Where to stay

Château Royal Perfect location with direct access to Anse Vata beach. Contemporary design pervades this all-suite hotel. A one-bed apartment costs from £170. 00 687 29 64 00, http://complexechateauroyal.nc

Chez Waka Stay in a thatched hut right on one of Lifou island’s many beautiful beaches and Mrs Waka’s family will cook you incredible food too, from grilled lobsters and tasty snails to the famed bougna (with or without bat). Two-person hut from £23. 00 687 45 15 14, http://iles-loyaute.com

Hilton Noumea La Promenade Residences Located in the heart of Anse Vata, opposite the lagoon, with typical four-star comfort and a choice of studios or one- to three-bedroom luxury apartments. One-bedroom apartment from £124. 00 687 24 46 00, http://hilton.com

Le Méridien Nouméa Surrounded by landscaped tropical gardens, this hotel has a large swimming pool and direct access to the beach. The food offered at L’Hippocampe is typically New Caledonian, fusing the best of France with local produce and offering an excellent wine list. Doubles from £147. 00 687 26 50 00, http://lemeridien.com/noumea

Le Méridien Ile des Pins Melanesian-style architecture in a centuries-old coconut grove with a pristine white sand beach on the Isle of Pines. Doubles from £228. 00 687 26 50 00, http://lemeridien.com

L’Escapade Ilot Maitre Bungalows hover over the water in the heart of a marine reserve, a 20-minute boat ride from Noumea and away from it all. From £271. 00 687 28 53 20, http://glphotels.nc

Travel Information

New Caledonia lies in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, two hours’ flying time from Brisbane and less than three hours from Sydney. The currency in New Caledonia is the Comptoirs Français du Pacifique Franc. New Caledonia is 11 hours ahead of GMT. The islands enjoy a semitropical climate all year round. Temperatures in November reach an average high of 27˚C, while the lowest average high is 23˚C in August.

Aircalin (http://aircalin.com) operates regular flights to Noumea from Brisbane and Sydney in Australia, among other Pacific destinations.

Tourism New Caledonia (http://visitnewcaledonia.com) is the official tourism website, packed with essential travel information, videos and itineraries.

Cultural Centre of Kanak People by Werner Blaser (Birkhäuser Verlag). Finely illustrated with duotone photographs, this authoritative book catalogues the creation of the Centre Culturel Tjibaou, a cultural centre designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano (perhaps best known for The Shard in London). It explores the architectural influences, which include island culture and the natural environment.

Where to eat

Prices are for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.

Au P’tit Café Namechecked by locals as one of the best French joints in town; an ever-changing menu according to what’s good and what’s not, but brush up on your French – you’ll need it. £32. 8 Avenue Carcopino, Noumea, 00 687 28 21 89, htpp://auptitcafe.nc

Evasion A restaurant built around a rockface, set amid forest over an hour’s drive from Noumea. Quality French food. £36. 35 Morcellement Saint Joseph, Sarraméa, 00 687 44 55 77, hotel-evasion.com

L’Astrolabe Keeping diners happy on the Baie des Citrons seafront; exceptional service and simple cooking with excellent results. Dishes include crab salads with citrus fruit and a renowned plate of tournedos Rossini. £36. Baie des Citrons, Noumea, 00 687 28 44 44.

La Coupole Not in the same class as the likes of L’Astrolabe or Le 1881 but decent enough for a family meal out. £54. Promenade Roger Laroque, Anse Vata, Noumea, 00 687 26 44 11.

Le 1881 A Sydney-trained mixologist behind the bar, a former Michelinstarred chef in the kitchen – this place can’t lose. Set in a historic building with a nicely modern interior and a waterside location. £36. 98 Avenue James Cook, Noumea, 00 687 24 00 42.

Le Roof On a jetty jutting out into the water at Anse Vata, the setting is impeccable and the food a balance of fine and casual French dishes. £57. 134 Promenade Roger Laroque, Noumea, 00 687 25 07 00.

