Nico Cyprien continued exclaiming animatedly long after he was out of sight- and very likely when out of earshot- as he rappelled down the waterfall on the Fleur Jaune in Cilaos, high up on Réunion Island which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius.
It says a lot about an island only 51km at its widest and 72km long that someone who has been enthusiastically guiding visitors for over a decade is still discovering new pleasures. And it’s easy to see why this French expatriate settled here after living on five continents and traversing most of the globe. If you’re considering a trip of a lifetime, consider Réunion. If you have a French or E.U. passport marry me and let’s relocate!
My Favourite Things
The famous song from The Sound of Music does not mention countries, but Réunion Island incorporates so many of mine.
Your country, my country- as long as we’re not playing cricket against the Aussies (insert country of choice), it doesn’t matter to me. I do however love my home country, South Africa, and never considered relocating. That was until I visited Réunion- a couple of times.
Although it’s been a couple of years since my last visit, I’ve kept in touch. Nico and I are more than Facebook friends. And I’ve sent others, who affirmed that I wasn’t overstating my case in my role as unofficial island Public Relations Officer. My mate Sophie traverses continents and sails across oceans- and she sails with Rob who does nothing but sail, all over the world. After a week or so she was as enthused as me (Réunion shares top spot with Iceland) and Rob has the island in his top five.
This beautiful little French province is a fantastically diverse mix of cultures and geography. The melting pot of islanders is mostly a Creole mix. Sugar, rum, vanilla, essential oils and seafood are synonymous with Reunion and over 40% of the island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land rises swiftly from the shores to high plains and mountain heights and the climate ranges from humid to dry tropical to Mediterranean. There are hundreds of microclimates- a good thing if you like food, because it means that tropical foods flourish along with those from colder climes- strawberries and watermelon for example.
The combination of first world structure and island life suits most Réunionnais. The French government promotes Réunion as a tourist destination and has innovative green projects in place. Most homes have solar power and there are wind farms and fields of solar panels. There is a separatist movement but the headquarters were deserted and listlessly dilapidated when I had a looksee. Why? Well, the first inhabitant were French with free Malagasy people and more than one islander commented on the plus of enjoying the perks of France’s infrastructure, while being far removed from “homeland” politics. Things cost a little more, but there are tax breaks. The rich are very much so while the poor among the population of about 866 000 rely a lot on social welfare, but there is an ineffable quality of life money can’t buy.
How’s the weather?
Your guess may be as good as anyone’s. Nico and his Czech born wife Libuse have guided final year Czechoslovakian meteorological students. This is because the weather on Réunion, with an estimated 200 microclimates, is so hard to predict. Unlike other Indian Ocean islands, Réunion is a huge, dimply, high pimple rising steeply out of the ocean, causing disruption to wind and ocean flow, plus it lies above-and was formed by- one of the planet’s major hot spots.
Drive 15-20 minutes and you can find yourself in a completely different ecosystem, something Nico clearly gets a kick out of. “I’m going to take you to some savannah” he once announced and, sure enough, a while later I felt as if I was back in the African bush. The many definite changes of scenery, vegetation and perspective are some of the things that delight me most about the island. Hard to get bored if you can experience a different “country” more than once a day.
The island is essentially formed by two volcanoes: the inactive Piton des Neiges (Peaks of Snow)- which tops out at 3070m and sees snow once every 7/8 years- and Piton de la Fournaise (The Furnace Peak), one of the most active- and safest- volcanoes in the world. Réunion has three beautiful, distinctly different calderas or cirques- huge, steep, bowl-shaped valleys resulting from the older volcano’s collapse and water erosion. Salazie is wet, with waterfalls and rainforests, Cilaos is similar to South Africa’s Western Cape mountains and Mafate- somewhere between the two- is a rugged wilderness accessible only by foot or air.
Flying in, one touches down outside the subtropical capital city of St Denis. The town has a mix of French colonial buildings and fortifications built with incredibly durable blocks hewn from volcanic rock, wooden Creole-style and some typically European buildings, with a lack (thankfully) of high- rise towers. The island architecture is charming- symmetrically laid out wooden sided buildings with verandahs (varanque) and floral motif fretwork under the eaves and tin or wood- tiled roofs. Colours are fresh and bright, with complete and careful restoration of dilapidated buildings an ongoing project.
