Sugar, Salt and Sustainability: Mauritius Beyond the Beach

Sugar, Salt and Sustainability: Mauritius Beyond the Beach

Our Print Editor-in-Chief Olivia Squire travels to Mauritius, where she savours the tropical tang of the fertile island.

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste

the zingy exterior, however, it’s the hotel’s commitment
to sustainability beyond just paying lip service
that makes it exceptional on an island that has struggled with the
concept. Single-use plastics have been ditched completely – instead
I find an aluminium water bottle in my room that I refill from
filter taps around the hotel, as well as a drawer full of raw sugar
and freshly ground coffee, bathrobes made with organic cotton and
coffee-bean waste, slippers made of rubber and sedge (a grass-like
plant), and a shower full of natural products including a hair mask
and salt scrub. This attitude extends to the kitchen, where all the
ingredients are locally sourced and the menu is Mauritian with
modern air. We begin our five-day feast with cold-cut octopus
carpaccio, a barley and smoked-fish salad, vegan tacos with
“good-seed” shells, josper-grilled corn with harissa and manchego,
and a pulled pork and pineapple sandwich in a brioche bun that
Jacob immediately declares “the best thing I’ve ever eaten”.

He may be calling it too soon, as the next morning we head out
past Hindu temples in shades of acid rainbow for a street-food tour
of the island’s capital, Port Louis. It may not be the most
picturesque of cities, but away from its sterile business district
and tourist-centric waterfront Port Louis is a microcosm for
Mauritius’ mixed palate. After coming uncomfortably close with a
skinned cow’s head in the meat market, I slurp my first alouda, the
saccharine custard-like drink beloved by locals, before sampling
the traditional afternoon snack (and hangover cure) of confi, a
combination of pineapple, Chinese potato and cucumber slices
pickled in tamarind and chilli vinegar. In the Chinese quarter we
sip a salty soup of chicken and cabbage dumplings in broth followed
by bean-curd pastries and Chinese churros from the cherry-red
shopfront of H. K. Chu Fung Leung. We join locals on their lunch
break perched on plastic chairs for double servings of rotis but,
stomachs groaning, have to get the traditional sticky banana pie
from Patisserie Rassool to take away.

Learning from my mistakes, the next day I skip breakfast before
SALT’s Executive Chef, Vikram Bhaugeerutty, takes us along to the
local Flacq Market where some of the hotel’s produce is sourced. I
step over pale coconut husks and enter a sprawling labyrinth of
stalls piled high with pyramids of frilly yellow squash, tiny
pineapples and bunches of mustard leaves, while clusters of gaudy
gold handbags and bejewelled sandals swing overhead. Among the
racks of dried fish crawling with flies, packets of bloated olives
in caramel, tins of mango pickle and fat tamarind cocoons, Vikram
presses further treats into my hands – sweet strips of sugar cane
that I suck the juice from and discard, soft boiled chickpeas fried
in spices and the street-food staple of dholl puri, a pillowy wrap
made using yellow split peas.

Vikram explains that part of his role at SALT is to find local
producers, or “SALTshakers” in the hotel’s parlance, to supply the
kitchen. We stop by the family garden of Sweti, who shows us her
neat braids of organic capsicum, guava, papaya, curry leaf and
begonia flowers, as well as the passionfruit growing along the wall
and mahogany-brown vanilla pods weeping sticky tears in the

Nearby, Vikram’s uncle, Soobiraj, is a policeman by trade but
also grows young palm-heart trees in his front garden, which he
then painstakingly transports to the mountains so they can flourish
(and be used in the hotel’s cuisine). SALT’s partnership with
Island Bio, a non-profit that establishes community gardens staffed
by ex-offenders, recovered drug addicts and those in need of a
second chance, provides another supply avenue, and plans are
underway to establish the hotel’s own farm.

This local approach extends beyond food, however, with guests
being encouraged to visit other SALTshakers including basket
weavers, soap makers and potters during their stay. We spend an
hour with Janine, a South African ceramicist who has lived in
Mauritius for 11 years and crafts the hotel’s earthy, raw-edged
crockery. As she throws lumps of clay on her wheel, Janine tells me
that the philosophy of looking outwards is one that resonates with
her. “When you open your heart and give your skill, it comes back
to you,” she explains. It’s a mantra epitomised by Mirella and
Alain Armance, the couple whose house I visit one night for dinner
and the aforementioned rum bonanza. Over chilli balls, breadfruit
chips, salted fish and pumpkin mash, Mirella recounts the story of
how, in addition to having four daughters of their own, her and
Alain’s big-heartedness led them to adopt a further five, several
of their many grandchildren interrupting her as they careen through
the living room and crawl onto her lap.

