What do people eat in New Caledonia?
What does one eat in New Caledonia? Tropical fruit, right?
Well, that’s what we thought. We imagined lots of pineapple, mango, papaya, melon, watermelon and bananas. Imagine our disappointment when we found some fresh fruit, but not the beautiful fruit and veg we’d found in Europe or the United States.
Fruit and vegetables here are often damaged, sad-looking and expensive (a head of lettuce is going for 1,000-1,200 CFP [€8,38-10.06 or AUD 10.86-13.03 right now due to shortages). We’ve been without onions for the last month, due to Freda, the tropical depression, which destroyed what was in the fields or cannot be accessed in the fields now. The FCC, which meets every month, approved the importation of 150 tons of onions to cover our monthly needs just recently, but there is still a shortage – due to the amount of time it takes boats to arrive.
In short, we are punished for the fact that in New Caledonia, we produce only 40% of our agricultural needs. This is one of the lowest rates in French overseas countries (by contrast, Reunion Island has a coverage rate of 75%).
So yes, we can get pineapple and mango, but the melons and bananas are a little worse for the wear. Why, you ask? We are yet to solve the mystery – except to say that we’ve seen more bananas growing in the Loyalty Islands than on the mainland. Melons appear to be imported – and are thus subject to taxes and the 65% higher food costs that I’ve mentioned before. There are also importation quotas and rules concerning the price of local produce (which should cost the same as imported produce), so we can’t win.
How about fish? Yes, lots of fish. And shrimp (the size of your index finger and thumb) and lobster right out of the sea (especially on the Loyalty Islands and at Isle of Pines!). Our lobster was caught the very morning of our Mana Nautique outing – by two young Melanesian boys. What a life.
Coconuts? Yes. You can find these in the stores and at the markets. In Lifou, we were shown how they are taken down out of the trees (with a long axe-like stick – watch your head!) and we’ve seen them shucked and opened (with very sharp utensils, of course). Fresh coconut and coconut milk is amazing!
Then there is the passion fruit and papaya that you can find in abundance in Lifou (less so, in comparison, on the mainland).
What are the country’s staples? Rice, fish, root vegetables (taro, manioc, yams, sweet potatoes), fresh fruit.
How do we cook? Just like everyone else in the world – over a hot fire. The Melanesians, however, do so literally. We’ve seen many a makeshift kitchen on the floor of huts or in back gardens, or on the land. Basically, they cook over an open fire, without ovens (or refrigerators to keep things cool – this we’ve seen mostly on the islands) and with very basic utensils.
With regard to traditional fare, I find wikipedia states it best:
Bougna is a traditional Kanak casserole, considered a national food by many Kanaks. It is made of sliced root vegetables which might include taro, manioc,yams and coconut milk. Pork, chicken or seafood may be used in the filling which is then wrapped in poingo banana leaves before being cooked over hot stones in an earthen oven. Other local ingredients used in Kanak cuisine include Rousettus (flying foxes) and local deer; marine staples such as lagoon and coral reef fish (including dawa), as well as crabs and lobsters. Paita beans are locally grown haricots, while custard-apple, lime and saffron are other local ingredients.
One tip we have found, in addition to buying and eating local, is to have our food delivered, using a service called “gamelles”. There are several providers in Nouméa. Basically, you order in meals a week in advance, which are delivered to your doorstep. The service we use uses fresh produce, varies the menu (we’ve eaten the same meal twice only once in 6 months), offers a vegetarian meal, and is believe it or not, cheaper than shopping locally and preparing your meals yourself. These are not fast-food or frozen options, but fresh salads (fantastic when lettuce is 1,000 CFP a head), fresh fish and meat, fresh vegetables, and great desserts (think mint-chocolate mousse, vanilla creme brulé, passion fruit parfait). The portions are copious – and delicious. A true lifesaver for those of us who are still in shock over food prices. Who do we use, you ask? Assiette filante!
So there you have it. Will we be seeing you soon for some fresh lobster or bougna? A little mint-chocolate mousse? A €10 head of lettuce?