Tan­ta­liz­ing TAHITI

“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.

Taste & Travel - - Destinations - by MICHELE PETER­SON

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.

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