In Mauritius you can eat your way through history
A rum restaurant sheds light on a fascinating past
IT’S probably un-Australian to admit it, given the liquor economy of the early colony, but rum has been an essential pantry item in our house only because there is no better way to eat pineapple than to cut it into chunks, sprinkle it with brown sugar and grated fresh ginger, then douse it with rum and bake it until soft, sweet and spicy.
At least that was my view until I went to Mauritius, specifically to a nine-rum tasting followed by lunch at Rhumerie de Chamarel in the beautiful and undeveloped southwest of the island.
The distillery is a complex of red-roofed terracotta buildings set in a verdant valley of jungle, intersected with paddocks of pineapple and fields of sugar cane.
Sugar was the first industry in Mauritius; so rum was the second. The early rums were made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production. A new approach gives primacy to producing rum over sugar crystals, so the canes are juiced and the juice turned into rum. This agricultural rum is considered a superior brew to the industrial molasses-based product. Chamarel makes both single and double-distilled rums, ages some in lightly charred Limousin oak, and flavours some with natural essences.
A group sprawled in a couple of lounges in the tasting room loudly loves the coconut rum; my brandy-loving husband favours the oak-aged gold rum, while I’m surprised to find how much I like the pineapple.
The coconut rum lovers are moving on to coffee rum when we head to the restaurant, Alchemiste, for lunch. A bright bougainvillea sits below the open window by our table. Everything we can see beyond it is part of the Chamarel estate, which is the source of most of the ingredients on the menu, starting with the complimentary appetiser of wild boar rillettes and homemade bread.
It was the Dutch who brought sugar and boar to the island, which in 1598 was just another idyllic and uninhabited speck in the Indian Ocean, albeit one that could serve as a supply post on the long journey to Java. Mauritius didn’t work out for the Dutch; rats off the ships made short work of the sugar cane and the cyclones were unfriendly. And the Dutch didn’t work out for the dodo. Within 80 years of European discovery, the dodo was extinct. Most dodo scholars apportion blame not to the cooking pots of the colonists but to the rampaging boars they brought with them, so it seems right to toast the dodo with a bite of the really very good boar rillettes.
The palm hearts served in the palm heart salad are also grown on the estate. This dish, too, dates back to the island’s early inhabitants, and has become a Mauritian standard. Like the boar, there is a whiff of destruction around the palm heart. This delicacy is the growing tip of the white palm, Dictyosperma album, one of seven palms indigenous to Mauritius. The heart is harvested when the palm is six or seven years old, and it’s a one-off: the heart is taken and the rest discarded. Now they are cultivated, but white palms were incredibly rare when Mauritius became a French colony.
Our next course is a tuna tartare. By now we feel we are eating our way through Mauritian history, the tartare having brought us to the ongoing influence of the French. The French lost control of Mauritius in the Napoleonic wars but French continued to be spoken, and France is the source of more than half the European tourists who visit. The tuna is served with slices of confit tomatoes and slivers of seaweed that give it the finesse you might expect from a Parisian bistro.
For dessert we leave Mauritian history and go back to personal history with the perfect marriage of pineapples and rum. The Rhumerie de Chamarel version adds butter to blend the sugar and rum into a boozy caramel.
It’s delicious, but I think my favourite pineapple and rum moment of the day is the straightup spirit, on ice. It now has a front spot in my drinks cabinet. More: rhumeriedechamarel.com.
Rhumerie de Chamarel in southwest Mauritius
Pineapple and rum dessert