France

Martinique

IMG_2387 From exotic and rare fruits to black sand beaches, volcanic lava-preserved cities and stunning sunset silhouettes, Martinique is more than a tropical paradise.

After spending the past week exploring the tree-lined beaches and indulging in the lively and authentic culture of the hospitable Martiniquais, I wasn’t sure what to focus on for my first blog post. So, I’ll focus on the most important thing: What you should expect when you visit. Because you should visit.

Martinique is unique.

All Caribbean islands are different, but Martinique is really different.  It’s the perfect mélange of relaxed Caribbean and sophisticated French. You’ll find friendly folks with laid-back, breezy attitudes speaking French and greeting each other in the most French way with the “bisous” (a kiss on each cheek). You’ll even find boulangeries next to colorful churches and creole homes, next to fishermen selling their morning’s catch.

A colorful home in Petit Anse d'Arlet, just feet from the beach

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The colorful church along the shore at Petit Anse d'Arlet

Martinique, c’est magnifique !

Martinique boasts beautiful tropical beaches where the palm trees provide shade right up to the shoreline. There are two coasts—the Caribbean coast and the Atlantic coast. The beaches studded along the Northern, Caribbean side of the island have black sand, thanks to Mont Pelée, the majestic volcano that graces the island’s skyline. But unlike flat coral islands, Martinique also has a rain forest, complete with spectacular waterfalls, small and winding streams, and even hiking and trails like the Canal des Esclaves that goes straight through the middle of the rain forest.

Petit Anse d'Arlet

Enjoying the Riviere Alma

A daring trek along the Canal des Esclaves--in the rain! The very narrow path of about 16 inches twists and winds through a mountain, offering a small water canal on one side and a steep ravine on the other.

Playing in the sand at Le Carbet, one of the numerous black sand beaches on the Northern part of the island.

More than a tropical paradise

The people, beaches and waterfalls are enough of a reason to visit Martinique. But, there are also a number of notable historical sites to visit, like St. Pierre, the previous capitol of the island.  St. Pierre was completely destroyed in 1902 when Mont Pelée erupted, killing all 30,000 inhabitants except one---a prisoner in solitary confinement whose cement cell entombed and protected him from the flowing lava.

At the ruins of the older theatre at St. Pierre, gazing at the majestic Mont Pelee

In addition to the ruins that still stand in St. Pierre and the northern part of the island, history buffs will enjoy the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial near Le Diamant on the southern edge of the island. The impressive 20 stone effigies provide a somber contrast to the fierce beauty of Le Diamant beach, which their sullen stone bodies and slumped shoulders face. Also, keep a look out for the beheaded statues of Josephine Bonaparte, first wife to Napoleon and the Empress of France.  Despite being of mixed-race heritage “metisse,” she was against the abolition of slavery, earning this native Martiniquais special disdain and an infamous place in Martinique history.

Slave Memorial at Anse Cafard

View of Le Diamant (the small island on the left) at dusk

Freshly-caught fish and lobster smothered in Creole sauces… rum cocktails and rare fruit.. your stay in Martinique will be a delicious one. And I’ll be providing more delectable details in the coming days, so stay tuned!

Assortment of tropical fruit

Enjoying the classic rum cocktail, Ti Punch.

Know Before You Go...

Martinique is a department of France, which means a visit there is a visit to France, and consequently, the European Union. The Euro is the currency, and although people speak some English, brush up on your high school French by downloading an app and practicing before you go!

In a lovely garden near the marina in Trois Islets

There are a number of hotels, but the best deals—especially if you want an authentic experience—are staying in the homes of locals. We rented a typical apartment through AirBnB. Like most lodging in the area, it basically had 3 walls so that the breeze could easily come through, and we had an unobstructed view of the sunset. Key words to look for when finding lodging are “chez l’habitant,” which generally suggests that there will be a local to guide you and maybe even cook for you.

Admiring the sunset from the home we rented

Renting a car is essential if you want to experience all that the island has to offer without steep taxi fares.  Although nothing is that far away, not much is walking distance.  Even neighboring beaches are often not walking distance.  Manual transmissions are the most common, so if you need to rent an automatic, do so as far in advance as possible (although, we were able to rent an automatic at the last minute).  Also, be prepared to drive in the round-abouts. Apparently, there are rules for when to enter and exit. And it’s best to do a little research to avoid learning these rules the hard way!

Homemade sorbet for sale: coconut, peanut, guava, passion fruit, melon, ginger, sugar apple... all amazing!

There’s no shortage of mosquitoes in Martinique, which is unsurprising given the tropical climate. There are also ants, and tiny geckos.  In fact, the pests were spot on similar to the types of pests that I grew up with in Louisiana.  Birds are even pest-like, as they will swoop into your kitchen and eat your fruit if you don’t keep it covered.

Since I have so much more to say, especially about the food, fruit, beaches, and people, expect a few more blog posts!

In the meantime, book your ticket!  You can still catch a crazy good fare from Norwegian Airlines (around $200 round trip) if you fly from NYC, Boston, or Baltimore. Tourist season runs November 1-April 30, and so do these great deals.

Vanilla Bean Macarons

  vanilla bean macarons

Day five of my Advent holiday delights is the ever-elusive French macaron.  I have made my fair share of macarons--enough to last more than a lifetime, surely.  But something about these little pastries is whimsical, and the vanilla bean macaron recipe I'm sharing below is packed with the flavors of potent, fresh vanilla beans from the world's highest quality producers--Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico.