These island stories thread together back at SALT, where a
series of hands-on masterclasses with its chefs and bartenders are
infused with memories of the land and its culture of sharing.
Vikram shows us the colossal stone grinder on which he prepares
Mauritian chicken curry, laughingly explaining that he had to ask
his grandmother how to use it as that role is usually taken up by
the matriarch of the family. At one of the three bars, each
inspired by either the land, sea or mountains, I learn how to make
a “No Smoke Without Fire”, a whisky-based cocktail smoked with
sugar-cane syrup and inspired by the burning of sugar-cane fields,
and a “Star of the Show”, a gin-inflected take on alouda. Chef
Ashish teaches us how to make a cauliflower biryani with papaya
ceviche, a healthy vegan twist on the Indian classic, before baker
Nitin takes us through the complex process behind the perfect
baguette, a nod to the island’s European influences. We eat the
warm, crunchy loaves with freshly ground peanut butter at his

On our final morning I rise early and watch the filament of
raging surf flickering along the horizon like a tantrum as the sun
warms the clouds to the colour of almond blossom. After a stint in
the salt chamber at the spa, in which I crunch the grains underfoot
and breathe in the briny air, we hire some fat bikes and heave our
way along the coast to the fishing village of Trou d’Eau Douce.

We pass yapping dogs and colourful shacks that look like
torn-off train carriages selling fruit and snacks, and sail past
the low, pinkish bristles of pineapple fields and thick sugar-cane
roots until we reach an abandoned sugar mill. The only sound aside
from the rustling grass is the snore of a sleeping security guard
in one of the windows. With the morning’s salt still lingering on
my skin and the sweet scent of sugar cane in my lungs, I exhale
into the silence and savour this sensory isle.

I’m on my ninth glass of flavoured rum before I realise that
“sip, not shot” is probably the more polite way to tackle the row
of crystal decanters lined up before me. Not that my hosts are
likely to chide me for the sweet tide of wooziness now sweeping my
vision – chuckling, Alain Armance fills another tumbler (“Number
10: lychee!”) and pushes it across his living-room table to be
ranked. I’m working my way through he and his wife Mirella’s
collection of homemade spirits, you see, and excess is no excuse
for failing to sample the full output of their domestic distillery.
I manage to remain sober long enough to declare cinnamon, banana
and vanilla the clear victors – rosemary, however, proves an
acquired taste.

If 13 shots of rum as a pre-dinner aperitif seems rather
extravagant, it’s a theme that repeats throughout my time in
The bounteous hospitality of its people combined with the Indian
Ocean island’s natural fecundity means that I accidentally eat well
beyond my means over and over again: hot, fluffy rotis oozing red
sauce are chased by caramel-laced crêpes made of cassava; salty
packets of chickpeas and peanuts are washed down with gulps of
condensed milk speckled with chia seeds and cubes of birthday-party
jelly; and it’s impossible to decline the bags of chilli-pickled
pineapple and candy floss-coloured prawn crackers that are
proffered on a seemingly hourly basis. I come to see “too full” as
a mood rather than a misfortune and thank the straining waistband
of my jeans that my stay is limited to under a week.

More commonly dismissed as either a “fly-and-flop” destination
geared towards honeymooners and families or a playground for avid
jet-skiers and zipliners, Mauritius beyond its resorts is a far
more chaotic and sensory affair – as is captured in its cuisine, a
cross-section of African, Indian and European flavours reflecting
its legacy of settlers and the fruits of its fertile soil. Driving
along the coastline in the wake of rainfall I’m assailed by the
smell of wet leaves, smoke and surf. I pass glittering fishing
boats and swaying fields of sugar-cane fronds while hibiscus,
cassava, oleander and bougainvillea erupt from the fringes. My
destination is SALT of Palmar, a new breed of
eco-minded hotel that promises a
“local, sustainable and meaningful” experience on the
lesser-developed east coast, with food providing one of several
routes into the island’s native culture.

Conceived as a counterpoint to the desert-island aesthetic of
neighbouring resorts, SALT is a brash ice-cream sundae by contrast.
Its peach-sorbet walls are studded with Majorelle-blue sprinkles
in-keeping with the Moroccan architecture of the original building,
while French designer Camille Walala has brought her signature
brights, monochrome and madness to the interiors. After a brief
meditation session on the blinding beachfront, I check into her
Tetris-puzzle of a lobby in shades of lilac, teal and yolk, where I
download the SALT app – a nifty idea that allows you to reserve spa
treatments and activities as well as chat to the team and access
the hotel’s locally written guidebook, even if the room-key feature
proves somewhat temperamental. The soft sound of séga music from
the radio heralds my arrival in my beach-facing room, accented by
the crash of waves being buffeted by a fractious wind outside my

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