Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Jams of Nostradamus and Other Sugar Secrets in Mauritius

This article appeared in Mail Today on February 17, 2014.
To check out the original, click on
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.

Link to my previous Mauritius story:

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
HAD Michel de Nostradame, who attained eternal fame as the seer Nostradamus, not written down his prophecies, generations would have remembered him as a pioneering confectioner. For, it was he who explained to the world, in his lesser-known work, Traite des Confitures (Treaty of Jams), how sugar can be used to preserve fruits, thus giving birth in 1555 to the business of making jams, jellies and marmalades. Nostradamus was an apothecary (or pharmacist) and in those days, candy used to be made by people who dispensed medicines.
New Grove is a delicious rum, best drunk with
just ice, produced at the first sugar factory of
Mauritius. At l'Aventure du Sucre, you could
pick up bottles of the cognac-like rum made
from first-crush sugarcane juice, known
locally as fangourin. 
For a lifelong collector of useless information, this was my a-ha moment at L'Aventure du Sucre -- the famed sugar museum, and high point of my visit to Mauritius. The Indian Ocean nation, which exists in our imagination as a green ideal with sun-kissed white beaches and aquamarine seas, has beauties tucked away everywhere. And these may not always be of the kind gifted by a bounteous nature. L'Aventure du Sucre is one among them.
At first sight, it may appear like any other reconstituted sugar factory -- Mauritius had 259 of them in 1858, but today, just five produce more sugar than all of them combined -- till you notice the 35m chimney towering over it like some phallic ode. Look around, and treat your eyes to a vast expanse of dense greenery and sugarcane plantations, swaying in the gentle breeze, overseen by a wind-sculpted hill in the distant horizon that stands wrapped in a quilt of flitting grey clouds like a forlorn sentinel on a sleepless vigil since the Jurassic Age.
You're in Pamplemousses, one of the oldest and greenest districts of the island, not very far from the Port Louis, the national capital, and named after the tree that bears a fruit that looks and tastes uncannily like grapefruit. I owed this bit of general knowledge to the glass of pamplemousses juice that I had at breakfast. I had loved the symphony of fruit and acid, sweet and sour -- it was a like a concert by nature to liven up jaded palates.
Pamplemousses is famous the world over for the Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere, and best known for its humongous Queen Victoria water lilies. Not being botanically inclined, I did not visit the 37-hectare park -- just as well, because there was so much to learn about Mauritius and the sugar economy at the sugar museum.
The museum's marketing manager is a young Mauritian of Indian origin, who, like his other compatriots, spoke in Creole and English, listened only to Bollywood music, and had a foggy idea of India, created in his mind by the playlist of the FM station he heard on his way to and back from work, and yet he nurtured the dream of visiting the country of his forefathers. "Aap Bharat ko mera salaam dena," he said with a natural-born exuberance and not because of what he had learnt from the correspondence classes in marketing management that he took from an Australian university. Back home, the line may have sounded corny, but when you hear it in rain-washed Pamplemousses, you feel your eyes turning moist and you hear the rustle of the Tricolour flying in full mast.
The Dutch introduced sugarcane in Mauritius, the French and the Brits exploited its commercial possibilities, and Indian indentured labourers slaved away in the plantations on five-year contracts. The men were paid five rupees a month and the women, four, and of this paltry sum, one rupee would be held back, ostensibly to pay for their return journey. They were lured by the promise of finding gold in the isle, but instead of digging for gold, they worked as coolies in sugar plantations.
The first Indians officially arrived on November 2, 1834, at the Immigration Depot, or Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in one corner of the chic Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis. Eventually, 450,000 of them arrived till 1923, the year when indentured labour was abolished, and once the five years of their contracts got over, they and their descendents chose to stay on to build a multi-ethnic society where four distinct communities -- Indian, Chinese, African and French -- stay in complete harmony with each other. Sugar today contributes to a third of the export earnings of the country and is grown on 80 per cent of the arable land. I looked at the man taking me around with renewed respect. His ancestors, and those of other young people like him I had got to meet during my stay, had built a thriving sugarcane economy literally in the middle of nowhere.
One sugarcane, the marketing manager said, has a life span of eight years, and each time it is cut, it produces 20 litres of juice, which in turn converts into two kilos of sugar. The bagasse left behind in the crushing process provide green fuel for gas-based turbines producing electricity, the waste is turned into fertiliser, the molasses are processed to make industrial rum and methanol, and the leaves are dried to produce the ubiquitous decorative roofing material that you'll find across the island.
The first-crush sugarcane juice, fangourin, also goes into the making of Mauritian agricultural rum (rhum agricole) -- and the museum's shop has one of the finest, New Grove, a heady liquor bursting with floral aromas and tropical fruit notes, all jasmine, lychee and honey, made at the island's first sugar mill and rum factory. It also has a selection of 12 kinds of sugar, so I had to find out the difference between the demerara and the muscovado, which were among the six at my hotel's breakfast buffet. I learnt that both are brown sugar, or raw sugar crystals, with different levels of molasses content and different production processes -- in the case of demerara (best for coffee), the raw molasses crystals are dried in a centrifuge, but the muscovado (perfect for baking) is dried in natural heat, sometimes in the sun.
Did someone say Mauritius is only about the sun, sea and sand? Add a fourth 's' -- sugarcane -- and you'll see another side of the emerald isle.