Sunday, May 20, 2007

Going Bananas in Martinique

Take the decadence of classic French cooking--rich sauces, wine reductions, a liberal use of butter--and combine it with a tropical flair--exotic fruits, fresh fish--and you've got an idea of the kind of food I've been eating for the past week in Martinique. Pretty fantastique.

Martinique, is a "department" of France, one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, situated between Dominica and St. Lucia. It geographically resembles the US and British Virgin Islands in that it's mountainous (a volcano actually erupted there in 1902) and lush, especially on its Caribbean (versus Atlantic) side. But unlike other islands I've visited, Martinique has loads of fruit trees growing wild--mango, papaya, lime, breadfruit--and is covered with banana plantations and sugar cane fields. The pervasiveness of these tasty crops, coupled with the French and Creole culture, means you eat well--very well--in Martinique.

Breakfast is croissants and pain au chocolat with guava jelly and sliced pineapple and mango on the side; café au lait and papaya juice to wash it down. Lunch and dinner are seafood spectaculars. I ate lobster, prawns, conch, cod, crayfish, red snapper and mahi-mahi, all from the waters around the island. The restaurant at the beautiful hotel Cap Est served a blowout four-course lunch, including snapper carpaccio, seafood mousse beefed up with aged rum, and rum granita (see photo; note the planteur in the background). Le Brédas, a restaurant in the town of St.-Joseph, with Martinique's big-deal chef du jour, Jean-Charles Brédas, made an amazing banana/foie gras mille-fueille. And the humble Chez Tante Arlette, in the adorable fishing village of Grande Riviere, wowed me with grilled lobster and prawns. No matter where you are in Martinique, there's a good chance your meal will start with accras, which are codfish fritters, light and extremely tasty. Desserts often combine fruit and rum; my favorite was the banana flambée with aged rum at Cap Est.

Speaking of rum, it's a huge part of Martinique's culture, society and economy. Unlike most rum, which is made from molasses, Martinique’s rhum agricole is made exclusively from fresh sugarcane juice. I visited three rum distilleries (Clément, Neisson and Saint-James), and even though I'm not much of a rum drinker, they were worth seeing, as living connections to the history of the West Indies from their earliest colonization by Europeans. No pina coladas or daquiris here; Martinique serves its rum either as ti-punch (short for "petit"), an extremely potent concoction of white rum, sugarcane syrup and lime juice; or as planteur, which I much prefer, a refreshing mix of rum, fruit juice, sugarcane syrup and spices. As it's part of France, of course, Martinique also has great wines.

All this, AND gorgeous beaches, cool zouk music and fabulous hotels. Vas-y!--S