From St Denis, many visitors head along the coast to Saint Andre and up into Salazie. I recall that on my first visit a light misty drizzle set in, creating beautiful atmospheric effects and causing the myriad of waterfalls on this, the wettest part of the island, to turn to seething torrents after a few hours. Neither words nor camera can do justice to the breathtaking views. Through staggeringly beautiful, narrow valleys and up steeply climbing roads, one passes roadside shrines. These dot the island and reflect the mix of predominantly Catholic belief mingled with Hindu, Tamil and Islam.
The highland village of Hell Bourg with its ruined thermal baths (a volcanic eruption diverted the spring system) is a delightful glimpse of yesteryear- charming Creole houses with gardens ablaze with beautiful flowers and herbs, several endemic to Réunion. On the subject of endemic, Réunion has no poisonous spiders, no snakes and the main predator is its only bird of prey, the Papanque. Le Relais des Cimes provided a fine lunch, much of which we saw on our journey. Chou chou/ chayote/ sju sju vines cover trees and hillsides and were served au gratin.
The food on Réunion- a mix of French cuisine and Creole delights – is as wonderful as the scenery. Be adventurous. Seafood abounds, the caris are delicious as is gratin palmiste, smoky sausage is great and carne cabris massale an unexpected highlight. Vegetarians will not be disappointed as the islanders pride themselves on their lentils and legumes whilst chou-chou grows incredibly profusely. Meals are typically accompanied with locally produced rum punch (buy your own rhum arrangé “starter pack”) or aperitif, wine, and the pleasant, relatively inexpensive Réunion Bière Bourbon, also known as La Dodo. (Legend has it that the extinct Dodo existed on Reunion). I was happy to see that fast food joints do not thrive, but patisseries/ boulangeries do.
Cilaos is the sunniest and driest of the three calderas and is overlooked by Piton des Neiges. “The road with 420 bends” takes you through tunnels and along cliff faces into a different world. Cilaos- from a Malagasy word meaning “the place you never leave”- is aptly named. The majestic alpine setting is a paradise for sporty adrenaline junkies, nature lovers and those simply there to relax with a glass of local wine in a thermal spring.
With so much to see and do you probably won’t relax long. Canyoning beckons – and what a treat! Wide- eyed, crazily grinning faces are the order of the day on the way down cliffs and waterfalls into crystal clear mountain pools.
A highlight for me was a Creole picnic with the lovely Raymonda Gontier and charming husband Mikael. It began with the ubiquitous rhum arrangé (a potent rum liqueur). This couple have some 80 varieties, infusing rum with a delicious variety of herbs, fruit, flowers and spices. Our lunch consisted of pork and chicken dumplings for starters wrapped in rice ‘pastry’. We progressed to quiche with Cilaos lentils and dark, smoked homemade sausage, Marlin with endemic “mango” ginger, chicken in Cilaos wine with fish sauce from the potjie. Food on Réunion is always accompanied by rougail – interesting side dishes/condiments with, for example, tomato, peanut butter, and almost always an aubergine version. We topped off with corn cake and gâteau maison and vanilla rum, plus home roasted, vanilla flavoured coffee sweetened with honey from their apiary.
Raymonda runs cooking courses and Mikael grumbled about the weight he’s gained since they opened their guest house in the stunning mountain hamlet of Ilet a Cordes.
I was also thoroughly entertained by Noe Noe Dijoux, who owns the charming Hotel Tsilaosa where I stayed. In his downstairs cellar he regaled us with the history of wine in the area, plying us with various vintages and varietals, accompanied by excellent Piton Maido, one of 17 local cheeses, and salami.
Cilaos produces naturally sparkling mineral water (there are four water companies on Réunion) and the spa is popular with local and overseas visitors. Before leaving we shopped for rhum arrange kits, settling on Faham (wild orchid) with vanilla and cinnamon.
Another spectacular drive up from the coast- to the volcano this time- encompasses pastoral farmland, panoramic views toward the high peaks and down to the sea. En route we dined at Auberge du Volcan, where gratin palmiste (palm hearts) and carne cabris massale, two typical Reunion dishes, stole the show. Who knew goat could be so tender and succulent?
