“FOR US, SHARK, TURTLE AND EEL are sacred, so we don’t eat them,” says Bachou our chef as he chops a slab of tuna into chunks on his cutting board.
I can’t say I’m disappointed to hear eel won’t be on the menu. A few days earlier, I’d encountered a swarm of sacred blue-eyed eels on the island of Huahine. Each the size of my thigh, they floated languidly in a roadside creek only writhing into action to feed on fish tossed into the water as offerings by local villagers.
Fortunately there are lots of other foods to eat. I’ve arrived in French Polynesia at the beginning of the rainy season, also known as the Period of Abundance. According to ancient Polynesian tradition, Austral Summer is a period established according to the position of the Pleiades constellation in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a time of bountiful crops, which makes it ideal for culinary adventurers like me.
My explorations into the country’s cuisine begin on Huahine, a 75-square-kilometre volcanic isle located northwest of Tahiti, within the Society Islands of French Polynesia’s 118-island archipelago. Nicknamed the Garden of Eden due to its fertile soil and sacred mountain resembling a reclining pregnant woman, it’s actually two islands connected by a bridge.
My home base is Hotel Le Mahana Huahine on the smaller, more secluded island of Huahine Iti, where I’m welcomed with a lei of fragrant gardenias to my bungalow set on the resort’s magnificent beach. After settling in, I meet up with Chef JeanFrederic Markacz. Born in France, he mastered his craft with great chefs such as Cyril Lignac of Michelin-starred Le Quinzième, then visited French Polynesia, fell in love with the islands and decided to stay.
“Coconut, vanilla and fresh fish are available here year-round,” he explains, placing the trio of ingredients on the workspace.
While lagoon fish and moon fish are popular, we use mahimahi, dredging it in flour, then egg and coconut before frying it. It’s served with plain jasmine-scented rice. As someone more familiar with Mexican cuisine, I’m surprised to see no chiles or spice except for Espelette pepper, an import that’s a legacy of being an overseas collectivity of France.
“Normally in hot countries, people like spice,” Chef Markacz explains, “but here they prefer sweet flavours.”
There’s lots of sweetness in the next dish, a dessert of flambéed pineapple and banana in rum with vanilla Chantilly cream.
“With 12 varieties of bananas on the island, they’re also a typical food,” he says, passing me a small amoa banana to peel.
After enjoying the fruits of our labour, I head out with Island Eco Tours to visit Huahine’s marae (ancient stone temples). Among the oldest in French Polynesia, they’re often surrounded by ti-plants, a shrub known for its magical properties. We watch fishermen tending their stone traps within Fa’Una Nui saltwater lake, gawk at the blue-eyed eels, visit a vanilla plantation and explore the open-air market in the village of Fare. That evening,
a traditional dinner is prepared within an ahima or earth oven with fish, chicken and suckling pig tucked in banana leaves and roasted on volcanic stones. Wrapping up the evening at Hotel Le Mahana Huahine with warm Polynesian hospitality, I watch as dancers tell the stories of the islands through Ori Tahiti, a swaying dance movement similar to hula, done in perfect unison to mesmerizing ukulele and drum music.
Next up is Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa accessed via boat from the larger island of Raiatea. The draw? A member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux portfolio, this luxurious fivestar collection of 57 suites and villas is known for its gourmet dining.
I begin with a beachside lunch featuring Teahupo’o shrimp — a sweet crustacean harvested on a coast known for its epic surf breaks — and a swim in the freeform infinity pool. That evening, cocktails are served in Le Vanille, an open-air lounge-restaurant that feels like a treehouse suspended from the night sky. The lights are low and the dinner menu inspired at Ohiri Restaurant. Upon learning that Taha’a is known for its vanilla, I opt for the vanilla tasting menu. Botanist John W. Moore first identified Tahitian vanilla or Vanilla tahitensis in 1933 and noted it as a new species, a natural hybridization that is softer, shinier and plumper than other varieties. It’s also more fragrant, I realize, with the first
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Learning to make Poisson Cru on a remote island in French Polynesia; Friendly staff of Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort; Polynesian hospitality at Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort; Get up close and personal with a vast array of marine life at Tikeau Pearl Beach Resort.