Creole cuisine à la martiniquaise is the fruit of many influences—over the centuries, many customs and cultures were superimposed to produce a broad palette of flavors. Culinary traditions remain strong in Martinique, and recipes are handed down from mother to daughter. Every occasion, whether a holiday or a family gathering, is a pretext for feasting and many kitchen artisans still offer ancestral recipes.

In the pre-Columbian era, the island’s original inhabitants were Amerindians—the two principal ethnic groups were Arawaks and Caribbean Indians. They lived primarily by fishing and hunting, but they also practiced agriculture, growing manioc, or cassava, and eating peppers and roucou, the seed of a bush also used as a dye—roucou seeds flavored the oil used in fish dishes. The buccaneers of the Caribbean introduced grilled and smoked meats, and each nationality of those seafaring Europeans brought recipes from their own countries. Spanish paella was transformed into matété or matoutou; the Dutch inspired dombrés, flour-based dumplings that absorb the taste of their sauce. The French contributed tripe, among other things, and the Portuguese arrived with salt cod. African slaves, with their knowledge of root vegetables, started growing them on the island; merchants from India disembarked with their spice mixtures; and so it went. Each new arrival, whether a willing settler or a slave, enriched the island’s gastronomy with new flavors. Cross-breeding exists in cuisine too.

This small bit of fertile land is blessed by the gods—everything grows in Martinique, and even though traditional Creole gardens—tiny plots cultivated behind the island’s cabins—have gradually been abandoned, it appears that the new generation is starting to understand their importance once again. Many fruit and vegetable growers are now cultivating légumes pays (native vegetables) and herbs, and their local orchards are again bearing fruit.

The sea is omnipresent in Martiniquaise cuisine. Shellfish, crustaceans and fish are eaten both raw and cooked. The basics of fish cookery are spices and marinades, generally based on limes, chives and peppers, and the techniques most often used are poaching, fricasseeing and grilling. If the island’s famous barbecued lobster, stuffed land or sea crab and chiquetaille de morue (shredded cod in a vinaigrette sauce) can be found in any restaurant at the beach or inland, other, rarer dishes are only offered at the most authentic addresses.

Do you know what une touffée is? (Or un touffé, depending on your source.) Or how about tiritis, matoutou, chatrous, z’habitants or lambis? The first is a dish of minuscule fish scooped up in a net and cooked à l’étouffée (smothered), covered and simmered slowly in their own juices. Matoutou (sensitive souls, stay away from this one) is a dish of crabs that are cracked into pieces while still alive, cooked briefly over high heat, then simmered with spices for about 15 minutes and served with rice. Chatrous are octopus; z’habitants are crawfish; lambis are conches, large mollusks that, if not pounded into tenderness before cooking, have the consistency of rubber. Blaff is a court bouillon, often highly spiced, used for poaching fish.

The omnipresent spices and peppers are powerful signature ingredients in the cuisine of the entire Antilles region. The dish called féroce, for example, is well named: mashed avocado mixed with cod and fresh hot peppers and thickened with manioc flour, it’s an invigorating appetizer served when avocados are in season. There are many ragoûts (stews), of fish or meat, usually poultry or cabri (kid), and a lot of curries, also called colombo. But fortunately, as relief for the palate, these highly spicy dishes are accompanied by salads of carambole (starfruit) and mango, flans or terrines of papaya (also known as pawpaw), veloutés of sweet potatoes or bananas, and gratins of christophine (chayote, a pear-shaped fruit that tastes something like cucumber) or giraumon (a squash similar in flavor to pumpkin).

In this land of plenty, mango and breadfruit trees grow on the roadsides, especially in the north of the island, and in home cooking, root vegetables have a strong tradition. Recently, professional cooks have stopped boycotting these native vegetables—the fad for mainland produce is finally over. Today it’s not even unusual for chefs to grow vegetables in their own potagers. They also don’t hesitate to head for the capital, Fort de France, after the dinner service is over, to the big wholesale fruit and vegetable market that opens about midnight. There they can find super-fresh produce sold by families that come in from the country and sell only what they grow themselves. On the other hand, large-scale cultivation of bananas and pineapples means that local chefs always have these fresh fruits available. (Here, bananas are used in both sweet and savory dishes, depending on the variety.)

The Martiniquais, as island inhabitants are called, adore sugar, and with local sugarcane, one of the island’s great resources, they make much more than rum (see Martinique Rum, France Today, February 2009). All sorts of sweets and preserves made from native fruits are concocted by island artisans. Tototes confites are made from breadfruit; filibo is candied tamarind; lotchio is a ball of grated coconut in syrup; doucelette is cane sugar cooked down into a crisp bar. There are also bars of brown or white coconut, and nougat made of cashews or pistaches (the confusing local name for peanuts). For anyone with a sweet tooth, these exotic flavors are irresistible.

More classic, but just as interesting, is the island’s chocolate. The Elot company is justly proud of celebrating its centenary, and, while local cacao production has dropped and provides just 30% of the beans used in their chocolate, all the beans are roasted on site. Fifty percent of the beans come from Africa, which gives the chocolate a robust and slightly bitter flavor; 20% comes from Central America and the rest from the Caribbean. That seems only fitting, since it was the Caribbean Indians who planted the cacao trees when they arrived on the Ile des Fleurs, as Martinique is sometimes called, where the plant flourished in an ideal climate.

