6 Jan 2016

TRAVEL: Of Plants and Politics

Douglas Blyde motors to market with leading Mauritian chef, Ravi Kanhye...
(An extended version of an article for Good Things magazine - subscribe here)
WE ARE are cowed by canes or shaded by flamboyant, red and violet, and orange and white bunting as we travel the backstreets of the rugged, ravishing island. Both sugar harvest and national elections are scything through. ‘40% of the island is covered in it,’ says Ravi Kanhye, executive chef of resorts, Heritage Le Telfair and Heritage Awali. Apparently Ravi refers to the sugar crop, although I imagine the same could be said of political paraphernalia.

We speed to capital, Port Louis to see the wholesale market, which Ravi calls a ‘paradise of products’. Deep storm drains flank the road, recently fixed ‘because of the elections.’ Fuel prices also dipped, by three times in as many weeks, ‘although we still pay the same as Europeans, only on a quarter of their wages,’ laments Ravi. However, despite his qualms, Ravi cannot imagine living elsewhere. ‘When in South Africa the temperature dipped to 12 degrees, so cold I fell sick. Our winter is 20!’
Along our journey, a broad billboard promises, ‘Unité et Modernité’ care of the polls in four days time, while the self-proclaimed, ‘Famous Phoenix Brewery!’ is indeed ‘unrivalled’ despite a host of imitators, confirms Ravi. Then there is a flour mill, which prompts him to tell me that flour and rice are ‘basic ingredients of Mauritian food.’ As we near the city, the Mauritius Commercial Bank looms, gazing upon a six-lane carriageway which feels overkill an artery given the island’s diminutive scale. ‘Great architecture’, applauds Ravi of the big eye-like structure. It rises near the national hotel school. ‘We train staff from scratch who study one day a week there,’ he says. ‘Then other hotels try to steal them!’
Water-stressed palms flank a rough-hewn junction currently leading nowhere. Their brittle leaves blur into a sign bearing McDonald’s familiar Freudian arches. ‘They came eight years ago,’ says Ravi. But KFC is better. ‘“Let’s go to the Kentucky,” we say in Mauritius!’
We spring from air-conditioned taxi onto the hectic Saturday tableau. At the sight of a distant police car, less-than-legal hawkers ricochet, towing sacked wares. Elsewhere, a display of upturned hallucinogenic leggings rotates while a trader tries but fails to charm an old hag with a posy of plastic flowers in plastic pot. Within the covered market, I see great clumps of chillies then tomatoes. ‘The pomme d'amour has firmer skin and higher acid – ‘ideal for cooking,’ says Ravi, clearly in his element. He gestures to green turmeric, ‘good for blood’, and ginger, garlic, onions and coriander. ‘Without these we can’t make Mauritian food,’ he says. Cassava roots look almost petrified while pomegranates blush. ‘This one! this one!’ urges a trader of the latter, whose grin reveals he is largely toothless. ‘Mauritians have a sweet tooth, yes,’ nods Ravi.
‘We eat lots of leaves in Mauritius,’ he says, stroking particularly well displayed taro and Chinese cabbage. As I inhale a bushel of lychee leaves, which prove amazingly fragrant, I note Ravi has paused like a predatory cat, spying a chef from a rival property. Like Ravi, he ventures here at least quarterly to check prices, ‘but not normally in uniform.’
We enter the food hall via a narrow arch adorned with Christmas tinsel incongruously threaded around a fluorescent tube. ‘Here you eat without knife, without fork, without tissue!’ says Ravi as we tuck into split peas and cumin-stuffed Dhal Puri flatbreads. A sign above the stall reads, ‘real prayer is something different’. Ravi says hello to a friend from his village, who is ‘here to buy fruit to sell in the village.’ For refreshment, we segue to another stall, where a pretty lady dunks a plastic jug into a bowser of tamarind before snatching Ravi’s bank note. For pudding, we try aloha sorbet from a small stall beside a mannequin with snapped-off arms. ‘If you want to discover Mauritius, you have to come to places like this,’ says Ravi. Close by, France’s influence shows in the huge wicker trough of baguettes.
Although produce is abundant now, when the cyclone comes, ‘price will rise madly,’ says Ravi. I ask why. It turns out, despite Ravi’s encouraging efforts to see more home-grown produce, much of this bounty is imported. ‘The cyclone affects roads,’ he says. ‘There’s less rain nowadays. Water is why we need to change PM. We should build more dams to stop it flowing out to sea.’
When I ask Ravi why we have not visited the apparently racy livestock market, he looks at me quizzically. The resort, it transpires, has its own larder of livestock. I later visit the 1,500 acre Frederica Nature Reserve in safari-style charabanc, chewing on a tranche of cosy, fibrous sugarcane. There I learn from guide, Vichal, that ‘all four-legged animals were imported to Mauritius.’ These include wild boar and Java deer. ‘There were only bats before - and the dodo,’ he adds with a smirk. Guests often join formal hunts, June to September, stalking quail, pigeon and hare amidst the exotic ebony and bois de natte trees and sadly inedible punky red pineapples.
Dodging a clearly de-governed, angry-sounding moped whose pillion brandishes a bag of greens, we head back to the car. We take a pit stop at Ravi’s family home on the fringes of Tyack where I meet his gentle-seeming, expectant wife, their vivid, brightly-clothed nine year-old daughter, and horse-sized pet dog, ‘Tiger’. The latter beast, who eyes me hungrily, is secure, thank goodness, in a Guantanamo-grade bastille. A slow cooker specifically bought to tenderise his ample meaty meals operates beside. Overall, the spacious home reminds me of the villa in which I am staying back at the resort. ‘Exactly!’ says Ravi. ‘I used to cook private barbecues for up-to 10 guests in their villas.’ Through wraparound windows, canes flourish and briefly rustle. The view is better from the top floor terrace, which Ravi confirms ‘is only for Champagne!’
Ravi’s phone rumbles. He gives instructions, sparingly in Creole for tonight’s 300-strong function. Soon, we curve the coast road. Ravi tracks a kite-surfer holding the white crest of a wave before achieving good air time. ‘He needs to be careful in Mauritius: he’ll have to pay airport tax!’ Soon, we are past the gates of Heritage Le Telfair where we transfer to a golf cart to softly roll to ‘Le Château de Bel Ombre’, the most upmarket restaurant of 12. Others include ‘Amafrooty’, where scant-clad dancers interpret the rhythm of the djembes drums around a firepit, and ‘Gin’Ja’ with lagoon view, although the best seat at that adults-only restaurant is at the counter where flash-frying occurs to percussion-like clatter of scrapers over plancha.
Once the preserve of a wealthy sugar merchant, the wood-panelled colonial mansion saw a lavish restoration. 17 layers of paint were stripped from the terrace doors. Today ‘Château’ as Ravi abbreviates it, overlooks not canes but a championship golf course, preened in preparation for the upcoming tournament to be screened to 600m.
Here ingredients adhere to Ravi’s evangelical ingredientism, being 95% locally-raised, from palm hearts - ‘a world of difference to tinned ones’ - to pineapples, bananas and sweet potatoes. Sadly Ravi’s signature lightly-poached deer brain fritters with watercress are not on the menu today, so I begin with estate pigeon cooked with ginger and citrus. ‘It can be quite challenging, being harder meat than in France’ worries Ravi, needlessly. I also try brackish wild boar brawn and silken breadfruit curry, as well as architecturally-impressive wild boar ribs. I end with sugar in the form of locally distilled voluptuous vanilla-infused shots of rum...