Food Glossary

This is the much-loved traditional Melanesian dish cooked by the Kanak people of New Caledonia. It involves vegetables, fruit and meat or fish being wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and cooked, often in an earth oven on hot stones.
The snails of New Caledonia are deservedly famous. They have a cone-shaped shell and are farmed on the Isle of Pines, destined for the restaurant kitchens of Noumea.
Also called manioc, this root veg is known as the ‘poor man’s potato’ and is used to bulk up many dishes.
Civet de Roussette
Not just the preserve of the bougna, bats are also served simply in a stew for this islander dish.
Yams are a firm favourite across many Pacific islands and there are numerous varieties of this tuber, mostly used in stews.
Kutha Kanak
Green banana mixed with coconut and tapioca, wrapped in a cabbage leaf and boiled in coconut milk.
You’ll find the meaty dolphinfish on the menu at plenty of restaurants across the island.
Worth looking out for on any menu, the flying fox – ie fruit bat – is a favourite among the Kanaks.
Saumon des dieux
Called ‘salmon of the gods’ because of the pink of its uncooked flesh – but it’s actually a moonfish.
A root vegetable and local staple for its starchy corm.
Vivaneau rouge
Pacific red snapper, very common and popular not only baked but also barbecued.

Food and Travel Review

Esme peels back the steaming banana leaves to reveal the gently bubbling stew. Her young son Michel watches on. He’s seen this countless times before but is as excited as if it’s his first. The smoked leaf aroma mixes with the meaty, sweet scent of what lies within; it’s distinct but enticing. A coconut-heavy broth, it’s laced with stock from meat that’s been boiled for several hours before being wrapped in leaves with a mix of tropical roots and fruits and cooked once again.

By the time the broth is ready to serve, the tough yams have relented to the sweet talk of the coconut milk and taste more like a squash. The paw-paws are melt-in-the-mouth tropical deliciousness. And then there’s the broth itself: it has kept the best of the coconut flavour and enrobed it with the earthy notes of the veg and the gamey-ness of the meat. It’s good. The meat, picked from the slender limbs of an unfamiliar carcass, has a flavour not dissimilar to rabbit. In Michel’s book, Esme tells us in her soft, French accent, it’s even better than chicken. But it’s not chicken. It’s bat. A flying fox, they’ll tell you – technically true, yes, but still a bat. Webbed wings, pointy teeth, piercing eyes, could-turn-into-a-vampire-at-any-minute bat.

This isn’t going to become your classic tale of Pacific island cuisine, though. For although bat is one of many foods served up in traditional ‘bougna’ style (cooked in banana leaves, often underground in a pit) and in some parts they may indulge in the odd turtle on special occasions, this is New Caledonia we’re talking about. And for New Caledonia, read French. Literally, read French – it’ll come in handy. Because despite its closest, most significant land mass being Australia – a two-and-a-half-hour flight to the west – the Gallic tongue is spoken by everyone.

It was in 1774 that British explorer Captain James Cook discovered the island, naming it after his father’s native Scotland. He dropped the ball by not claiming it. The French snapped it up in 1853, at first using it as a penal colony. With the help of the nickel that’s mined in abundance, it’s now a thriving, tricolourwaving, baguette-chomping French dependency.

This collection of islands and islets has everything going for it. Glimpsed from the air it’s a coral patchwork filled with every shade of blue, from azure to turquoise, so vivid and piercing it’s as though a computer programme has been used to perfect the image.

Down on the ground, the waters are so gin-clear, it’s all you can do not to pop an olive in, as the waters lap lazily upon the white, powdery shores. On Grande Terre, the main island, the terrain is as varied as the shores are beautiful: from cattle-herding and French-cowboy farmland (no, really, French cowboys!) to forestcarpeted hillsides of the kind normally reserved for forest-dwelling folk in fantasy films. Jaw-dropping waterfalls, craggy mountains, sunken tree marshland – it’s remarkable that Cook didn’t just drop anchor for good and make the place his home.

In the south lies Noumea, New Caledonia’s capital and where a huge chunk of the island’s 260,000 or so population lives. In Noumea they like to rise early – especially those who work at the market at Port Moselle, which opens for business at 4.30am. That’s not for trade either, which starts two and a half hours earlier.

The fish haven’t quite flopped from the sea to the numerous market stalls, but it’s about as close as you can get. Thirty or so fishing boats set off from the quay at night to cast their nets, returning at sunset with their haul, which they’ll keep on ice until the first traders arrive to inspect the catch. ‘Most of the fishermen are Tahitians – you won’t find many New Caledonians,’ says Harold Mary, our guide, born locally and a thoroughly French former chef. ‘Tahitians make good fishermen for some reason.’