The company was founded by Auguste Alexandre Elot in 1911, the same year that Halley’s comet appeared, and the comet figures on all the company’s packaging. To keep the bars from melting in the island’s heat, the recipes used here are not the same as those for more temperate climates. Less fat is used and the granular structure is different. Sweetened with the island’s cane sugar and flavored with local vanilla, the taste is unique and delicious. Besides the classic dark chocolate bar—the most interesting—the company also makes milk chocolate and dark chocolate with lime zest, bits of candied pineapple or grated coconut. An absolute must is the “communion chocolate”, or feast-day hot chocolate, in which the cocoa is perfumed with cinnamon, enriched with praline and thickened with cornstarch. Elot chocolate is found all over the island.

Another team of chocolatiers, the Lauzea brothers, never cease to invent new flavors for the ganaches in their bouchées, or filled chocolates. Of course there’s rum, but there’s also tropical mint, cinnamon, pineapple and, more surprisingly, hot pepper and bois d’Inde, a highly aromatic berry similar in flavor to the clove. The very pretty boutique is full of these sophisticated chocolates and pâtes de fruits. (23 route de Didier, Fort de France, 05.96.56.98.83)

For a long time, Martiniquais women made and sold delicious, simple ice cream from stands in the street. Health regulations forced them out of business, but Claude Constant took up the relay and opened a little shop called Ziouka Glaces. An immensely talented artisan, Constant has expanded his line and now offers sorbets made of all sorts of local fruits and herbs, including a ginger-cinnamon version that will delight the most jaded palate. The ice cream flavors, aside from the standard vanilla, chocolate and rum raisin, might include peanut, manioc, corn or giraumon. Everything is natural—no artificial coloring or preservatives—and the flavors on offer depend on what’s in season. You can eat in or take out. The Ziouka shop is located in the north of the island, not too far from the legendary Mount Pelée, whose summit is almost always hidden by clouds. The saying goes that if you are lucky enough to catch sight of the summit, you’re sure to return. (1 pl Jules Grévy, Le Carbet, 05.96.78.49.40)

Another local specialty that all visitors must try, Vireel fruit juices are prepared daily and sold in the refrigerated section of food shops. They come in small-sized bottles that encourage you to try several flavors—passion fruit, pineapple, mango or the more unusual Cythera plum and acerola (wild cherry). You’ll also find them at gas stations and bakeries, along with Tivolienne coffee. A mixture of Arabica and Robusta beans, roasted daily, this highly aromatic coffee has a unique and powerful taste perfectly suited to the island’s climate.

For spices, the covered market in Fort de France is a must, where the vendors rival each other in their efforts to lure customers. Some of them are amiable, others less so. A good choice is Ti Dédette, at the center of the market, a well-supplied stand where the personable saleswoman is generous with information and explanations. You’ll find all the spices needed for colombo, bois d’Inde for blaff, manioc flour for féroce, and cinnamon and vanilla beans for desserts.

After marketing, stop at Chez Carole for lunch. Carole Michel, a sweet woman with a luminous smile, runs the show alone in her restaurant kitchen. Lunch is served at big tables, half in the market and half on the street. Start with a ti punch before enjoying the authentic Martinique cuisine. Everything’s fresh, and very good.

MARTINIQUE NOTEBOOK

HOTEL

Le Domaine Saint Aubin Laurent and Joëlle Rosemain have skillfully created a delicious ambiance in this beautiful colonial home overlooking the sea. The charming bedrooms, the salon and dining room with their 19th-century furnishings, the cool air circulating with no need for air conditioning, and the table d’hôtes open to non-residents make it well worth a detour. Petite Rivière Salée, La Trinité, 05.96.69.34.77. www.ledomainesaintaubin.com

RESTAURANTS

Le Petibonum A beach restaurant that stands well out from the pack, where charming owner Guy Ferdinand welcomes you like a distinguished guest. His relaxed attitude belies his eagle eye—nothing escapes him, and everyone on his amiable staff bends over backward to satisfy you. On the menu you might find warm skate salad, poached kérax (a type of crawfish) served with grated giraumon and plantain fritters, spicy pork colombo, and sorbet made from local tangerines. Le Coin, Le Carbet, 05.96.78.04.34.

Le Brédas Unquestionably the great table of Martinique, set in the countryside northeast of Fort-de-France, it’s worth the entire trip. With boundless imagination and faultless technique, Jean-Charles Brédas gracefully blends the culinary traditions of his native island and France, merrily mixing local products with classics and making lucky diners wonder what secret ingredients the devilish chef has tucked up his sleeve. There’s an explosion of aromas and sweet spices, of familiar and transcendent flavors, baffling but always just right. There’s no showing off, but plenty of sensuality. It’s a symphony without a false note, even when it’s a classic turned upside down. The chiquetaille of grilled cod is used as a condiment; profiteroles are stuffed with conch; lobster is cooked in a lacy membrane of caul fat. The traditional gratin de fruits de mer is seasoned with sour herring and perfumed with spices. Foie gras is served hot, in a banana millefeuille accompanied by little sweet spiced onions, a marvel of alchemy. Beef roast is first marinated with orange zest and black pepper and the shrub sauce (rum steeped with citrus peels and cane syrup) is a delicate counterpoint, giving the dish an exotic touch that reminds you that this is Martinique and nowhere else. The menu changes according to the chef’s whims and the produce in his garden. The spacious dining room opens onto the garden, the tables are prettily set with china by ceramicist Victor Anicet, and Marie-Julie Brédas is a delightful hostess. Entrée Presqu’île, Rivière Blanche, Saint Joseph, 05.96.57.65.52.

TAXI DRIVER Bilingual Michel Labeau, 06.96.26.47.37. [email protected]

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of France Today

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