Little France In The Pacific
Welcome to the haute cuisine of New Caledonia – a mix of island and bush specialities and delightfully decadent French fare, writes Tatyana Leonov
East of Australia but officially a part of France, New Caledonia is an idyllic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. A mere 250,000 inhabitants are spread between the island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Beleps and the Isle of Pines.
Melanesians (also known as kanaks) represent about 42 percent of New Caledonia’s population, French descendants make up around 35 percent, and the rest of the populace is made up of inhabitants from Wallis, Futuna, Tahiti, Indonesia, Vietnam, Vanuatu and other nearby countries.
The serene location, the interesting mix of cultures and the ethos of island life make it the kind of country that you never want to leave. Chefs cook shrimp straight from the sea, island fruits are plentiful and traditional Melanesian food is unique and delicious.
The French influence is strong too – French chefs lead kitchens, homemade patés and full-flavoured cheeses dominate the market shelves and residents pedal along with baguettes sticking out of their bicycle baskets.
The capital is the centre of New Caledonia’s epicurean scene and is home to some of the best French restaurants in the southern hemisphere. Thanks to the luxuriant nature of French food and the freshness of island fare, Nouméa’s chefs fuse contemporary tastes and offer visitors an exceptional culinary experience.
La Coupole (+687 26 44 11) is a fine diner that’s busy most nights with an elegant crowd. Waitresses shuttle local crab to almost every table, duck foie gras teamed with slippery ribbons of tagliatelle makes its way to a couple who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Parisian movie, a fragrant black truffle risotto smells so enticing diners peruse their menus again. If it wasn’t for the temperature and the view you could be in Paris.
Chef Aurélien Lemoine came to New Caledonia from France for an extended visit but ended up staying. “I’m passionate about New Caledonia and about my job,” he says as he delicately places eggplant caviar and glazed broad beans around a seed-crusted tuna steak. “I always try to do my best and satisfy each client’s specific tastes.” It’s easy to see Lemoine is a man of his word judging by how much effort he puts in to the finishing touches.
The chefs at Le Roof (+687 25 07 00) apply that same French precision and elegance to the preparation of their meals, and the local mahi-mahi fish steak is a definite must-try. The other wow factor about this eatery is its position. It’s located in an overwater bungalow that hovers above the sea, and connected to the shore by a 100-metre-long pier. Once at the restaurant, you emerge into an expansive dining area with a high roof that is designed to represent a traditional Melanesian tribal hut. The balcony seats offer fabulous marine views, or you can choose to sit at a table in the central viewing atrium where you can look down onto the water. There’s something extraordinary about watching tiny colourful fish dart around under you while you eat.
New Caledonia is home to a huge, fish-filled body of water between the mainland and the outer reef, and seafood, particularly shrimp- and crab-based dishes, are especially popular on the islands. The serene Isle of Pines and the almost-untouched Loyalty Islands are a hop and a skip away from Nouméa (Isle of Pines by boat, and Loyalty Islands by air) and offer visitors the chance to get away from city life. Meal times are never rushed, takeaway is unheard of and some restaurants don’t have menus and just serve whatever chef is cooking that day.
A unique traditional Melanesian dish is bougna; yams, taro, fish and shellfish are marinated in fragrant coconut milk, then slowly simmered for several hours in banana leaves. Coconut crabs are also a wonderful and tasty local specialty, and an unusual delicacy for the more adventurous culinary connoisseurs is the Isle of Pines snail, also known as the bulime (it’s a specialty of the commune of Farino, West Coast). With a texture similar to that of a witchetty grub – an edible bug native to Australia – you may find it used in soup and bougna.
The most authentic island dining can be found on one of the Loyalty Islands. These atolls are inhabited only by native islanders and represent the survival of a fragile world, one untouched by mass tourism where the indigenous Melanesians cook only the freshest produce. Often restaurants are housed in traditional Melanesian huts that are built using wood and coconut palm fronds and there’s something sublime about eating whatever you’re given in such simplistic, yet awe-inspiring surroundings.
If you’re short on time L’Escapade Island Resort (+687 262 200) is located just 20 minutes by boat from Nouméa. Many people choose to stay overnight in one of the beautiful overwater bungalows and the island restaurant is set up as a mammoth buffet offering guests a cornucopia of foods to choose from.
Chef Sébastien Reullier has worked at the island restaurant for over two years and can’t picture doing anything else. “We are always trying to bring new ways of cooking and new flavours to our buffet,” he explains. “We use prawns and fish from the lagoon and our popular local meat is venison. It’s delicious served as part a cold salad, a carpaccio or cooked on the barbecue.”
Food from the land
Jean-Louis Bouvier is a big fan of venison, and explains that hunting deer in New Caledonia is legal all year round because there is a surplus on the mainland. Today Jean-Louis and his wife, Annick, have made venison ragu for their guests at La Petite Ferme (+687 44 34 05), their 14-hectare ranch, restaurant and accommodation located in the La Foa district.
Groups of cheerful people sit and chat as the duo apply the finishing touches to the lunch feast they’ve been preparing all morning. Annick carefully places the venison atop a swathe of creamy sweet potato mash, then Jean-Louis passes the meal to the closest diner who then passes it along the table. After all the guests are served they plate themselves up and sit with the group. “We always eat with out guests,” Bouvier explains. “This is how it should be done.”
Eating in New Caledonia is a social affair and the further you go out of Nouméa, the more likely you’ll get to partake this authentic eating style. The Bouviers have been running their ranch for 27 years and attribute their success to honest, hard work.
“We have this farm restaurant,” Bouvier gestures as the 12 people get stuck into their lunch. “Students stay here and we teach them how to cook, we grow our own vegetables, farm a few pigs, chickens and ducks, and we
hunt for deer and wild pigs. We live life very similarly to our predecessors.” He smiles warmly at his wife who is helping a guest to seconds. “That’s why the food tastes so good!”
Tips for travellers
1 There are two distinct seasons in New Caledonia. April to November is cooler and drier with lows of 20oC in July and August. From December to March it’s humid with more rainfall and average temperature around the 25oC mark.
2 The local currency in New Caledonia is French Pacific Franc (XPF). Mainstream restaurants will accept credit cards, but it’s advisable to carry cash. The residents on the Loyalty Islands don’t use money in day-to-day life (instead, they trade goods) but restaurants expect visitors to pay with cash.
3 Nouméa is easy to get around but a tour guide is recommended for more remote locations. Tours can be organised on arrival or beforehand using en.visitnewcaledonia.com as a guide.