The drive climbs above forests to fynbos and the otherworldly expanse of volcanic grit, Plaine des Sables, en route to the view over the lava landscape created by previous eruptions of Piton de la Fournaise. It’s reassuring to know that the volcano is one of the safest and most studied in the world. It’s a “red” volcano and doesn’t spew ash, is not on a fault line and when it does erupt the caldera of high cliffs it created ensures the lava flows toward the ocean.
On the way back, after a bracing hike up and down the cliff face of the volcano’s caldera and onto the magma moonscape, I’d recommend Ti Resto Lontan, facing the Volcano Museum, where they cook on wooden fires.
The caldera of Mafate is a wilderness accessible only by foot or helicopter and like much of the island is a hiker’s paradise with over 140km of footpaths in varied landscapes among 10 peaks.
My knees are buggered so I can’t hike that far, but a helicopter provided amazing sights of little clifftop settlements, ravines, sweeping forested canyons and valleys. Cloud covered the two peaks that day so unfortunately I did not get a bird’s eye view of the volcano or Cilaos.
The coastline of Réunion is as dramatically varied as the interior. In the north- at St Denis- black polished rocks below sheer cliffs form the shoreline. Moving south the road crosses the lava field, steaming under a downpour. The road was rebuilt after lava flows some 60m thick in ’07 and vents on the roadside are still hot enough to scald, Here there are narrow sandy coves between steep headlands and the humidity gives way to drier, savannah-like areas. Some beaches are golden, others black- and they become longer and are protected by coral reefs heading west. The west coast is where almost all the snorkelling, surfing and other water activities take place. It has the biggest selection of hotels and is a popular base from which to explore on self-drive day trips. Five star Palm Hotel, about six kilometres from St. Pierre in the other direction toward St. Joseph was, for me, the most charming spot, though the sprawling five star Lux Hotel in Saint Gilles probably has the most to offer, with a beautiful coral reef and calm, still waters on its doorstep. L’Orangine, the fine restaurant, is superb.
Here I dined on Toothfish and potatoes in a champagne sauce, with the champagne clearly evident and marrying perfectly with the white fish. Tuna and beef, roasted potatoes with a coffee sauce and foie gras topping were simply heavenly.
Réunionnais like to party. One visit coincided with the annual carnival in the coastal town of Saint Gilles Les Bains and, after an elegant dinner at Boucan Canot Hotel’s Le Cap restaurant, we joined the crowds still thronging late on a Sunday evening- around 50 000 attended. What a fun atmosphere! Everyone was chilled- if that’s possible while partying up a storm. Among the painted faces, elaborate hairdo’s and fancy costumes were mums pushing prams through the jam-packed streets past dj’s, pumping music and light and smoke shows.
Expect to give way on the mountain twisties if driving. Thank goodness for the islanders’ attitudes! They are polite, patient and reserved. It is safe to cross at pedestrian crossings- even at peak times. When Nico flagged an oncoming car to ask advice we South Africans hunkered down as traffic backed up while the two drivers chatted for several minutes in the middle of the road but nobody hooted, nor flashed lights or rude signs. There are lessons to be learned from this rainbow nation not far from ours.
Hitchhiking hikers are commonplace, getting from one hiking trail or hut to another. Pick them up. You’ll hear some interesting stories.
Adventure seekers, the list is extensive- paragliding, all forms of mountaineering, spelunking, exploring lava “tube”: tunnels, white water rafting, surfing, diving, fishing, hiking. Canyoning is highly recommended. There is plenty of culture to soak up- Musée Léon Dierx in St Denis for example has a renowned collection of international and local artists. Buy award winning vanilla products from family industries. Essential oils likewise won’t tax your baggage limit. Volcanic pebbles won’t cost a cent. An ultralight flip is highly recommended. If you can afford another 100e each, take a chopper.
Getting there from South Africa: Air Austral (www.air-austral.com- excellent service, excellent food) flies between Johannesburg and Saint Denis every Thursday and Sunday. South Africa passport holders do not need a visa.
