Photo: New Caledonia Tourism
Danielle Teutsch discovers it's impossible to go hungry in New Caledonia, where French flavours abound.
Thud. Thud. Thud. (Insert sounds of swear words.) Thud. My partner is bashing a coconut against a bench on a white sandy beach in New Caledonia. Thud. It splits open, and he's plainly delighted with himself. He takes a sip and bites into a chunk of milky flesh, then tells me, in all seriousness: "Now at least we will never starve here." You have to admire the sheer resilience of the hunter-gatherer instinct in the male species.
Going hungry in New Caledonia is not likely, of course. This South Pacific island was colonised by France in 1853, and the French brought with them their passion for eating well. Add to this some good local produce and you have a place where you want to take your meals as seriously as lazing on a tropical beach.
So how French is New Caledonia? For a start, my French other-half breezed through customs smugly waving his European Union passport while I had to fill out a form for foreigners. Make no mistake, New Caledonia is still part of the French Republic, though they are planning a referendum on independence in the next decade. French is the official language, the tricolour flaps from municipal buildings, and everyone drives a Citroen, Peugeot or Renault (and they drive on the right side of the road, bien sur). Even the police, or gendarmes, are dressed exactly as they would be on the Champs Elysees in their tight blue pants.
Sitting in Noumea's main square, Place des Cocotiers, to get our bearings, we are both struck with an overwhelming sense of familiarity - for totally different reasons. My partner is obviously connecting with these myriad signs of home. For me, it has the laid-back, tropical ambience of a northern Queensland town, with that distinct undertow that slows everything down. It's an unusual marriage of European and Melanesian influences that is reflected in the food.
Our first stop is the markets at Baie de la Moselle, something of a hub for the French population, a mix of longtime residents, called "Caldoches", and the blow-in "Metros" who come just to work for a year or two to escape dreary northern European weather; as well as the Kanaks. A band plays a rousing Polynesian version of traditional French folk songs (including their distinct take on "Allouette", performed with a ukulele and various home-made instruments) and locals go about their shopping with gusto. It is organised like a typical French market, with the prices written on a blackboard by the kilo. There are yams, giant taro, the locally cultivated "poingo" banana, green mangoes, super sweet tiny pineapples, custard apples, papaya and limes. We spot bunches of greens, which the stallholder described as a Kanak spinach, used to make soup. The seafood stall has live whole crabs with their pincers tied with string, mackerel, wahoo, squid and the small and sweet New Caledonian blue prawns. It's almost startling to see a trailer selling meat, poultry and sausages, that looks exactly like one in a French market town, and hear the same customary banter.
"I have confidence that they will be good, monsieur," a portly woman says, as the owner wraps up a couple of quails for her midday meal, their little heads still attached and drooping to one side. At that moment, we could be in Aix-en-Provence.
My partner spies a "saucisson sec", or dried sausage and is thrilled, as it's something he can't find readily in Australia. The other stalls reflect the cultural mix of Noumea - there are banana French-style sweet tarts, Vietnamese rice paper rolls, pandanus nuts and honey from the Niaouli tree, said to have medicinal properties. Having filled a basket (a warning: the French Pacific franc is strong against the Australian dollar and nothing is cheap here, not even the markets), we head into town to buy baguettes at the boulangerie Marais in the Latin Quarter following a tip from a taxi driver. The baguettes really do taste just like the ones in France, and I can only assume they import the same flour and use the same methods. Then it's off to Comtesse du Barry, a gourmet shop stocking a range of products from France, from pate to foie gras and rillettes, and what must be the most indulgent TV dinner in the world, canned duck a l'orange.
There is also a well-stocked wine cellar. If you fancy a chablis from the Bourgogne, a Saint-Emilion Grand cru or even a blood-red iroulegy from the Pays Basque, it's all there. What we're really hankering for, however, is cheese. Australia's strict quarantine regulations bring my partner to tears - all those stinky bacteria-laden raw milk bries and camemberts are public enemies for our food standards bureaucrats.
But not in New Caledonia. Comtesse du Barry's sister shop, Maison Ballande at Baie de l'Orphelinat, has a full range of cheeses, as does the giant Carrefour supermarket, a drive out of town, but we are short on time so we just go to the closest supermarket. We find perfectly respectable camembert from Normandy, Comte from the Jura and Roquefort.
That alone, is almost worth the 21/2 hour flight from Sydney. That evening, on the balcony of our hotel, we have a fabulous French-style picnic as the sun sinks into the Pacific. If time or budget allows, there are also some good fine dining options around Noumea.
For those who love a revolving restaurant, Le 360 at the top of the Ramada Plaza hotel has panoramic views. Some of the dishes are typically French, such as an entree of grilled foie gras with fruit preserve and chestnut flour bread; while others such as yellowfin tuna in a spicy crust with sweet and sour bouillon have a fusion feel. Expect to pay about $90 for three courses, excluding wine. Also recommended is Le Roof, built over the water with a viewing atrium. Once again, French classics such as beef tartare and crepes flambe are on the menu, though the real star is local seafood.
At our next stop, the beautiful Isle of Pines, it's time for a more local experience. Chez Regis, which has camp sites and bungalows near the spectacular Baie d'Oro, serves a typical Melanesian "bougna". This dish has to be ordered 24 hours in advance, because of the preparation time. It consists of fish or chicken, yams and taro sprinkled with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked slowly in a stone oven. We ordered the fish version, and had a tasty meal of the steamed red mullet, softened by the coconut milk, washed down with white wine and followed with a fruit salad of papaya and guava. The restaurant is on the beach, and a short walk from a beautiful natural limestone pool full of tropical fish.
Chez Regis is not the only place that does a bougna. One of our best meals was our last one, at a kiosk located on Kuta Bay on the Isle of Pines that, from the road, looked like a derelict bus stop. We were greeted by Yves, a tattooed Frenchman. Was he open for lunch? "Bien sur!" he said. As he was getting drinks, a fellow tourist told us that the crayfish was the go. We ordered one to share, plus a serving of parrotfish, and a crunchy salad of prawns and green papaya. As we ate, overlooking the white sandy beach and lagoon of Kuta Bay, we mused that the only thing missing was a bottle of white wine (Yves doesn't have a licence to serve liquor, unfortunately). I sighed with relief at another day where we didn't have to resort to bashing open a coconut.
The writer was a guest of Tourism New Caledonia.
Getting there: Aircalin flies from Sydney to Noumea daily, with fares from $594 return, plus taxes of $124. The flight is 21/2 hours. See http://www.aircalin.com.au or phone 1300 364 181. The domestic airline Air Caledonie has daily flights to Isle of Pines departing from Noumea's Magenta airport, with one-way flights from about EUR88. See http://www.air-caledonie.nc.
Staying there: Le Meridien Noumea is a five-star hotel fronting Anse Vata Cove, about a 15-minute taxi ride to town. Rooms start from $460 for a double. Email email@example.com, see http://www.lemeridien.com or phone +687 265 000.
More information: Tourism New Caledonia has put together a gourmet guide to Noumea, the Bon Appetit magazine, which can be downloaded from its website, see http://www.newcaledonia.com.au. It lists places to shop and dine and some handy French phrases. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (02) 9360 3933 for a free copy.
The tour company Arc en Ciel runs three-hour Taste of France tours which include a visit to a bakery, creperie, chocolatier and cellar. To book telephone +687 271 980 or see www.arcenciel.nc.