Day 5: Vanilla Bean Macarons

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

Anyone can make macarons.  Like most things in life, the more you do it, the better you become at it. It helps if you have a steady hand, as you'll need that steadiness when you are piping the macaron shells.  Using a piping bag can be tricky and takes practice, but eventually, you'll get the hang of it.

I was inspired to make these somewhat daunting desserts back in 2011 when I was living in France.  My roommate came home with a macaron cookbook, and even though she had practically no baking experience, she was able to successfully follow the recipe and make some decent-looking, excellent-tasting macarons.  I made up my mind then that if she could do it, I could too.

After much trial and error, and using a book completely in French and the metric system (including strange oven settings such as, "mark 1"), eventually, I mastered these. There is more than one way to make a macron--such as which type of meringue to use for the shells. But, they all contain the same ingredients: pulverized almonds, sugar, egg whites, and a filling.

If you are a perfectionist who is devastated by mistakes, this recipe is not for you!  If you aren't afraid to try new things and enjoy spending half a day in the kitchen, then step out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, and try this recipe!

vanilla macarons

Vanilla Bean Macarons, inspired by Pierre Herme's Vanilla Macarons
Author: Vallery
Serves: 6 dozen macarons
Inspired by my time in France and the all-time great macaronier, Pierre Herme. Absolute precision is so important in this recipe that I'm only using grams, as any conversions to the English system would be less precise.
Ingredients
  • FOR THE SHELLS
  • 300 grams of almond flour (finely ground almonds)
  • 300 grams powdered sugar
  • 110 grams + 110 grams egg whites (for a total of 220 grams)
  • 300 grams granulated sugar
  • 75 grams water
  • FOR THE FILLING
  • 350 grams heavy whipping cream
  • 6 vanilla whole vanilla bean pods
  • 440 grams highest quality white chocolate, finely chopped
Instructions
  1. PREPARE THE VANILLA BEAN WHITE CHOCOLATE GANACHE FILLING
  2. Place the finely chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Add the heaving whipping cream to a small pot. Cut the vanilla bean pods in half. With a spoon, carefully scrape out the vanilla beans, and add to the heavy whipping cream, along with the vanilla bean pods. Heat the whipping cream on low heat. Bring to just a boil, then remove from heat. Carefully "wring out" the vanilla bean pods. Then, pour the hot whipping cream over the finely chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for 30 seconds. Then, using a rubber spatula, mix it until the chocolate has melted completely. Then, cover with plastic.
  3. PREPARE THE MACARON SHELLS
  4. Sift the almond flour with the powdered sugar into a large bowl. Add 110 grams of egg whites, and using a rubber spatula, fold until the egg whites are completely incorporated.
  5. Place the remaining 110 grams of egg white into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk on low. Here is the tricky part: You want to gradually increase the speed on the stand mixer so that the egg whites are forming between medium and stiff peaks just as the next step reaches 235F.
  6. While the egg whites are whisking, place the water and granulated sugar in small pot. Bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer, heat until it reaches the "soft ball" candy stage (235F).
  7. Once it reaches 235F, remove from the heat, and slowly pour it into egg whites as the stand mixer is vigorously whisking, at it's highest or near-highest speed. [CAUTION: SLOWLY pour the hot sugar water. Otherwise, it will splatter and burn you, while simultaneously cooking the egg whites!]
  8. Continue whisking a high speed until the mixture has cooled to 122F. Don't worry about over-mixing at this point. Unlike egg whites, it is impossible to "overmix" a meringue (which is what you have just created!)
  9. Now, you must work quickly. Remove the meringue from the bowl, and fold it into the almond flour/powdered sugar/egg white mixture. Be careful not to overmix, but make sure the meringue is completely and thoroughly incorporated.
  10. Then, transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with an 11 pt tip, and pipe into equal-sized rounds on a parchment paper or silplat-lined baking sheet, of 1.5-2 inches in size.
  11. Then, allow the macaron shells to sit for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325F. Pick up the cookie sheet about two inches off of the table, and then drop it. This step assists in the formation of the "feet" of the macaron shells. Then, transfer the cookie sheet to the center rack of the oven and bake for about 12 minutes. They should be completely dry, but not yet brown. Remove from the oven and immediately remove the parchment paper or silplat and place it on a cooling rack. Allow the shells to cool completely. Then, remove from the paper and group the like sizes together in pairs.
  12. Check your ganache to make sure it isn't runny. If it is, stick it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Then, add the ganache to a piping bag with an 11-pt tip. Pipe the ganache onto half of the macaron shells. Then, place the other half on top of the ganache.
  13. Store the macarons in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. When ready to eat, allow them to sit until they reach room temperature.

 

Paris Brest

Legend has it that this pastry was made in honor of a 1200 kilometer bike race that occurs in France every 4 years. The bike race starts in Paris, goes to Brest, and the back to Paris.  The first race was in 1891, and that year, a pastry chef made a celebration cake, which he named the "Paris Brest," in the shape of a bicycle wheel.

This pastry consists of a large ring of choux pastry that is cut in half, and filled with a whipped hazelnut cream.  It is topped with toasted almonds and powdered sugar.  If you like Nutella.. you'll love the Paris Brest.