From exotic and rare fruit to rum-based cocktails and typical French Creole dishes, our stay in Martinique was indulgent. I even had the opportunity to visit a rum distillery, enjoy daily croissants from local bakeries, and chat with an ambassador of rare and disappearing fruit. Oh, and the seafood! The seafood and creole cooking will be in a later post.
Since we arrived late in the evening on Saturday, our host Lynda informed us that the local market would be closed Sunday (Martinique is indeed an observant Catholic country). So, Lynda picked up some fruit for us. She not only gathered fruit from the market, but she reached out to a friend who happens to be an organic farmer in the northern part of the island, and it’s that friend who provided us with the cachiman fruit, which is also known as the cherimoya or custard apple. Despite Lynda working in the field of agriculture, the cachiman is so rare that she couldn’t even remember its name and the fruit was not listed in any of the books I browsed through about different varieties of fruit on the island. In fact, I detail below just how I came to figure out the name of this special fruit!
After tasting the cachiman fruit, I see why it’s rare. The texture was completely unfamiliar—bean-sized and -shaped black seeds were dispersed through its gooey pulp. Near the rind, the seeds disappear but the fruit becomes grainy, then almost sandy. In the world of GMOs and carefully-“bred” fruit that’s sweet, not acidic, and beautiful, I’m not surprised that this exceedingly rare fruit didn’t make the cut. In addition to the cachiman, we tried mueres, which must be squeezed and softened before eating. When you give it a squeeze, it taste more like a plum. If you eat it before it is ripe or if you fail to squeeze it, it’s slightly bitter and grainy.
In the basket, we also had “mango” (pronounced mohn-go), which are not to be confused with what the French call “magnues” (what we call mangoes). “Mango” are much smaller with a softer skin that can easily be peeled. They are also more fibrous. To eat ripe “mango,” you just poke a hole in the top and then squeeze it out into you mouth. Alternatively, since the skin is much softer and easy to peel, you can just peel it off and then enjoy it. Whereas “mangues” (mango) have a much tougher skin, are larger in size, and are more colorful. I definitely prefer the mohn-go since it’s much easier to eat, and I found the flesh to be a little sweeter!
If that wasn’t enough fruit, we acquired during our time in Martinique papaya, lychee, guava, oranges, green oranges (not to be confused with limes), star fruit, melons, and other exotic fruit that I couldn’t figure the names for! I’m not sure if I had eaten guava before, but this pink, slightly sweet fruit’s velvety and smooth texture made it something that I’m sure I’ll be craving in a few short weeks. Unfortunately, we failed to find any passion fruit! Apparently this is a hot item, as every time I asked for it at the market, they informed me that they were sold out for the day. The same thing happened with fresh sugar cane.
Fruit became the centerpiece of our daily breakfast feasts of scrambled eggs with emmenthal cheese, fried lardons (a French type of bacon), and local peppers that had a unique flavor. We also had bakery-fresh baguette, brioche au sucre, pain au chocolat, croissant, cheese, and homemade jams.
During one of our final days, we were wandering around Trois Ilets when I see a picture of the Cachiman fruit (at the time, we still had no idea what the fruit was called), on a sign that said “KACHIMAN- Jus de fruits frais, fraichement presses” which basically meant that fresh-pressed juice was for sale. I figured, hey, I’d love to have some fresh juice, but more importantly, I’d LOVE to figure out what the name of this mysterious fruit is! So, I ordered the juice, and in my best French asked the guy what the fruit on the sign was. He seemed taken back and looked at me quizzically, almost suspicious. He wanted to know why I wanted to know the name of the fruit. Little did I know, I was speaking with one of Martinique’s ambassadors of rare and disappearing fruit, Roger Garlin.
He explained to me that when he was a little boy, his grandparents had a “Creole garden” and this fruit grew there. Of course I could relate to this story, being reminded of my Grandmother Willie Mae’s fig tree in Prarieville (I have yet to have a single fig that could even come close to the rich, sweet fruit from that tree). He explained to me that many fruit that are native of the Antilles are disappearing, as the main crops for export (like bananas) are not native to the region, and many are ultimately pests for the delicate ecosystem. He has been all around the world, including France and the United States, advocating on behalf of these rare and disappearing fruits. He named his restaurant after this fruit, but spelled it with a “K” to give it a twist.
Aside from fresh fruit and fresh juices, the local fruits are also used to make sorbets. I am a firm believer that great ingredients make great food. The super sweet, tree-ripened fruit used in the sorbets made some seriously amazing sorbet. Plus, the Martiniquais are not afraid of adding some spice! The coconut sorbet wasn’t just coconut—it had some of the local spices added to it, like cinnamon and vanilla. In fact, I even had “ginger” sorbet. Sorbet was pretty much one of the best parts of visiting any beaches, as you are sure to find local women peddling their fresh, homemade sorbet.
Another place fruit ended up was inside of bottles of rum. Guava-infused rum? Why not! We even visited the Depaz Rum Distillery in the northern part of the island. Although it was fine to make a quick stop, I wouldn’t plan my day around it. Although, it was great to sample not just the different aged rums, but some of the pre-mixed rum drinks. Although, if you stop at a local outdoor market, you can taste the same concoctions, except homemade, particularly at the market that shares a parking lot with Le Diamant beach. I’m not sure if many Martiniquais are drinking straight rum. It seems to be customary to mix the rum with sugar cane syrup and either lime juice or coconut milk.
Ti Punch is the island’s signature cocktail. But don’t be fooled, it’s hardly a “punch” at all (although it certainly has punch). This drink is 4 parts rum mixed with 1 part cane syrup and ¼ of a lime. I had yet to discover the potency of Ti Punch when I went on an all-day catamaran ride and promptly ordered one from the bar at 9 am. The bartender was more than happy to indulge me, but fortunately, another tourist encouraged me to start with the Planteur’s Punch.
Planteur’s Punch is a little more of what I had in mind for a tropical island’s signature cocktail, as it’s rum mixed with a number of exotic fruit juices like guava, mango and pineapple. And of course, some spices are added like nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. Pina Colada and Punch Coco are also popular cocktails. The pina colada is different than the pina colada I’m used to—like due to the collection of spices. And punch coco is no more than rum, cane syrup and a splash of coconut milk, served on the rocks.
Being a department of France, there is no shortage of “boulangeries,” traditional French bakeries. They’ve got everything from fresh baguettes to pain au chocolate. And they are everywhere! Towards the end of our trip, our “morning feasts” became “grab a pain au chocolat, a coffee and head to the beach.” One unique difference to Paris is that they offer you pain au chocolate “non-feuillete”, which means with non-laminated dough. This makes sense since traditional pastry requires cold butter. Once the butter melts, you won’t be able to get those flaky sheets that are signature of croissants and pain au chocolat. In a hot and humid tropical climate, I imagine that it can be quite difficult to keep the butter cold, so it makes sense to not use laminated dough.
On an island, seafood is simply a part of life. But the creole sauces like “sauce chien” really elevate the dishes to the next level. My next post will focus on the more savory aspects of food in Martinique, so stay tuned!