We spent an unforgettable day, in the hills above Sainte-Anne, in the company of Philippe Morel, a farmer who is as accomplished at talking about the products he grows as he is at cooking them! For the last ten years, together with the Association pour la Valorisation et la Préservation du Patrimoine des Hauts de Sainte-Marguerite, (Association for the Promotion and Preservation of Les Hauts de Sainte-Marguerite Heritage) he has been working to preserve Reunion’s culture and traditions.
We travelled for a few kilometres, through fields of pineapples and sugar cane, before reaching Philippe’s smallholding, in the hills of Saint-Benoît. We were greeted on arrival by the boss himself who immediately put us at ease. “Come on in; we’re in the kitchen,” he announced with a grin. We were then led into a traditional Creole room at the back of the house: a kitchen, already filled with the scent of spices and a wood fire over which sat simmering pots, sausages, black pudding and “boucané”, a Creole-style, smoked pork belly. Our stomachs immediately started to rumble!
The atmosphere in the kitchen was extremely friendly, right from the word go. Philippe, a natural-born leader, issued instructions, while he chopped green jackfruit, crushed peppers and stirred the pots over the fire. The rest of his family fussed around him and we were soon joining in. The best way of learning to cook is by actually doing it!
Risofé, ti jacques boucané and massalé
We all set to work and the menu gradually took shape: green papaya fritters, spicy tomato sauce baked over a wood fire and Barbel palm salad. Philippe finished seasoning the main dishes over the fire: “ti Jacques boucané” curry and “massalé la corée” – offal cooked in a spicy sauce.
Then, he uncovered the “risofé”: breakfast is served! It’s rice from last night, done my way. You’ll see that the simplest dishes are the tastiest,” he promised. And he was right. Who would have thought that white rice could be quite so delicious?
From sugar cane to beehives
Once we’d devoured our risofé breakfast, we set off to explore Philippe’s smallholding. He taught us how to cut sugar cane and extract the juice by hand. Just a few metres on, he stopped to cut a ripe jackfruit. Within the space of a few minutes, we’d encountered a whole of variety of plants, fruits and vegetables, typical of Reunion island: pineapples, banana flowers, rough lemons, bourbon pointu coffee, sweet limes, tamarillos, screw pines, rose apples, limes etc. And as we walked, we paused to touch, smell and taste.
The morning ended with a memorable meal. Everything was delicious from the black pudding that we sliced over the wood fire, to the “ravaz” – a sweet mixture made from cassava and taro, among other things – and massalé.
Just before we left, Philippe offered to show us something else. We set off towards his beehive to collect and taste some honey; it was a wonderfully sweet ending to a memorable day.