This is condensed from the first story I wrote for Bon Appetit magazine, in February 1994. It was the beginning of a long, pleasant, relationship with the magazine’s editor, Barbara Fairchild, which ended only when she discovered, as she was bound to, that I didn’t really know which fork to use, collected McDonald’s place mats in foreign languages, and had lived in an apartment for six weeks before realizing the stove wasn’t hooked up.
On the Caribbean island of Martinique, at a table so close to the sand that I can plainly see what fashionable French women are not wearing to the beach this year, I judge the crabes farcis (stuffed crab) I am starting lunch with to be too peppery. But in the interest of fairness, I solicit a second opinion, from my cab driver, who is dining with me. “Good,” she says, “But not enough pepper.”
The driver, Bernadette Ductiel, who is five months pregnant with her fifth child, has signed on as my guide to help orientate me during the first part of the week I plan to spend on Martinique. Her quick, sure judgment about the crabs makes me begin to suspect something that by the end of the week I will be convinced of.
Martinique is an island where, in the finest French tradition, people love to talk about food even more than they love to talk about politics. And if there is one thing they agree on it is that to eat food the way it is meant to be eaten on Martinique, you can’t forget the pepper, by which they mean hot pepper.
“Oh goodness no,” said a local epicure I accidentally tripped over a few days later as he napped in the shade of a red, yellow, and blue fishing boat pulled up on the beach at Anses-d’Arlets. “It’s no good without the pepper.”
The food of Martinique is Creole, sometimes with a touch of Indian, but prepared with a mastery that only an island steeped in French culture could bring to the table. Typical of Martinique fare are accras, fritters made with fish, or, occasionally, vegetables. Everywhere I went they were offered to me, usually accompanied “to open your appetite,” by the traditional island drink, ti-punch, which consists of one part sugar cane syrup to four parts white rum. And after enough accras were offered to me I concluded that there is as much an art to eating them as there is to making them.
The art of eating accras is being able to judge, by experience, the exact instant at which to pop one whole into your mouth and bite down on it slowly until the hard crust collapses into the softer center, letting the flavor and just the right amount of heat flow together into your mouth and — if you’ve mastered the art — your soul. And if, as will happen, the accras are so big that you risk bringing attention to yourself by attempting to eat them in one bite, don’t become unduly concerned. The fault is not with your manners, but with the chef’s method.
Not that I spent the entire week thinking only about accras. I also gave a lot of thought to rum.
My thoughts about rum began after lunch at a restaurant located on a mountainside overlooking what’s left of Saint-Pierre, the one-time-capital of Martinique whose population of 30,000 was wiped out in less than three minutes early one morning in 1902 when Mount Pelee erupted. In order to temper the meal’s spices I followed them with a banana flambee and a glass of straight rum. The rum was rhum vieux, old rum, dark gold in color and having a flavor reminiscent of fine brandy.
I thought about that rum (warm pleasant, glowing, thoughts) as we headed north from Saint-Pierre, toward Grand Riviere, where my plan had been to open up my appetite for future meals by walking for a mile or so along the coastal footpath that is one of Martinique’s 31 officially marked hiking trails. But considering Bernadette’s condition, and not wanting to run the risk of a pregnant woman outpacing me, I opted instead for a visit to the Museum of Rum.
The museum is on the east side of Martinique in the town of Sainte-Marie. It is run by the Plantations Saint James distillery, largest of the 14 distilleries that remain in operation from the more than 200 whose crumbling brick chimneys, ancient, rusting machinery, and witches-brew-like cauldrons can still be seen all over the island.
“The good rum comes from cane grown in the good, volcanic, soil,” said a museum guide who took me on a brief tour that ended in the tasting room. I suppose he should know. The original Saint James distillery, located near Saint-Pierre, disappeared beneath the good volcanic soil of Mount Pelee during the 1902 eruption.
Between them, St. James and its chief rival, La Mauny, account for a majority of the rum produced on Martinique. Yet when I talked with some people who considered themselves to be rum experts (three aging sugar cane cutters I fell into conversation with in La Savane, the main square and park in the heart of Martinique’s capital city, Fort-de-France) they said that in order to meet demand St. James and La Mauny seemed to rush the process a bit. The cane cutters all agreed that for people who truly appreciate the taste of rum the smaller distilleries produced a more satisfying product. What they couldn’t agree on was which small distillery produced the most satisfying.
Which gave a focus to my remaining days on Martinique. I would attempt to discover for myself the most satisfying rum.
My quest was aided immensely by the fact that most distilleries, no matter how small, encourage visitors and reward them with a degustation gratuite, a free tasting. Wandering off from the guided tour at one distillery and admiring with a nod of my head the efficiency with which a worker was turning some valves, I even got a taste of “baby rum,” fresh out of the still, clear as spring water, and so potent that just one sip was enough to make me agree wholeheartedly with the observation of the grinning worker: “The baby rum, it kicks the hardest.”
Along the way, I dined at some of the more than 150 restaurants on the island, discovering that among my favorite dishes were calalou, a soup made with vegetables, herbs, salted pork and sea crabs, and blaff, similar to court-bouillon except that the fish is poached in a white sauce.
“Blaff?” answered a woman I was sharing a bench with on the ferry that ran to Fort-de-France. “You put your water on the fire. You put in all your seasonings. Then when your water starts boiling you put in your fish. The fish makes a sound — blaff.”
I never did find the island’s single most satisfying rum. Despite my diligence, and the willingness of many people to assist me in my quest by offering their own opinions, I could only narrow it down to my favorite four. They were Bally, Clement, Favorite, and J.M. To make a final judgment will require further research.
I did come away from my visit convinced of one thing, though. I realized it when, just before departing, I stopped for lunch at a non-descript place near the airport that obviously catered to tourists. Their red snapper fillet was good, I thought, but it needed more pepper.