A circuit of the market reveals an assortment of aquatic treasures that would appease even the most ardent of fish fanciers. Big, ruby-red chunks of glistening line-caught tuna occupy every other stall. The smiley dawa (bluespine unicornfish) is a favourite among the locals, best served simply grilled, allowing its heated oils to gently flavour without overpowering. Prawns of every denomination, disco lobsters (named for their colours, not their dancing ability), green-fringed mussels for moules marinières, oysters, marlin, mackerel, octopus and crab all rub fins, shells, tentacles and claws with such local celebrities as saumon des dieux. ‘The caviar of fish,’ says Harold. ‘It’s like filet mignon!’ Its name means ‘salmon of the gods’ but its taste is more akin to tuna, and it’s actually a moonfish. The petit wiwa (‘beautiful with a Pernod Ricard butter’, reckons Harold), the mahi-mahi with its monstrous fillets, and the vivaneau rouge (red snapper) are big sellers too – the latter being a family favourite in Noumea. It’s often the Sunday roast – baked whole, thus allowing its meaty flesh to soak up the flavours of the wine, onion and tomatoes with which it shares its hot oven bath. If the super-sized Pacific fish and crustaceans are something of a giveaway to the market’s location – despite the incessant French chatter – then you could certainly only be in this part of the world when you reach the fruit and veg.

To the random soundtrack of what can only be described as the Melanesian equivalent of a working men’s club band (think islanders wearing bad suits and playing keyboards), traders sip espressos and wave croissants as they discuss the cost of root veg. And if there’s one thing that’s a big deal here, it’s root veg. A very big deal, in fact – there are over 100 different kinds of yam (‘igname’ to give it its French name) grown in New Caledonia, a good few of which are on offer here, some the size of woolly mammoth thighs. Then there’s the equally prehistoric-looking cassava. For both, suggests one trader, the best way to eat them is in a stew with coconut milk, chicken, Pignon bananas (the chubby ones), onions and tomatoes.

But much as the locals love their yams, France and some of its other former colonies have made their mark here too. So you’ll find the best of the Pacific – think bananas so tropical in taste that the fruit from whose loins they sprung must have fooled around with passion fruit – plus all the herbs and spices that south-east Asia has to offer (Vietnam, another former French colony, has a big input) and every ingredient that a chef with Gallic flair could desire.

And no one in New Caledonia has quite as much flair as Patrick Morand, a chocolatier who, having plied his trade in Switzerland, the US and his native France (where he worked at Yves Thuriès’ famed Maison Pillon) made Noumea his home over a decade ago. ‘I like to play with chocolate, I like to play with the spice, the fruit, all the time I’m trying new things… people are surprised by what we do,’ he says, before reaching for a tray of gold star-covered chocolates from the rows and rows of cacao decadence in his boutique shop in the Latin quarter. ‘You must try one of these,’ he insists, handing over one of the perfectly formed squares. Inside its dark chocolate casing lies a thyme ganache with a layer of apple and lemon fruit jelly. Delicious. The same goes for the tomato fruit jelly with basil ganache proffered immediately afterwards, painted with delicate green leaves.

Morand likes to tread the line between sweet and savoury, with the initial citrus burst eventually giving way, the chocolate melting to gently release the thyme flavour. His mint chocolate made with ingredients from the market is so fresh it’s like you’re nibbling straight from the bush. It’s a balancing act performed with the deftest of touches, and Morand would sit comfortably with Europe’s finest exponents of the art. He darts about his kitchen with child-like enthusiasm eager to show off his new toys. ‘What’s this flavour? Go on, guess…’ ‘Violet?’ ‘Yes, and this one?’ ‘Lychee?’ He picks up bottle after bottle of different flavours, both tropical and European, asking us to guess each one. Samples of chocolate hailing from everywhere from Venezuela and Tanzania to Ghana and Mexico are plucked from bags to demonstrate the different percentages. He insists we try every one to note the differences, some subtle, some stark. ‘It’s so important to get the balance right,’ he says, repeating the mantra with which he clearly runs Chocolats Morand. ‘Sometimes I go to the market, see an ingredient and just try to see if it works. Or when I go to France, I see what is happening there – you want to see what Patrick Roger is doing, he’s great, for me he’s the best, he’s crazy!’