My client, the wry and dry Robert Brendel, proprietor of Riebeek Kasteel’s Royal Hotel where Q is working on an exciting new refurb is demanding, but with an unexpected sense of humour given the demands on his bank balance. The clock had barely chimed five when he ordered a bottle of smokey vanilla and citrusy butter and woody and marvellous Glenelly Estate Reserve Chardonnay. Just the way we both like it. (Oh Rob! We have so much in common.)
It was really only a matter of time before we were obliged to consider our stomachs and, although we were seated in the half painted fine dining restaurant to be and surrounded by stacked tables and freshly upholstered chairs, Rob called room service for a snack.
It was not to be.
The usual menu was suspended in favour of a celebratory four courser to celebrate that poor martyred Valentine patron saint of star crossed lovers.
Three hundred and ninety five bucks (ZAR). We missed out on the romantically dressed tables on The Royal’s fabled veranda, fresh with summer breezes up the valley and decorated with a faraway view of the dusk kissed Elandsberg mountains.
I would have been happy with a toasted cheese and tomato and really wasn’t expecting the sumptuous deliciousness that followed.
A heartful, blood red starter of beetroot prepared in six different ways. Ambitious, nothing I’d try at home. The kitchen had clearly been busy. A tantalising and piquant shot of borscht infused with a hint of vodka to set the pulses racing. A deeply fried chip of beetroot, crisp and fresh. Luxurious, silkily bright pink beetroot panna cotta. Complexly flavoured hummus infused with the lovely scarlet colour of this year’s favourite vegetable. Also pickled and flavoured in the Swartland tradition and also with, best of all, goat’s cheese.
But there was more! Another starter- and I could spend every meal eating starters don’t you know?
A tiger prawn wrapped in a rice pastry candyfloss. Another marinated in garlic, ginger and chilli and then seared on the grill and yet another, blanched and presented with a mango and chilli salsa with a cumin spiced mayonnaise.
The room was already beginning to look romantic despite the half painted walls, draped dust sheets and stacked newly delivered furniture.
I hardly ever eat fish and, well, the wine and the music and, um, the moonlight was kicking in, so I dived in, continuing the marine theme begun with the trio of delicious prawns.
Banting too! Perfectly grilled kingklip, marvellously plated with cauliflower risotto and a poached egg drizzled with sauce Hollandaise and served with a bright green portion of wilted asparagus. I don’t remember eating a piece of fish this tasty or perfectly prepared and so artfully paired. Egg and Hollandaise. Yummy.
The kitchen pulled out all stops for the dessert. A complex ménage a trois of red velvet milkshake flavoured with everyone’s favourite- Amarula, Dutch apple tart with cream and a crumbled honeycomb and (it had to feature somewhere) a tiny lonely heart shaped panna cotta with a passionately blazing red berry coulis.
Rob! I love you long long time.
33 Main St, Riebeek Kasteel, Western Cape
Smooth as good Bourbon
I like, nay love, vanilla- the taste, the smell, the textures, the colours. And I’ve tried it wherever I’ve found it- synthetic and genuine essence off shop shelves and in candle factories, pods from who knows where, from Zanzibar, Mauritius, pungent large specimens from Madagascar- all of them different in quality and price and none of them a patch on the vanilla from Reunion Island. There’s a richness, smoothness and subtlety to the Bourbon style vanilla produced on the island, which just happens to be one of my favourite places in the world.
We swept up the palm lined avenue of Domaine du Grand Hazier outside the coastal town of Sainte Suzanne on Reunion Island to meet Bertrand Côme. With 28 years of experience in the trade, he is regarded as one of the best vanilla producers in the world and the La Vanilleraie plantation here, in an ancient former stable, has restored Reunion vanilla’s worldwide reputation through many awards, most notably at the Agricultural Show in Paris: gold medal in 2011 and silver medals in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. That is consistency! Côme is a guarantor of the ancient tradition, but also looks to the future through his work on varietal selection and research on land, in collaboration with the local University and CIRAD, a French research institute.
Before 1850 all vanilla came from Mexico. The Aztecs- and before them the Mayans- believed that the scent of vanilla could connect them to their gods and had long mastered the ripening process. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Cortes brought the first pod back to Europe, to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It arrived in France in 1664 and Louis XIV was most taken with the lush flavour. He decided that vanilla would be cultivated on the colony of La Réunion – then called Île Bourbon. The vines grew well and bloomed, but no pod developed. Eventually the French abandoned their endeavour, persuaded that the Indians had kept a secret.
