By Sourish Bhattacharyya
IN AN atmosphere surcharged with the electricity of youthful energy and the magic of music, on a breezy Mauritian night brimming over with possibilities, I had my first swig of a rum that had all the distinctive characteristics of the island nation -- smooth, gently heady, bursting with the seductive flavours of spice.
It was the all-night concert, the high point of the Festival International Kreol 2013, on the grounds of a convention centre named after Swami Vivekananda at Domaine les Pailles, a 3,000-acre gastronomic hub ten minutes away from the country's capital, Port Louis, on the foothills of the Moka Range. My fluorescent yellow wrist band gave me access to the grand stage where the singing stars of the Creole-speaking nations performed to a cheering, waving, singing crowd of about 10,000 young people.
It was like being at the Woodstock of the Indian Ocean. It was Saturday (November 30) night and I was savouring the experience of the backstage, my body swaying instinctively to the rhythm of the music. The gentleman next to me was the Mauritian Minister for Tourism and Leisure, Michael Sik Yuen, dressed casually in jeans and an airy shirt (imagine Chiranjeevi hanging out anonymously in the shadows of a major international event!). I did not have to know Creole, the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean nations, to soak up the spirit of the evening. It helped, of course, to be right behind the bongo player, whose knee-length dreadlocks and rugged aquiline features made him look like a character out of Pirates of the Caribbean. He was a powerhouse of assured energy.
In the middle of this celebration of the binding power of music, Devendra Babooa, Research and Development Manager of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA), guided me to a tent that served as makeshift bar. The smiling, mild-mannered man presiding over the operation was the MTPA's financial honcho. He said he had been drafted for the job because everyone else was busy chaperoning the 150-odd journalists who had come for the event. I tried to remember a more chilled-out bean counter back home, only to give up and surrender myself to the pleasures of Mauritian rum (or rhum, as the people of this Francophone nation like to call it).
Mr Bottomline served me a generous pour of Bougainville Vieux Domaine, a rum produced by the Oxenham family at a facility on the Saint Jean-Phoenix motorway, and named after the intrepid French admiral and circumnavigator of the globe, Louise Antoine de Bougainville, who established the settlement of Port Louis in 1764. Poured out of an elongated 500ml bottle, the rum was as smooth as silk, full of the sweetness of sugarcane that the island is famous for.
My next was the Spiced Rum 1819 from Saint Aubin, a rum distillery in southern Mauritius. 1819 signifies the year of the founding of the sun-dappled sugarcane plantation, which produces the fangourin, the precious first-crush juice that goes into the making of the rum. Saint Aubin is home to the tropical island nation's first 'agricultural rum', produced entirely with sugarcane juice, and not molasses. Sexed up with oranges and cinnamon, the rum has been made to be drunk by itself, without the intervention of Coke or any other such needless props. I drank quite a lot of it, and before I knew it, the bottle was empty. My enthusiasm for 1819 must have been shared by many others, for the stock at Mr Bottomline's command soon ended in a heap of empty bottles. So did the Bougainville.
Saint Aubin was on my itinerary for Sunday (December 1) prepared by the MTPA, my hosts. As travel blogger Nisha Jha, the other journalist invited from India by the MTPA, and I neared the carefully manicured gardens of the distillery, I couldn't help noticing the chimney that appears on Saint Aubin's labels. It's the chimney of the old sugar mill that has made way for a museum that recreates the sugar milling process.
Our Saint Aubin experience started at the Vanilla House, where I learnt that vanilla is an orchid that grows best in the company of anthurium, which offers protection from the harsh sun and heavy rain. Of the 100 species of vanilla, only three are cultivated and Mauritius is one of the few countries where it is possible. It's this vanilla that had gone into the Spiced Rum 1819, which had won my heart.
Our next and final stop was the restaurant of the rhumerie, set in a colonial building with a long pillared verandah where the owners of the sugar mill and distillery once lived. The building, last renovated in the 1990s, was first built closer to the mill in 1819. The construction material used was wood from dismantled ships that had suffered endless explorations.
In the 1970s, the showpiece house moved to its present location overlooking a garden straight out of Beautiful Homes. It is here we had our meal of palm heart salad and smoked marlin (a Mauritian delicacy), followed by an underwhelming vanilla chicken served with rice, dhol (light masoor dal with celery and scallions), apalam (papad) and a delectable bilimbi, or tree sorrel, achard (pickle) spiked with whole mustard.
For dessert, we had the most memorable vanilla pod ice-cream with fruit salad -- fresh vanilla pods can transform ice-cream in a way that you can only appreciate when you have one at the Saint Aubin restaurant! The shots of intensely flavourful vanilla rum (it tasted as heavenly as XO cognac) and the slightly rough coffee rum (it had the seductiveness of a Kahlua but not its sugar attack) more than made up for the chicken, and the ice-cream, of course, walked away with the top prize.
We could have just hung around, but the rum gave our heads a sense of lightness that could only cured by a welcoming pillow. It was a Sunday, so the traffic was light, and it didn't take us long to settle down for an afternoon siesta. When you're in Mauritius, take it easy, my friend!