Under normal road conditions, it would take over eight hours to drive from France to the Netherlands. But on island time, it only takes a few minutes. Such a paradox only exists in Saint Martin/Sint Maarten—a small Caribbean island half-way between Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe, and the only place in the world where France and Holland share a border.
Known as the “Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean,” St Martin is an upscale tourist destination, popular amongst cruisers, French vacanciers, and gourmands from around the world. With their matching red-white-and-blue striped flags (horizontal for Dutch, vertical French), the two territories immediately seem like family. As with any family, each member has its own personality. The Dutch side is higher energy, vibrating with the pings of casinos, chain hotels, a newly renovated international airport, two cruise ship piers and a cargo ship facility. By comparison the French side of the island is less densely developed and moves at a slower pace. The French side is where I’ll be investigating what has earned this tiny dual-nation island its cuisine-oasis title.
After a quick direct flight aboard Sunwing (with complimentary hot meals and champagne service) I’m feeling quite relaxed. As we make our final descent my relaxation is interrupted by gasps and laughter from fellow passengers. From my window I see a busy and fast-approaching beach, with tourists reaching up as if to graze the belly of this Boeing with their fingertips. Positioned at the lip of Maho Beach, the Princess Juliana International Airport, on the Dutch side of the island, provides the main attraction. But a pilot tells me the landing isn’t for show: the airport’s runway is short, and planes need all the tarmac they can get—to the additional delight of arriving passengers and brave beach goers below.
I’m met by my driver and within minutes we’re on the French side en route to my hotel, on the North end of St Martin. Getting to this area is breathtaking. Through green hills, the mountains open up every so often to reveal an ocean vista, or a view of what appear to be large lakes.
I take the opportunity to ask my driver what is farmed on the island. He points to the lakes and says “salt.” He explains these are salt ponds, exploited for salt
production until extraction slowed and eventually came to a halt in the mid-20th century. This arid landscape, flooded by the occasional hurricane, has not created much fertile opportunity for farming. Although some plantains, mangoes, sea grapes and coconuts can be found on the island, the majority of fare is imported.
We soon arrive at the Hotel Riu Palace, an all-inclusive resort on a gorgeous strip of beachfront along the Anse Marcel cove. Although this property has been in existence for many years, it was re-opened in May 2014 by the Spanish chain Riu Hotels and Resorts. With only 252 rooms, it’s one of their smallest properties, and does not exude the rah-rah-rah of your typical large all-inclusive hotel. Like many of the 36 beaches that surround the island, there are few to no peddlers here, and the water is that inviting shade of turquoise of a postcard from paradise.
My culinary exploration begins with my hotel. Forget your preconceptions of bland buffets and sugary cocktails, an all-inclusive in St Martin can be a great way to experience the French-Caribbean cuisine of this area. Duck, foie gras, all kinds of cheese, seafood and plenty of French wines are on offer at Riu’s buffets and in its three full-service restaurants. Krystal in particular impresses with its gourmet fusion of French and creole cuisine.
In my search for clues to unlock St Martin’s culinary character, I speak to Riu’s Executive Chef Bruno Brazier. Originally from France, Brazier travelled to St Martin over a decade ago and has since penned two Caribbean-French fusion cookbooks (one of my favourite recipes is for Shrimp Fritters with Ginger and Coconut Milk).
As Chef Brazier explains, in part the island’s culinary success comes from the blending of cultures. Tax exemptions on the island encouraged economic relations between the Dutch and French sides, allowing French cuisine and ingredients to easily percolate to the other half of the island. Today, this island-wide duty-free status is a luxury shopping attraction for tourists, and a unique opportunity for chefs to import whatever French ingredients they desire at incredibly low costs.
The true secret though, Chef Brazier tells me, is the local import situation. Since all chefs must import fresh ingredients from surrounding Caribbean nations, everyone starts with a level playing field. And that means its better value to eat Caribbean lobster, for example, at your all-inclusive hotel rather than in an haute-cuisine restaurant.
Nonetheless, I need to see these French bistros for myself. The 34 square miles that make up the French side of St Martin burst with French wine, pastries, cheeses and many more French imports, but nowhere is this buttery-rich French cooking more concentrated than in the small village of Grand Case.
My first experience is dinner at La Villa. Lit by candles and clad with red tablecloths encircled by dark woven chairs, the atmosphere is that of a Parisian arrondissement. The plates are sophisticated, but not extravagant. Paired with French wine, I enjoy traditional French Onion Soup au Gratin, Mahi-Mahi Ceviche, Escargots in Garlic Butter, Lobster
Ravioli, tuna, duck breast, baked Provencal vegetable lasagna, an aperitif of Kir Royal, and finally hot chocolate profiteroles and homemade sorbet.
The bistro is busy, but dinner is unhurried, and owner Christophe Hubler is happy to chat with guests.
The next morning I take a swift trip into Marigot, the French side’s capital, for a cafe au lait, and a pain au chocolat from Sarafina’s Boulangerie — busier than any bakery I’ve seen, even in Paris! I walk it off through the Marigot Market, which offers everything from fresh seafood, to spices, to clothes and even hand-churned ice cream. I pick up a souvenir bottle of artisanal hot sauce from the Ma Doudou stall. Ma Doudou is known across the island for colourful painted bottles of rum infused with flavours such as guavaberry, pineapple, and coconut, but I’ve fallen in love with their hot sauce and its addictive sweet tomato-chili tang. After a climb to Fort Louis for an incredible view of Marigot Bay, it’s time for lunch and I’ve got just the place in mind.
I head back to Grand Case where the narrow streets are filled with the aromas of BBQ. In the daylight I can now see the coast is lined with beach-front al-fresco BBQ restaurants. These are what locals call lolos—outdoor restaurants offering chicken and ribs on open cooktops. As far back as the 17th century these small restaurants were shops where food was sold. The name is said to come from the French word lot, or batch, referring to the food portions displayed for sale.
Lolos are a great option for lunch or dinner, with chicken and ribs dripping in BBQ sauce paired with sides ranging from macaroni and cheese, to beans, to salad. As one local put it “you’ll be biting your fingers off they’re so good.”
With all fingers still intact, it’s come time for me to say au revoir. Although I’m not sure I would elevate St. Martin above its neighbour nations with culinary capital status just yet, it’s clear that in combining French savoir-faire with fresh ingredients from all over the Caribbean, St. Martin is indeed representing the region in gourmet style.