Beaches to bougna: Join Justine Schofield as she explores the multicultural melting pot of New Caledonia.
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22 Apr 2020 - 10:39 AM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2020 - 12:25 PM

Look at a map of New Caledonia and you might notice it’s shaped like a baguette. A short baguette with a few cornichons scattered beside it on the plate, perhaps.

What, you might wonder, are we on about? For those who’ve never been, let us explain. There’s a very good reason we immediately think of a stick of crusty French bread when looking at a map of this beautiful Pacific community.

There’s a huge French influence on the food and culture of New Caledonia, an archipelago that’s only a few hours flight from Australia’s east coast – closer than New Zealand. And yet it remains an undiscovered gem for many Australians.

“New Caledonia is one of the most spectacular places on the planet. Combining breathtaking tropical scenery with traditional French culture, it really is a match made in heaven,” says TV chef and cookbook author Justine Schofield. She’s been five times so far, including one trip to film Tropical Gourmet: New Caledonia, and says that with her French heritage – her mother is French – she’s in heaven every time.

“I'm biased! Anywhere I can get a bit of French cheese and some baguette, I’m very happy,” she says.

“For me, it’s a melting pot because you have the best of both worlds. You have, obviously, the French influence coming through and then you've got all those gorgeous tropical fruit and vegetables, the reef fish,” she says. And that’s just the start of it.

From a bougna – a traditional dish from the local Kanak cuisine, cooked in an underground oven – to snail hunts and plantations growing some of the finest vanilla in the world, New Caledonia has a lot to offer food lovers.

To get you ready for some ultimate armchair travel, with Tropical Gourmet: New Caledonia kicking off on SBS Food on Sunday, April 27, here are our top 10 reasons to put New Caledonia on your “go-there one day” list.

From the mountains to the sea

New Caledonia’s Main Island (Grande Terre) is a long (baguette-shaped!) strip of land, bisected by a mountain range. The island, home to the capital, Noumea, is surrounded by an almost continuous barrier reef, creating a scenic lagoon bordered by white beaches. To the east, lie a group of four islands known as the Loyalty Islands; to the south, the Isle of Pines. Hundreds of other small islands dot the nearby waters. It’s easy to see why seafood, from lobster to fish to prawns, is such a big part of the local cuisine. It also means that New Caledonia offers an incredible range of environments and scenery, from the beach to the forest.

The French factor

The French influence here dates back to 1853, with New Caledonia serving as a French penal colony for 33 years. It became a French Overseas Territory in 1946. Today, the French factor is an important part of the local cuisine. You’ll see in in the bakeries, selling traditional French baguettes and croissants, in the high-end restaurants in Noumea, in the French labels in wine shops, and in the everyday food many cook at home.

Capital ideas

“Noumea is such a unique place. It's got a buzz about it. I like to call it the Paris of the Pacific because the cosmopolitan French life really merges with that slow, tropical island life.,” Schofield says in Tropical Gourmet.

Best things to do there, we ask? “It’s where you go first up, spend a few nights there just to feel the metropolitan area… they’ve got great bars, great little wine bars, the nightlife is fantastic, and you get gorgeous restaurants. For me, I like the little cafes, the bakeries. The pain au chocolate, the croissants, are so good. To take that and then go and sit [on the beach] and see crystal clear water, sitting on powder white sand, is just an amazing experience.”

A marvellous melting pot

There are multiple cultural influences on the food here, including Melanesian, Asian, Wallisian, Tahitian and French. Paired with not only an abundance of tropical produce and fresh seafood, but also beef and venison, these culinary influences create a hugely varied cuisine. In Tropical Gourmet, Schofield cooks as she travels, making dishes inspired by the ingredients and people she encounters, from tropical fruit with chocolate and coconut mousse to pan-fried river prawns. Local chefs share their special dishes, from the rich chocolate cake cooked up by leading Noumea chocolatier Patrick Morand (“The Willy Wonka of New Caledonia,” Schofield says) to a resort chef’s escargot ravioli.

From an underground oven

A Kanak bougna is a wonderful way to learn about the cuisine of the Indigenous Kanak people, the largest ethnic group in New Caledonia, who have inhabited the archipelago for about 6000 years. The bougna, usually a combination of meat, vegetables, banana and coconut milk, is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under hot stones in a hole in the ground. Schofield describes learning alongside a local bougna expert, Jayode, as an honour and a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – and delicious! In Tropical Gourmet, Jayode shows her how a prawn bougna is made, explaining that chicken, fish or even bat is also used.

North to Bourail

“For a small island, there is so much to do,” says Schofield, when we ask about her New Caledonia highlights. “Going up to Borail, horse riding in those beautiful little rainforests was amazing.” Bourail, on the main island’s west coast, is a popular destination for visitors, with a UNESCO World Heritage-listed lagoon, farm stays, walking trails, markets, turtle watching, horse riding, sports fishing and more. Book a tour to visit one of the local tribes and share a traditional dish or enjoy a sunset picnic.  

The Isle of Pines

Schofield says that with its turquoise waters, white-sand beaches and tropical vegetation, the l’Ile des Pin is one of the absolute best experiences in New Caledonia. “For me, nothing tops it. It's untouched, there are only a few resorts on the island. The water is just so beautiful, and the snorkelling is like nowhere else … and you get these gorgeous walks.” The island is also known for its snails, so in Tropical Gourmet, Schofield heads out with some locals for a snail-hunting expedition in the forests of the island’s interior.

World-class vanilla

Over the past 150 years, a thriving vanilla industry has developed, with New Caledonia now growing some of the best vanilla in the world. As well as an annual vanilla festival, several vanilla plantations surround its visitors. While many of us think of vanilla as mostly used in sweet dishes, in New Caledonia it is also popular in savoury recipes, and especially with fish.

Sweet avocado and a bounty of bananas

“Whenever I come to Noumea, I always start my mornings at the market because there's so much buzz happening,” Schofield says in Tropical Gourmet. Right across New Caledonia, local markets are a great way to discover the enormous range of fruit and vegetables, including the local root vegetables that appear in many dishes, plus herbs, spices and seafood. Bananas come in more varieties than most of us have ever imagined, and there are avocadoes bigger than anything you’ll ever see in Australia. “They're incredible,” says Schofield in Tropical Gourmet when she tries some at the market. “They're almost sweet. You could actually eat these as a sweet component to a dish as opposed to the usual avocado.” In Noumea, head to the Port Moselle Market, popular with visitors and locals alike.

Hiking, horse-riding, and other adventures

We’ve focussed on food, but as Schofield has discovered, there’s plenty more to do in New Caledonia. Beyond the obvious – snorkelling and swimming – there’s trekking on foot (book a tour with a guide to visit some of the preserved or trial areas) or horseback, mountain bike riding, skydiving, bird watching and more.

“New Caledonia for me is a really special place. I always say that this is the France of the South Pacific,” Schofield says.

Join Justine Schofield for Tropical Gourmet: New Caledonia, double episodes 8.30pm Mondays from 27 April to 18 May on SBS Food Channel 33, and then on SBS On Demand.

Island image by Anél van Dyk on Unsplash; market fruit image by gérard via Flikr; bougna preparation © Patrick Chalas / NCTPS. 

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