Welcome to the haute-cuisine hub of the South Pacific - where a multitude of influences blend seamlessly for a culinary experience like no other. Penelope Quinn takes us on a food adventure in New Caledonia, where she's faced with all sorts of local delicacies!
No matter how much our affable guide John Claude declares his love of the rich, delicate flavour of his favourite local fare, nothing can prepare us for the shrivelled, blackened carcass, complete with sharp teeth, rubbery wings and lolling tongue that’s served up. Creamy juices leak from its roasted corpse, while a deep-fried rabbit fish and a leathery looking piece of venison are served as uncomfortable bedfellows.
“Oh it’s delicious,” John Claude assures us in his thick French accent as we sit under a makeshift shack serving up local delights at the Avocado Festival in Mare, New Caledonia. “We roast him in red wine, onion, garlic, with a touch of salt and vegetables. You are very lucky to have a taste.” The visiting locals from Noumea certainly share his enthusiasm, sucking the juices off the wings, and licking their fingers.
We take small nervous bites, and agree out loud that it’s delicious, lest we cause offence to our generous hosts. After all, roasted flying fox – or Rousettes - is a highly prized delicacy in these parts.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that New Caledonian cuisine has only roasted bats and fruit salad to offer. The local Kanaks have been enjoying the spoils of a colourful smorgasbord of seafood, earthy root vegetables and tropical fruits for the last 3000 years, and when the French took possession over 175 years ago, the architecture, the culture, and of course, the cuisine took a decidedly French turn.
The result? On the islands you’ll find yourself slurping down ‘Bougna’ – meat or fish from today’s catch, root veggies harvested in nearby plots and cooked to perfection with banana leaves and coconut milk in a makeshift underground oven. While just a few hours away on the bustling cosmopolitan city of Noumea you can sample a superb culinary creation by a classically trained French chef in an elegant beach side restaurant.
One such chef is Thierry Boudry from L’Atelier Cuisine
We learn that in this part of the world, chefs clearly take enormous pride in their ability to combine so many ingredients with different origins into creative and delicious dishes. And some of those ingredients aren’t that far from home.
“We use a lot of ingredients from Australia and New Zealand actually,” Thierry tells us via a translator. “In New Caledonia, during some seasons, we do not have a lot of fruit and vegetables, even though we may grow plenty here,” he says, referring to the wrath of Cyclone Pam that recently wiped out much of New Caledonia’s crops.
“We always try to cook with local produce – that’s what is fresh and what is best. But when that’s missing, we rely on imports. The French chef has many different techniques to use on different produce at different times.”
One thing they never have to import is the bountiful seafood trawled in by scores of fishing boats every day. Expect to see lobsters, muscles, oysters, mud crabs, shrimps, fish and prawns on menus, along with the famed local venison on constant rotation with traditional Gallic fair.
Just a stroll around Noumea is enough to make your mouth water - buttery pastries, creparies, hand-made chocolates crafted by expert chocolatiers and gourmet stores where visitors can stock up on pates, terrines, fois gras, duck cassoults, gooey cheeses and to wash it down, an impressive selection of French, New Zealand and Australian wines.
If you’d prefer someone else to do the cooking for you (highly recommended) you’ll find traditional ‘bistrots’, sidewalk cafes, and elegant beachside restaurants serving everything from snails, to Coq au Vin to Lobster Thermidor.
New Caledonia is indeed a gastronomic wonderland, where culinary favourites are tried, tested and transformed. For lovers of fine wine and gastronomy that don’t have a spare four weeks for a trip to France, you can’t do better than the sultry isles of New Caledonia. You won’t need your Euros, but be sure to pack your appetite, a sense of gastronomic adventure and a French translator app.