It was only in 1850 that a young slave, Edmond Albius, discovered how to pollinate the vanilla vine´s hermaphrodite flower thanks to the thorn of a wild citrus (legend goes that this discovery bought Albius his freedom). The heavy pollen was naturally dispersed by a hummingbird native to the forests of Southern Mexico. Nowadays vanilla flowers are pollinated by lifting a separating membrane called the rostellum to bring together the stigma and the pollen.
Vanilla is expensive because of the slow, labour intensive production process. The island’s best vanilla farmers cultivate the delicate orchid with care on three distinct terroirs. About nine months after pollination the pods are harvested and entrusted to the care of Côme.
The pods are first wilted by hot water scalding and then drained and kept in a sweating box for 24 hours.
The next stage is three weeks of sun-drying, partly under direct exposure to the sun and partly under the cover of blankets which retain the heat and prime the curing.
The pods are finally spread on racks in well-ventilated wooden buildings for six months and achieve their desired suppleness before being graded and packaged.
How do you know it’s the good stuff? Well, don’t take my word for it, but rather trust renowned (formerly three Michelin-starred) French chef Olivier Roellinger, who runs a hotel, restaurant, cooking school, bakery and spice boutique, who asserts about Côme “He is, without any doubt, one of the best vanilla curers in the world”. On http://www.epices-roellinger.com Roellinger says “Vanilla from the French department of Reunion Island is particularly notable for its soft, refined taste.
Both its cultivation and its preparation have been perfectly mastered there. Visually, it is often the prettiest and the best taken-care of. I especially reserve it for warmed milk with vanilla, the soothing childhood drink that everyone loves so dearly.
When I make warmed milk, I put two centimetres of vanilla (split lengthwise and scraped with the back of a knife) in 25 cl of organic whole milk. Then I gently bring the milk to a boil before leaving it to steep for fifteen minutes. Occasionally I reheat it before serving.”
Vanilla has antidepressant properties and warmed milk with vanilla is an ideal cure for insomnia.
When you use high-quality vanilla, you can put a lot less than indicated in typical recipes. In the case of savoury dishes serving four to six, it is best to use not more than 1 or 2 cm of vanilla pod as the flavour and aroma of vanilla should not dominate in these dishes, but should play the same role (as vanilla does) as a base note in the perfume industry: to act as a supporting part to other flavours, both linking and revealing all other notes of the sauce, broth or court-bouillon (an aromatic liquid for poaching or quick-cooking).
Côme’s vanilla comes in several types: beans, extract, powder- also in salt, sugar, syrup, jelly, caramel, oil and vinegar, all of it vanilla-flavoured.
Each year, more than 20,000 visitors discover La Vanilleraie in person and, like me, go home with his products. Five tons of green vanilla are processed every year in one ton of ready-to-consume vanilla- that is to say about 500,000 vanilla beans are processed by hand in accordance to traditional techniques.
Visit http://en.lavanilleraie.com and check out these videos:
Lunching one flawless Cape afternoon on the terrace at Simonsig’s Cuvée restaurant a tall, blonde and smiling young man approached my table. “Good afternoon.” He boomed a little too loudly for Q who prefers his midweek lunches to be on the plus side of discreet. “I know you.” he announced to the sun dappled terrace in a way manner that left Q feeling decidedly awkward if not downright uncomfortable.
The shady terrace, crowded with guests was all ears. “Yes,” he said. “We are Dutch! We were in Hermanus at the Marine Terrace and you were eating mussels (actually it wasn’t The Marine Terrace, it was a place called The Burgundy) and you sent them back!” he cried, to friendly waves from his companions and nervous looks from the Cuvée staff.
“Yes,” I murmured, slightly disturbed that I might have made a scene. I’m certain I didn’t. I never under normal circumstances send my food back to the kitchen, but it was the 7th January and I was irritable and more than slightly hungover.
