. For the final flourish, Denis sets fire to dehydrated sugarcane in a smoking gun, filling a glass cloche over the cocktail with sweet, swirling smoke. The result is silkily smooth and toffee-tinged, with a citrus twist – pure southern comfort.
This rugged volcanic island has had a rollercoaster ride through centuries of slavery, sugarcane production and settlement. Today, it’s a mash-up of cultures and cuisines, from Creole to Chinese, Indian to French. It’s also a tropical idyll, its beaches washed by warm turquoise waters and cradled by coral reefs. The mountainous interior is swathed in luxuriant rainforest threaded with hiking trails that weave past thundering waterfalls. It’s a popular honeymoon destination for obvious reasons. But couples checking into the luxury resorts that garland the coastline often remain cocooned within the confines of manicured grounds.
Salt is something different: a forward-thinking hotel brand that aims to provide authentic experiences for “culturally curious” travellers. The idea is to introduce guests not just to places but to people. The design of the 59-room hotel, courtesy of French interiors guru Camille Walala, reflects the island’s vivid colours. Among its library of 300 carefully curated books, three-quarters are Mauritian.
Food is at the resort’s heart (the philosophy explained by catchphrases such as “Farming it, not flying it”) and everything from supper with a Mauritian family to fishing trips with a local fisherman are on the menu. With an eye on environmental impact there are no mini-bars in the rooms and no single-use plastics. Each guest is given an aluminium bottle to refill at the water stations, and to take home.
The hotel has a Slow Food Travel ethos, supporting small-scale farmers and producers. In each room there’s a guidebook written by locals listing their top restaurant tips around the island, from vegan café Eat with Fingers in Grand Baie to roadside restaurant Chez Tino in the village of Trou d’Eau Douce, which serves a delicious octopus curry with green pawpaw.
At the hotel, there’s no breakfast buffet (to limit food waste) and what is on the menu is seasonal and local. There’s an in-house bakery and the hotel smokes its own charcuterie. Then there’s the farm. Some hotels have kitchen gardens but, from this month, Salt will have a whole farm at its disposal, five minutes down the road and founded on permaculture principles. Developed with the help of a local NGO, Island Bio, the farm has a ground-breaking hydroponic system using beach sand for cultivation.
As well as growing pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, cultivating mushrooms and establishing its own beehives, the farm will be home to a rustic vegetarian and vegan restaurant. The Salt Raw section on the current hotel menu features wildly creative vegan dishes – tacos made from seeds and stuffed with beet balls, vegan soured cream and avocado salsa. The lasagne is a must-order: layers of courgette, tomato sauce, cashew truffle cream, basil pesto and fresh basil leaves.
On the main menu, highlights include homemade chevrette croquettes (crispy, deep-fried shrimp balls with herb mayonnaise) and nutty smoked beetroot with a tamarind dressing. The signature dish is also a showstopper: free-range Mauritian chicken curry with tomato chutney, mango pickle and faratha, a Mauritian flatbread.
Printed on the menu is an invitation: “If you love it, ask for a lesson on how to make it from the chef.” The next morning I put on an apron in the resort’s state-of-the-art kitchen as head chef, Rehad Khader, shows me how to pound herbs, spices and chillies to a paste on a local volcanic stone slab. Along with the complimentary cookery sessions (you can also learn how to knock up vindaye: fish coated in turmeric, chilli, ginger and mustard seeds), the Salt Bakery offers bread-making classes and the bartenders mixology lessons.
Keeping the Salt ethos in mind, I drive to the capital, Port Louis, an hour away, to join a street-food tour, passing pineapple plantations, fields of aubergines and corridors of sugarcane along the way.
The Taste Buddies guide, Dada, gives us a potted history covering the discovery of the island by the Arabs and the arrival of the Dutch, French and British settlers, before leading us off to graze our way around the city’s different neighbourhoods.
Our first stop is a roti stall, where Indian flatbread is spread with chilli and tamarind sauce and rougaille. Dubbed the soul of Mauritian food, this spicy tomato, thyme and chilli-laced ragout forms the basis of many local dishes. We dip into a tiny, off-the-beaten-track bakery, tuck into dholl puri (delicate pancakes made from yellow split peas and wrapped around a bean curry, rougaille and coriander chutney), then pull up a stool for a bowl of dumplings (fish balls, chou chou and sao mai) swimming in a light chicken broth. “Mauritian hangover food,” Dada smiles.
In Chinatown, Dada dishes up more history (the arrival of Indian and Chinese workers after the abolition of slavery) along with gloopy steamed sweets made from rice flour and sweet lentil paste. In the Central Market we peel longan (a cousin of the lychee), chew sticky tamarind sweets with a vicious chilli kick and drink fresh sugarcane juice.
Less touristy is the Sunday open-air market in Flacq, five minutes from Salt, the largest outdoor market on the island. I mooch around stalls piled high with coconuts, okra, plump purple aubergines, mangos, breadfruits and curry leaves. On the way back I swing by roadside snack bar, Ti Baz, for Jimmy Armoogum’s homemade tamarind juice: dark, almost syrupy, and sweet with a hint of saltiness.
On my last night, Vimla, one of the hotel’s ‘Salt Shakers’ (a team of local experts), takes me to the village home of Mirella Armance, who hosts supper club dinners in her garden – with the help of her nine daughters and husband, Alain. The evening starts with an aperitif: a table under the mango and frangipani trees is lined with bottles of homemade flavoured rums: coffee, passion fruit, ginger, rosemary, vanilla, spice and cinnamon.
Crammed around tables under the stars we tuck into chicken curry, rougaille, bean curry, green papaya gratin, and a little jar of spicy chilli paste. It’s hearty home cooking. “If we don’t have chilli, we don’t eat,” Vimla laughs. We even dip fresh pineapple into chopped chilli and salt.
Alain is teaching the table some Creole phrases and regaling us with tales of his fishing trips. Vimla chats about her years studying in Canada and how her 17-year-old son hopes to become a chef. Anais, one of Mirella’s daughters, tells us they had 150 for lunch the day before to celebrate her niece’s christening. “Just a small gathering.” And then the Sega music starts, the singing and the dancing, guests and family together under the night sky. It’s a warm, all-enveloping Mauritian hug of a final evening.
Words by Lucy Gillmore, May 2019
Photographs by Lucy Gillmore, Getty
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