A fusion of French and island fare, New Caledonia is a culinary connoisseur’s Mecca, writes Tatyana Leonov.
If Captain Cook were still alive he’d probably be kicking himself for not claiming his discovery. The British explorer discovered the collection of islands and islets that make up New Caledonia in 1774, and thinking that the landmass looked a little like Scotland named it after his father’s native land but he decided he didn’t want it and the French claimed it in 1853. At first the French used it as a penal colony, but today the French overseas territory is a magnet for both residents and travellers alike.
Glimpsed from the air New Caledonia is a patchwork of vibrant greens and wishy-washy yellows painted on a turquoise-blue canvas. Most people arrive into New Caledonia by air – it’s worth it just for this view. Those who cruise in still get the white-powdery sand and jaw-dropping blue sea view – just at eye level – as their first impression.
However you arrive, you’ll quickly notice that New Caledonia is defined by two key factors – its melting hot pot of cultural influences, the land and the sea. These are the two facets that not only drive the New Caledonian way of life, but also the burgeoning culinary scene. In New Caledonia you could be dining on French foie gras one night, trying an aromatic coconut-based stew the next, and watching a local fish being grilled right in front of your eyes on night three.
The people’s influence
New Caledonia’s population of around 260,000 or so people is made up of mainly of Melanesians (also known as Kanaks) and French descendants, as well as a smaller number of inhabitants from Wallis, Futuna, Tahiti, Indonesia, Vietnam, Vanuatu and other nearby countries. This combination of cultures makes for a remarkable mix of cuisine. Interestingly enough, although local ingredients are teamed with imported goods (mainly from France), there’s no fusion of cooking styles, just a mix of local and imported ingredients used in cooking that makes for unique flavours. Travelling to New Caledonia therefore allows you to indulge in two distinct cuisines – French with a touch of the Pacific and traditional Kanak food.
The capital Noumea is where you’ll first experience the French influence, and some liken the bustling metropolis to a slice of the French Riviera. It’s easy to see why. The capital’s shoreline is dotted with boats, the architecture pays homage to classic French design, and the food is fabulously French – no shortcuts.
Many restaurants in Noumea boast executive chefs that hail from France, residents walk and talk French (think baguette in hand, beret on head), wine stores are jam-packed with French-imported wines, and supermarkets stock more French cheese varieties than some supermarkets in France. For the utmost luxury in French dining minus the travel time and intermittent weather, fine dining is the way to go.
At Le Roof you really feel the France in the Pacific vibe. The restaurant is housed in an overwater bungalow reachable by walking along a wooden pier for about 100 metres. The sizeable eatery features a high roof that’s designed to represent a traditional Melanesian hut and all the seats offer superb water views. On the balcony you look out onto the sea, while inside you can look down into the ocean (one of the quirky-cool design features is a central see-through atrium at the centre of the floor that allows you to watch the colourful fish and reef sharks darting underneath your feet as you eat). Great views are even better when matched with good food and wine, and the French-inspired menu has a selection of dishes that showcase French food cooked using a mix of both local and imported ingredients. The French wine selection, of course, is large.
At La Coupole, another French-themed restaurant, chef Aurélien Lemone and his team focus on bringing quality French cuisine to the table. Local crab cooked French style is often featured on the menu, while other dishes might include aromatic black truffle risotto or duck foie gras tagliatelle on any given night.
And it’s not just fine diners doing the French thing well. You’ll also find creperies in town that perfect the French-style crepe to a tee (Le Rocher and La Creperie Brentonne are two of the best in town) and even an exceptional chocolate shop – Chocolat Morand, where artisan chocolatier Patrick Morand blends sweet and savoury tastes crafting world-class chocolate that both locals and travellers line up to sample.
Away from Noumea the land beckons with all sorts of local delicacies. The mainland landscape is diverse; from rugged mountainous terrain, to farmland that seems like it’s never- ending, to serene islands that each have a personality of their own. New Caledonia’s country cuisine reflects the land, but more importantly the people who live there, and it’s in these regional areas that you’ll come across authentic Kanak cuisine.
In small countryside restaurants you may not be given a menu, instead you’ll be served whatever is fresh and cooking that day. Here chefs are often chef couples who farm their own animals and grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs, as well as run a restaurant onsite to cover costs and share their culture with those passing by.
Although you’ll get whatever is cooking, it’s probable that it could be bougna, one of the most famous traditional Kanak dishes where a variety of ingredients, often yams, taro, fish and shellfish (and sometimes chicken or even bat) are immersed in fragrant coconut milk for hours, then slowly simmered for several more hours in banana leaves.
Venison is also often served for lunch and dinner, as hunting deer is legal all year round (because of the surplus of deer in New Caledonia). At La Petite Ferme, a 34-acre ranch, restaurant and home stay in the La Foa district, husband and wife team Jean-Louis and Annick Bouvier often serve deer ragu to their customers if they’ve had a successful hunt. They farm ducks, chicken and pigs and grow their own vegetables. They also always sit and eat with guests. In the countryside meals are a time for relaxation and sharing stories, and Jean-Louis and Annick always ensure they are able to not just offer food – but also time to anyone who visits.
New Caledonia’s produce comes from the land and the sea, and the best place to get a sense of what’s fresh and local is by heading to the market at Port Moselle in Noumea. Here early risers holler amongst one another as they munch on croissants, Kanak women dressed in brightly coloured floral muumuus joke as they sell fresh pineapple, papaya and mangoes, and seafood vendors haggle with in-the-know buyers, ensuring they get the best price for whatever came in the day before. There are red chunks of tuna and fillets of mahi-mahi next to plethora of other fish varieties, as well as prawns in every size, oysters, octopuses and mussels.
Meat lovers need not fret as New Caledonians are creative and bold when it comes to cooking, playing with shifting textures and tastes to achieve just the right flavour. Venison, a French introduction, is popular throughout the whole country, and it’s one of the local meats you’ll find on many menus, both in and out of town.
At Le 1881 former Michelin-starred chef Didier Broux serves tangy venison strips soaked in lime and olive oil as part of a tropical fruit salad (a dish that showcases New Caledonia’s local produce), while at the restaurant at L’Escapade Island Resort, located just 20 minutes by boat from Noumea, venison might be presented as part of a salad, a Carpaccio, or cooked on the BBQ and served as part of the buffet. Out in the country you’ll get venison however the chef sees fit that day – which makes it all the more exciting.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in abundance in New Caledonia, and according to Julie Harris, one of New Caledonia’s most renowned bloggers, it’s the mix of fresh fruits combined with local meats and seafood that make New Caledonian cuisine so interesting, a concept that is still being explored in Noumea because of the strong association with French produce.
One café that is putting local first is Au P’tit Café. They only serve four main dishes and four desserts a week, and these are completely reliant on the local produce available at the markets. The innovative café is closed Saturday to Monday and only opens for lunch and dinner sittings Tuesday to Friday (“to give staff a life,” says owner Gabriel Levionnois). The food is always fresh, the menu is always changing but the constant is that the food always tastes delightful.
It’s a bit like New Caledonia itself – always changing but forever delightful.
Getting there: Aircalin flies to Noumea direct from Sydney, Brisbane and now Melbourne. aircalin.com
Further information: New Caledonia Tourism; visitnewcaledonia.com