I spent December 2002 in Réunion, a small Indian Ocean island near Mauritius. I had won a scholarship from the French government, one of several offered every year to South African students, to improve my language skills and knowledge of French ‘civilisation’ in this outpost of l‘Hexagone. Réunion, which is part of the Eurozone and is the outermost region of the EU, is an overseas department of France, meaning that it’s as integral of a part of the country as, for example, Loire and Haute-Savoie. But with an active volcano.
2002 was one of the rare years when Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid al-Fitr were celebrated within a few days of one another. With its large Christian and Muslim populations, Réunion was particularly festive that December. On Christmas Eve, I was taken to a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in a cathedral built from blackened volcanic rock in Saint-Louis, a town in the southwest of the island. Given the cantata’s less-than-pious subject matter, it seemed at first an odd choice of seasonal choral music, but by the end of the performance, it was the obvious – the best – music to celebrate Christmas in Réunion.
The cathedral in Saint-Louis
Although the tenor and soprano had flown in from France, the members of the choir and orchestra were locals, most of them amateur performers whose families were seated in the audience. Small children ran to kiss parents and siblings in the string and woodwind sections; and the altos waved to grandparents seated in the back row, beside the plastic statue of the Madonna with the halo made of pink flashing fairy lights.
The conductor’s role was less to assist in the interpretation of the music, then to marshal his varied and enthusiastic performers into a coherent orchestra, with each section reaching the end of the cantata at more-or-less the same time. But he was also aware of the context in which Carmina Burana was being performed. About halfway through the third section, the muezzin in a nearby mosque began the sunset call to prayers. As his appeal to the faithful drifted in through the cathedral’s open windows – it was a hot, muggy evening – the conductor raised his hands to orchestra and choir, and the performers fell silent. We waited, quietly, for the call to end. The conductor picked up his baton, and the performance continued. Anarchically, joyously.
In Le Tampon (yes, really), the town where I stayed.
Officially claimed by France in 1642, Réunion – first called Île Bourbon after the French royal house, and then Réunion after 1793 (to commemorate the reunion of revolutionaries from Marseille and the National Guard in Paris), and then Île Bonaparte between 1801 and 1810, and then Bourbon again until 1848 (this included the short period of British rule, 1810-1815), when it reverted to Réunion after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy during that year’s revolution – was settled by free and enslaved peoples from three continents.
The first settlers arrived from Europe in 1665, assisted by the French East India Company. The vast majority of those from Africa and Asia were brought to the island as slaves, between 1690 and 1848, when slavery was abolished. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, and east African slaves worked on Réunion’s sugar plantations, usually in appallingly cruel conditions, an aspect of Réunion’s history which figures strongly in the island’s thriving bandes desinées culture. It still exports sugarcane and some alarmingly powerful rum.
Piton de la Fournaise
Réunion’s cuisine reflects the variety of the islanders’ origins particularly well, but is nevertheless also shaped by the produce and climate of the island. Its landscape is as varied as its people. At its centre is an active volcano, the Piton de la Fournaise – which was erupting when I arrived – and three calderas, or cirques (collapsed, extinct volcanoes). Reached on winding, narrow roads, the towns in the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos are at high altitudes, with tall forests, where I found wild strawberries. In contrast, the west of the island is all palm trees, azure sea, and white sand. There are black, volcanic beaches near Saint-Denis, Réunion’s capital at the north of the island, and to the east are the tropical plants grown for the essential oils used in the perfume industry.
Cirque de Cilaos. If you look carefully, you’ll spot the wild strawberries.
I returned home with bunches of vanilla pods in my luggage. I have also never since eaten quite as many litchis as I did in Réunion. They were enormous and perfumed and sweet – and sold by the branch by groups old ladies laden with plastic shopping bags of fruit. I made the – apparently dire – mistake of smiling at these women when I passed them in the town where I stayed. Only much later did I realise that this signalled my interest in buying their produce, and on four or five occasions, I was pursued – relentlessly – by an increasingly angry and rude collection of old women, all determined to sell me bags and bags of litchis.
Litchis for sale outside a supermarket
Usually, I took refuge in the enormous local supermarket while they circled outside. The Hypercrack (yes, really) sold amazing croissants and bread, and I ate millefeuille at one party, and an excellent croque monsieur at a café in Saint-Gilles les Baines. But I also ate a range of different curries, and versions of Peking duck with pancakes. I ate pad thai at a music festival, and bought samosas stuffed, unusually, with pork mince from a street vendor in Saint-Pierre.
As someone coming from newly-democratic South Africa, I was struck by how easily the island’s very heterogeneous population appeared to get along. The performance of Carmina Burana in Saint-Louis seemed only to confirm this willing tolerance of other traditions and religions. But Réunion does have profound social problems: there were riots in 1991, and it has a widening gap between the island’s wealthy and very poor – Réunion’s unemployment rate sits at around 40 per cent.
Cirque de Salazie
Instead of glibly understanding Réunion’s varied cuisine – drawn from Europe and around the Indian Ocean, and influenced by the island’s climate and ecology – as an example of happy multiculturalism, it seems to me that its dishes show the ways in which people from different cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds negotiate ways of living with one another.
Hellbourg, Cirque de Salazie
One of the best examples of this process in Réunion is the bouchon. There are other bouchées in French cuisine, both sweet and savoury, but their similarity lies in their cork-like shape (‘bouchon’ means ‘cork’). The bouchées of Réunion are golf ball-sized, stubby dumplings of minced meat – usually pork or chicken – wrapped in rice paper and then steamed until cooked through.
I first ate a bouchon at a party which had been thrown for our group of South African students. One of our lecturers had spent the preceding week waxing lyrical about the feast of bouchées which awaited us, so I was curious to try them. I confess that I thought they tasted like meat-flavoured glue. While it’s entirely possible that our hostess was a substandard bouchon-maker and that I had the misfortune to try the island’s worst examples of the delicacy, the only way I managed to eat them was by dousing them liberally with soy sauce.
The reason why I think that I was unlucky in my bouchon-sampling experience was that they’re based on the dumplings served as part of dim sum. Indeed, bouchées were developed by Cantonese immigrants to Réunion, and are now made and eaten by most of the island’s population. I think the best example of their hybridisation is the pain bouchon – a popular lunchtime choice sold at Chinese take-away restaurants. These are sandwiches made of baguettes split in half, stuffed with bouchées, and garnished with soy and chilli sauce, mayonnaise, ketchup, or melted cheese.
Cirque de Cilaos
During much of the debate over the current mania for ‘authentic’ cuisine, I think often of the bouchon. It’s based on dim sum – one of the most recent additions to the foodie hall of authenticity fame – but modified by a varied group of immigrants to a small island in the Indian Ocean. Sandwiched in a baguette and slathered in mayonnaise, it’s no longer particularly ‘Chinese’, nor terribly ‘French’, but particular to Réunion. It’s this messiness – literally – that demonstrates the futility, and snobbery, around the quest for ‘authentic’ cuisine.
More of Piton de la Fornaise
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.