While his chocolate creations are a thing of beauty with their delicate refinement of both flavour and presentation, the macaroons scream indulgence. Sweet ganache spills out from between two doorstep-sized biscuits – Morand knows what his customers want.

French cuisine lies at the heart of everything in New Caledonia, particularly in Noumea, and not just at the higher-end places like Chocolats Morand. Visit a typical, well-stocked wine store, such as Le Pavillon des Vins, and you won’t find much that doesn’t hail from France. ‘We do have some from Australia,’ we’re told at the counter, before the lady disappears amid a maze of aisles covering every wine region of France worth knowing. ‘Here you go,’ she says, handing us a bottle of sauvignon blanc. From Marlborough, New Zealand. That’s Australia covered then. Champagne, as you’d expect from a French outpost, is a must-have. ‘Every house always has a bottle of Champagne in the fridge, just in case,’ says Harold. ‘We like the best of everything in New Caledonia, but we pay for it. At one point, we’ve been the biggest consumer per capita not only of Champagne but also whisky and Porsche cars!’

Locals have even tried to make their own wine, with one ambitious farmer attempting to create a New Caledonian drop as we visit. ‘They’ve been trying for two years now,’ Harold tells us, ‘but they pressed too early this year and it tasted like vinegar. Even then, the grapes just can’t cope with the humidity.’

Other French additions to the islands have worked considerably better, notably venison, which is one of the local meats you’ll find on plenty of menus. It stacks up favourably against its European renditions, particularly when prepared by the likes of Didier Broux at Le 1881 restaurant. Having left strips of venison to soak in lime and olive oil overnight, the chef serves them on a salad and twirled with tropical fruits such as papaya, and mixes in curry powder. Eaten raw, the meat is still deliciously tender, and the bittersweet citrus combines with a gentle curry kick to create what is a perfect example of New Cal fusion. Other meats from the island – for logistical issues more than anything – haven’t fared so well when it comes to reaching the chopping board, especially when the chefs of the finer establishments are resolutely French in everything they do.

Meats come from New Zealand or even join the regular gastronomes’ rescue shipments of cheese from the motherland. Foie gras makes it onto most line-ups, the best being served up by the likes of Broux – after all, he has worked at around 15 Michelinstarred worth of restaurants in his time. He simply pan-fries slabs and serves them with a fig compote and toasted brioche. Here we have a technically brilliant chef doing the simple things unbelievably well.

He’s not alone either. Anyone from Au P’tit Café, Le Bintz, La Table des Gourmets (speciality: foie gras and parrot fish), L’Astrolabe (famed for its tournedos Rossini, the foie gras melting slowly atop a filet mignon), Le Relais de la Vallee or La Chaumière would all justifiably class themselves as French or French/fusion. And we’re not talking any of this new-fangled fusion that mixes one questionable idea with another. This is the best of French food ideas made with the best produce the Pacific can deliver. Now there’s a fusion with which any Francophile can get onboard.

Don’t think that it’s just those whose origins lie in France that buy into the lifestyle though; the supermarchés aren’t stocked with French cheeses and baguettes for no reason. Every New Caledonian– be they from Melanesia or Montpellier – loves the French way of life and everyone is part of it. When the sun sets on the curving sands of Noumea’s Baie des Citrons, the locals don their Tour de France kits to glide their way along the island’s winding coastal roads, while others revel in bets made on one of many games of pétanque. Either way, it’s a thoroughly French way to end a day. Some say New Caledonia is like a slice of the French Riviera and in some ways – the boats, the beaches, the food, the architecture that’s certainly true. But when you throw in the immense natural beauty of these Pacific outcrops, and the culture and warm welcome of the indigenous Kanak people, you have to admit that to liken it to France’s south is perhaps something of an injustice. Of course, you won’t find any bougna-cooked bats in Bordeaux. But while our web-winged buddies may not be to everyone’s taste, for Michel and friends, at least, that’s most certainly France’s loss – and New Caledonia’s gain.

Alex Mead and Ewen Bell travelled to New Caledonia courtesy of Tourism New Caledonia (http://visitnewcaledonia.com) and Le Méridien Nouméa (http://lemeridiennoumea.com).

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