In Mau­ri­tius you can eat your way through his­tory

A rum restau­rant sheds light on a fas­ci­nat­ing past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - ROBIN POW­ELL

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

ROBIN POW­ELL

Pineap­ple and rum dessert

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