And. One of my favourite dishes, moules marinières, had been roundly and soundly fukked up. The taste of vegetable stock cube was pervasive, the wine was cheap and nasty. Cream was added for some reason and the portion of chips, well, they were, um, unnice…
Rest(aurant)) assured, always a winner
So! Enough of the Burgundy and back to Cuvée. It never disappoints. Always keeps it simple. Has a variety of dishes and menu options to suit a range of budgets from more expensive to modest and great choice of Simonsig wines, all paired with a dish on the menu and available per glass.
To make things easy on myself I tend to eat the same thing and to be honest, have only ever lunched there and not delved too far into the menu.
There’s always ‘boerewors’. Served differently every time. Always grilled on a skewer, but served sometimes with a gorgeously golden slice of polenta or with a peach chutney or, on this occasion with subtle and creamy risotto. This, paired with a glass of their fine Kaapse Vonkel brut, is often all that’s needed for lunch, but why have less when you can have more? If there’s time to linger, have another starter. All priced at around ZAR70 and paired with a glass of wine.
Beetroot salad or howzabout an onion tarte tatin served with a gorgonzola panna cotta, accompanied by balsamic pickled figs. Main courses are from ZAR160 (not that I’ve indulged, preferring to snack at lunch). This is really great value and with a superb glass of vino, a starter and an espresso and a tip, you can be out of there for under a ZAR150 if you stick to something light. The Saturday breakfast is hugely popular (so book) and the dinner menu looks marvellous, especially if you don’t have far to drive.
Simonsig Wine Estate, Kromme Rhee Road, Koelenhof
I know it’s still early days at Olive Bistro, but the discreetly air-conditioned room with its crisply white décor contrasts- most favourably- with the hot umber dusted streets and boho chic of Riebeek-Kasteel, the small Swartland town in the Western Cape hinterland where it finds itself.
Chic dining in Riebeek Kasteel
I also know that Paul & Istelle Carlin are an ambitious pair. They’ve already moved on from Café Olive, the tiny coffee shop they took over five months ago. A 25 seater restaurant was never going to be big enough for a chef on a mission in a town known mostly for jolly eateries and rugged, but fine craft beer.
So clearly, the days of a prix fixe table d’hôte at Sunday lunch are limited. A more detailed and comprehensive à la carte menu is evolving as they settle into their new premises on the corner of Fontein and Plein Streets. The restaurant (it’s a bit to glamourous to be a proper Bistro) features as an anchor in a beautifully refurbished house which is located in a complex that contains an art gallery and offices. The broad and shady stoep with a views of the Kasteelberg Mountain serves gourmet breakfasts and lighter lunches during the week.
For two weeks in a row now Q’s lunched late and languidly on Sundays. The first after an opening at the RK Contemporary gallery next door had it
I find the table d’hôte vibe to be stress relieving.
Sit down, get chatting to your friends and eat wots put in front of you. Easy.
Particularly when the cooking is as careful and deliberate and detailed as Istelles and just so for the careful and measured service from Paul and his front of house team.
Amuse bouche: an agreeable little skewer of seasonal fruit and Chourico on one occasion and a complex hit of Gazpacho on the other.
Appetiser of Gorgonzola in phyllo with fresh seasonal figs and a compote of things fruity. More-ish, on my second visit. The first featured a smokey beetroot soup with potato croquette, don’t dare call it borscht, served just a small degree off room temperature. Proper!
A choice of entrée. Chicken or lamb on one outing and chicken or beef, the other.
I’m a red meat eater so no surprise at my choice. Fall off the bone lamb shank with an authentic jus packed with flavour and complexity, served with delicately flavoured mash and carefully prepared vegetables. Cooked and crisp. The following week a rolled topside of beef that distracted from the conversation of my companions enough to assure me quality, but not nearly enough to bring me to detailed analysis.
We were all impressed by presentation and taste with the vegans more than adequately attended to, with a saffron rice pilaf dressed with a casserole-ish deliciousness featuring nuts and mushroom and tofu miso.
As dessert the vegans found berry dressed papino and the rest of us a chocolate and crème fraiche marvel also dressed with a berry compote and a crisp wafer thin biscuit and ice cream.
Some at the table found the experience fussy and formal and over priced.
I didn’t. I like detail and I like being waited on and besides what can you get for 250 bucks and bring your own wine and not get charged corkage?
It suits me!