The Indian Ocean: For the sights, but for the food, too

  • 0

The sea urchin dish at Le Méridien Ile Maurice was a showstopper

Crikey. It just struck me why my tortilla had been so bad. The answer was in the plates.

First, understand this. Up to this point in my trip, I’d been in food heaven, jumping the past few days from Asian to Italian and from American Japanese to Brazilian. This was the Indian Ocean, so there were plenty of dishes with a Creole spin, too.

A bonus on these trips is whenever you can get a restaurant sea with a view, which is often.

Not to mention the drinks: single malts, litchi wine and traditional French expressions, too; rum in a variety of formats, including the arrangé variety; and cocktails made from croissants and watermelon skins.

“It was all so fantastic, but what was up with that tortilla?” I asked my fellow diners enjoying our first dinner at Los Lobos, the Mexican-style restaurant aboard the Norwegian Dawn. A couple of us had ordered the platter with pickled onions, spicy rice, pulled pork and fire-roasted jalapeño chillies.

My nemesis: the paper-wrapped tortilla on an otherwise fantastic dish.

They seemed puzzled, and I looked down at their plates and their eyes followed mine. In each, a scrunched ball of baking paper. Mine was empty. Apparently, the tortillas had come wrapped in them. My wife blurted: “Did you eat the paper?!”

The place was dimly lit, OK? Plus, tequila may have been involved.

Most people come to these parts for the beaches, when the food can be just as spectacular.

It was a low point. I’d decided I wanted to strip the foodie experiences from the rest of it: the palm-lined beaches, sleepy volcanoes, deep jungles, swimming with turtles and tropical fish, etc, etc. Flavours often blur to the background on trips like these, and I wanted to fight that.

I arrived in Mauritius first, flying in for a few days to wait for a ship that would eventually take me home with a few stops on the way. I plotted my way to distilleries, but ended up exploring a food ingredient that has propelled islands unknown onto people’s plates around the world: sugar.

Back in the day, sugar was something so rare and misunderstood, it was dispensed from apothecaries. Then it became exclusive to the rich and royal.

“I tell you that if somebody has perfect knowledge to well and duly govern sugar, he will make perfect jam from all the fruits,” wrote Michel de Nostradamus (yes, he of the many predictions) in his Treaty of Jams in 1555. Nostradamus was many things, but also what The Guardian referred to as “the Gordon Ramsay of the 16th century”.

This gem came from the island’s most must-do museums: L’Aventure du Sucre (The Adventure of Sugar). Sugarcane occurs on all the Indian Ocean islands and has been the basis of their economies forever. It was originally planted in Mauritius by the Dutch, who claimed the uninhabited island for themselves in the late 16th century.

The Chamarel single estate rum distillery in the southwest of Mauritius is well worth the visit.

The sugar gave rise first to the making of arrack and, later, rum. This quickly becomes my staple at the resort hotel, where I swap it out for unfamiliar wines to enjoy with locally inspired dishes. There is a particularly memorable sea urchin, served with octopus tentacle, fish roe and a sprinkling of microgreens. On the food side, my go-to is the curry because, thankfully, only the good culinary stuff stuck from a history marked by Europeans, Africans and Asians.

The spiced coconut cream rice pudding on Réunion may not look like much, but it’s a delight

The same is largely true for our next stop – in Réunion, courtesy of the ship I was on, Norwegian Dawn. It wasn’t my first visit, so I was already familiar with the traditional cari – a staple on the island comprising rice, beans and meat with a side of pickled vegetables. Dessert at one lunch stop was a real treat: coconut cream rice pudding, a sublime and typical, lightly spiced island-style sweet.

As with Mauritius, seafood is another constant on menus. Vanilla is also famously grown on the island, as with the Seychelles, for example; but this time round, time kept me from taking a second look at the hand-pollinating farm producing bourbon vanilla. Being a French territory, however, means that not only is the currency Euro, but the baguettes and pastries are to die for. Good thing our retreat was quick!

Have knife, will carve: a demonstration aboard

Aboard once again, I discovered what separates the novices from the pros. While I was still trying to orientate myself, a queue was being dealt with at the reception desk. Later, I realised that the regulars knew that the safest way to get a booking at the most desirable restaurants was to get in early.

Among restaurants often booked up first is the teppanyaki experience.

Like most vessels, the Norwegian Dawn has several dining options. Among them is the Garden Café, a buffet-style venue that, despite its quick-service character, was no slouch when it came to diversity of dishes.

Cagney’s Steakhouse is ubiquitous on Norwegian ships, and for good reason, too.

There was, of course, Los Lobos, but also a steakhouse, a classic French bistro, Asian foods, sushi, teppanyaki and an Irish-like bar and grill called O’Sheehans. I tried many, but in five days aboard, I didn’t get to all. Plus, I spent my time investigating the foodie experiences – my mission for the trip – and there were plenty.

I figured I knew a thing or two about scotch until some of my fellow participants at the Macallan Sensory Experience started speaking up. Clearly, they were on a mission, too.

Any wine pairing experience with cellar master Yuliya Voytenko is unforgettable.

At The Cellars – a Michael Mondavi Family wine bar – cellar master Yuliya Voytenko had her hands full, but this woman’s energy seemed boundless. Event after event, she enraptured her audience like a bandmaster, swinging effortlessly between humour and sprinklings of serious wine information. Over several days, she hosted wine pairings with tapas, chocolate and macarons, which would keep you guessing because wine was served in opaque glassware.

Whisky on the high seas

Elsewhere, there were tastings of Caribbean Tortuga rum cake and rums, different mojito cocktails and even fruit and veg carving demonstrations.

Getting ready for the next flight

On a behind-the-scenes tour, I meet the Dawn’s executive chef, Glen Fernandes, from India. It’s a peaceful moment, although a few hands still wiped and swabbed in the background while we chatted. Along a wall of the kitchen – large and gleaming stainless steel – pictures of dishes were up on display: the benchmarks for whatever needed to go out.

The last sunset before docking in Cape Town, I order a cocktail that intrigues me. It’s delicious and is made from watermelon rind. It’s part of the Sail & Sustain bar, an initiative on many ships in the NCL fleet and an extension of a larger, impact-reduction initiative. Kitchen waste, like watermelon rinds and even old croissants, have been repurposed as cocktail ingredients.

Cruises are about cocktails, and there’s plenty to choose from.

In my drink, the rind overnights with a sugar sprinkle, blended and strained to become a syrup. This is then mixed with tequila, fresh lime juice and chilli pepper liqueur. A lick of spicy paprika on the glass finishes it off.

Norwegian has a number of cruises that operate from Cape Town. (Photograph supplied)

As I let the sun’s golden orb sink into my glass and the ocean beyond, I reflect again on those ingredients until I get to the chilli. Suddenly, I’m back at Los Lobos. No ways am I going to make that rookie mistake again. Let’s hope I’m back aboard soon, ’cause the jokes just won’t stop – until I do.

Photography: Clifford Roberts, unless otherwise indicated

See also:

Michelin-sterre skitter in Stanford

Porto, waar port nog port mag wees

Knysna Oesterfees

Van laventellande en pastis tot nostalgie en goeie SA wyne

Wynmuseums: Wyngeskiedenis kry lewe by dié wynplase

  • 0
Verified by MonsterInsights