The road narrowed to a bumpy track and the pastoral views were hidden by the dense sugar cane that grazed the sides of our vehicle. Some sharp turns within this green maze took a while to navigate, but we eventually emerged into the sunlight and the promise of a real Reunionese workers breakfast at a rustic farmhouse.
Philippe Morel is the owner of this traditional farm, and he welcomes us with a refreshing naartjie type drink on the covered verandah screened by palm fronds. A wooden table is set with jugs of freshly squeezed juice, banana leaves laden with chunks of pineapple, berries and fruit, and a smaller table with mugs and a cafetière of local caffeine free Bourbon pointu coffee.
The farmhouse is unassuming, utterly charming and clearly very much a place of work. Flowers grow wild, creepers creep and a tractor sit squat and red on the edge of the encroaching and untamed forest.
Down the side of the house is the outdoor kitchen, overlooking a fenced area where barnyard noises emit from the chicken coops and sheds that house the pigs and goats.
This basic kitchen is Philippe’s stage and the show is about to begin.
Meet Philippe Morel.
Philippe has a passion for sustainable farming the traditional, labour intensive ways, working with the land, living off the land, and preserving the old Réunionese methods of farming and cooking. This is a slow food, island style experience. Philippe is part of AVPPHSM which is the Association for the promotion and preservation of the heritage of the Sainte Marguerite highlands.
There is no denying it, Philippe is a charmer. His larger than life personality dominates the small kitchen. Casually dressed in a t-shirt and shorts covered by a huge apron, he owns the look with his battered straw hat that sits rakishly on his head.
Enter the kitchen.
No bigger than an average bedroom and not a white appliance in sight, it has everything Phillipe needs. The walls are basic concrete blocks blackened by decades of woodsmoke and the roof is a simple sheet of corrugated iron. The windows have no glass and the shutters are wide open to let the light in, and the smoke out.
On one wall an open fire glows and pots bubble. The smoke rises, catching the sunlight that streams in through a large opening high above it. A lattice of branches supports hooks heavy with mielies, onions and sausages.
A rough shelf is lined with colourful powders, herbs and spices and a huge mortar and pestle stands waist high next to the fire.
Pans hang from hooks in the wall and a table is laden with baskets of fresh fruit and veg.
Let the show begin.
Philippe talks softly as he works, an ever present knife in one hand as he chops, cuts and tastes, moving fluidly from the prep table to the fire, to blow on the coals, stir a pot or add some spice, root or herb.
Still talking, he casts a practiced eye at the fire, picks up an axe and expertly chops a few more logs as clearly more coals are needed.
He speaks softly in French, which is utterly charming, but communicates with his whole body. His arms wave about, (with the knife in his hand, so don’t stand too close,) one eyebrow is raised in a silent question, a lopsided smile appears when we taste and nod, and he gives a Gallic shrug when something goes wrong, or our guide and interpreter Sully Chaffre, speaks in English for too long.
The breakfast Philippe is preparing for us is what the farmers and workers eat, usually at around ten in the morning. High in protein and carbohydrates, it is a huge meal meant to sustain them for a day of intense, physical work.
Eventually we were ushered back outside to the verandah and with great flourish, breakfast was served.
Banana leaves piled high with fried rice, a fish sausage, richly spiced but not too hot, and papaya frittata.
Replete, we are ready and eager for a walk around the farm, as lunch will be served in about two hours.
Fields of green
Philippe leaves his knife on the table and picks up a razor sharp panga, beckoning for us to follow him as he strides out towards the fields of sugar cane. He tells us about the processes, pros and cons of sugar cane farming and then with an expert swing of the panga he fells a two meter high plant. In a few swift movements he has removed the leaves and unnecessary bits and slicing the sugar cane he bites of a piece and with his eyes closed, he chews thoughtfully, then spits out the stringy bits.
This is his other stage, standing surrounded by his crops, panga in hand, flirting outrageously and loving every moment as he shares his love and knowledge of nature and all her bounty.
His indicates for me to tilt my head back, and before I can protest, he is holding a piece of sugar can high above me and squeezing the juice into my mouth.
It is smooth, sweet and incredibly sticky and it runs down my chin and all over my cheeks as he laughs.
The aftertaste lingers for ages as the rest of the group get their turn.
A wet cloth is a must for this experience.
We all have a chance to try and cut down a sugar cane plant with one strike of the panga, it’s not as easy as it looks. The workers will cut down, strip and stack the plants all day for over 8 hours a shift during harvest time.
We walk on, pausing to look at each miracle of nature Philippe points out to us. Pineapples line up military style in neat rows, jackfruit hang heavy in trees and wild tomatoes cover the undergrowth, growing where they will. As we walk, insects are examined, fruits are plucked, berries picked and offered to us speared on the end of the panga. The walk was almost a meal in itself.
Our final stop is in a grove of slender young palms about two meters high. With one chop a tree falls and Phillipe cuts and slices until he gets the heart of the palm, considered a delicacy in Reunion.
The palm heart is sliced and served as a coleslaw type salad, but it must be eaten soon after cutting before it discolours. I have also had palm heart served warm with cauliflower as a potato bake type dish which to me was much nicer than the salad version.
The felled palm will take about fourteen months to reach two meters and be ready to have its heart cut out again.
Lunch, Réunion style.
The staple dish is simple but very versatile. Called Cari, the base is rice smothered in a pesto made with onions and tomato, saffron, ginger and Chilli, cooked on an open fire in a cast iron pot and served with anything from lentils and beans to spicy sausage, fish, pork, chicken, prawns, goat or duck.
We tucked into generous bowls of zesty Cari served with a choice of spicy sausage, chicken, lentils or veggies. This was rounded off with traditional coffee and very moreish sweet potato cakes made by Philippe’s wife.
Due to time constraints we were unable to visit the beehives or continue learning about farming life and living off the land from Philippe. This is recommended as an all day activity.
To visit for the Agricultural Tour and Authentic Cooking you can arrange it through the tourism office or call Philippe on +262 (0)692 6732 50 Unless you speak French is a recommended to take a guide who can translate for you, and don’t forget the wet-wipes.
Getting there and general information.
Three flights a week direct from Johannesburg to Reunion with Air Austral
VISA FREE for South Africans
Reunion Island is a Department of France. The currency is the Euro and French is widely spoken.
La Reunion is situated between to Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator in the Indian Ocean. It is part of the Mascarenes, the collective name for the islands of the Mascarene Archipelago, which consists of Mauritius, Rodrigues and Reunion.
Get inspired with more information from Reunion Tourism.
My visit was part of a media trip hosted by the Reunion Tourism Board.