How a tiny island is building its food tourism

Mauritius makes an interesting case study for insights into best practices for product development and promotion for emerging food destinations, notes Le Cordon Bleu Consulting editor Sona Bahadur, who spent her recent visit exploring the island’s gastronomy.

Photo by Xavier Coiffic on Unsplash

There is more to Mauritius than sugary white beaches and cerulean lagoons. Like its eclectic cuisine, which simmers with Indian, Chinese, European and Creole flavours. Though its food scene has largely flown under the international radar, the tropical paradise is reinventing itself as an up-and-coming food destination. On a recent media visit, I got a taste of how Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, in partnership with relevant stakeholders like tour operators, hotels, restaurants and local food and beverage producers, is incorporating food as a major selling point in its tourism strategy. Here are 8 reasons why gastronomic tourists should put the island on their travel to-do list:

  1. Multi-ethnic dishes: Mauritius doesn’t have Michelin-starred restaurants or figure in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list. Instead, the lush wonderland is drawing attention to its staggeringly diverse cuisine, which came out of successive waves of immigration. Migrants from Europe, India, China and Africa have played a key role in shaping the island’s eclectic flavours. I got to try a range of unique dishes from dholl puri, a lentil-stuffed flatbread introduced by Indian indentured workers during the nineteenth century, to rougaille, a deep red Creole tomato sauce with a velvety texture. The enclave of Chinatown offers the full panoply of Sino-Mauritian dishes from fried noodles to boulette, a typically Mauritian steamed dumpling stuffed with chayote squash.

2. Curated food tours: Award winning food and travel writer Lynelle Scott-Aitken who teaches Le Cordon Bleu’s online course on Gastronomic Tourism, talks about the “experience economy” and the key role immersive experiences play in turning a place to a destination. As she points out in her course “Gastronomic tourists crave not just a true taste of a destination but also love to sink their teeth into its culinary culture!”

My Moris addresses this urge. My tour guide took me to the capital and told me about the rich culture of the city as I sampled an assortment of typical Mauritian fare: dholl puri, gato pima or deep fried lentil and chilli cakes, sweet vanilla black tea and more. The best part was meeting warm Port-Louisians and listening to their stories.

Image Courtesy: Gilliane Soupe pour My Moris

3.Vibrant local produce: Foodie travellers could spend hours in the Port Louis central market, which bursts with regional produce and offers a unique and fun slice of local life. The atmospheric bazar stocks everything from native vegetables and fruit, slabs of meat and local catch to Chinese herbal medicines, incense and aphrodisiacs. Strolling through colourful rows of edible treasures, I found jewel-like pomme d’amour or small tomatoes, pear-shaped chou chou, prickly Victorian pineapples (the sweetest I have ever tasted), and bunches of intensely fragrant mint and coriander. The highlight: spotting the local red chillies that find their way into the eyewateringly hot paste known as mazavaroo.

4. Sugar museum: Education and context are an essential part of a gastronomic visit. Mauritius’s 400-year history has been shaped by its sugar industry. A visit to L’Aventure du Sucre at Beau Plan in Pamplemousses is an exceptional way to trace its evolution, from the introduction of sugar cane by the Dutch in 1639, to the setting up of the first sugar factories during the French period, and the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers who came to work in Mauritian in 1834. The permanent exhibit at the museum, which draws upon a wide variety of media from animated scale models to giant flip books and short films, is at par with the best in the world.

5. Artisan food products: Shopping is a hook for foodie travellers, and Mauritius doesn’t disappoint. No matter where you are on the island, you will find stores chock full of local goodies like Bois Cheri vanilla tea, atchars or pickles and coconut cookies. The boutique at the sugar museum stocks local rums aged in oak barrels, liqueur gift boxes and over a dozen varieties of cane sugar. Visitors will also love Chateau de Labourdonnais, a majestic Victorian mansion surrounded by orchards laden with tropical fruit like passion fruit, guavas and mangoes. The 500 tonnes of fruit produced on the estate each year are used to make a variety of delicious jams, juices and fruit candies, all of which can be bought from their shop, Le Corbeille.

6. Award-winning rum: A major motivator for gastronomic tourism, Mauritius’s world-famous rum is unique, compelling and very marketable. To taste the local tipple at its finest, I spent an afternoon at the picturesque Rhumerie de Chamarel, located in the southwest of the island. Taking a guided tour of the artisan distillery, I learnt about the rum-making process from plantation to bottle. It’s a great place to try the famous rhum arrangé, or spiced rum infused with spices and fruits. Chamarel’s spiced vanilla rum, matured in oak for three years, felt soft and fine in the mouth. Their double-distilled rum with 44 per cent alcohol had notes of baked pears and citrus, and left me feeling high.

7. Lychee wine: A visit to the one-of-a-kind Takamaka winery is proof that there could be more to wine than grapes. Like lychees. The only vineyard in Mauritius dedicated to the development of lychee wine, Takamaka writes winemaking differently — “with a good dose of daring, a little know-how and a lot of fun.” At the winery’s barrel room, you get to smell, swirl and sip through some unique blends. From the soft, salmon-hued Aperichy to the dry, oak-aged Tanara, each one is approachable, enjoyable and characterful.

8. Beach barbecues: Live-fire cooking on the beach — think large platters of charred juicy meat, seafood and Muslim biryanis — is a vital part of Mauritian culture. To give foodie tourists a taste of this quintessential island recreation, many hotels including Sofitel, Lux Grand Gaube and Club Med are offering memorable barbecue experiences. I took in a legendary Mauritian sunset took over succulent grills and a frothy pina colada at Sofitel Grand Imperial. The progression of the party was to sit around after and listen to Sega music, a fitting finale to a week-long party.

Photo by Stephanie McCabe on Unsplash

My time in Mauritius convinced me that authentic local experiences combined with rich storytelling that convey a “taste of place” do more for food tourism than celebrity restaurants and chefs. The island is achieving this by driving business to a wide range of regional travel suppliers working in the food and beverage sector. Instead of trying to emulate the dining scenes of New York and Paris, it is promoting the compelling mosaic of its native cuisine. That’s a sure-fire recipe for success.

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