When Mr. Darcy informed me that we would be going to Martinique this winter, he said he had chosen it from among all the other Caribbean islands because it was supposed to have the best food, owing to its heavily French influences. Mr. Darcy, who is by profession a librarian, deploys his prodigious research skills in private life by planning fantastic itineraries for our travels. He disappears into his study for hours at night and just occasionally calls out a question like,
“For the first four nights, would you prefer to stay in an intimate bed-and-breakfast with a terrace directly overlooking the harbor of St. Pierre or a villa about halfway up the side of an active volcano that appears to be located in an Amazonian rainforest?” Before we leave, he supplies me with lavishly illustrated itineraries including maps, train timetables, and historical footnotes. I’m just kidding about the footnotes. Oh wait; come to think of it, I’m not.
I am the in-the-moment, non-research-oriented person in this relationship, so even though I am the designated Food Person, I rarely bother to look at restaurant listings in the guidebooks or online. What I bring to our travels is my Restaurant-dar. For instance, on the night of our unexpectedly late arrival, by the time we had made the first of two complete circuits of downtown St. Pierre in search of our bed-and-breakfast-with-the-balcony-overlooking-the-harbor, which appeared not to exist, I had already picked out a place for dinner. It’s true, the options were somewhat limited. The whole town appeared to be boarded up and deserted except for a sad-looking pizza snack bar where four or five tourists were drinking beer but not actually eating anything, and an even sadder-looking snack bar where only two tourists were not-eating. But right on the
harbor I glimpsed a little neon sign saying RESTAURANT, which turned out to be a deck right on the beach, with a view of half-a-dozen sailboats bobbing romantically up and down at their moorings in the moonlight. The highlight of that meal at La Vague was our introduction to Ti Punch, the cocktail we ordered expecting something foofy, with orangey-pink sunrise or sunset layers of tropical fruit juice and possibly even an umbrella. But instead what arrived were two glasses, a bowl of local raw sugar, and an entire bottle of white rum. The proprietor apparently assumed we would be smart enough to figure out what to do with the bottle of rum, but we weren’t. We had to call him back and ask in our charmingly distressed French for the instructions, which roughly translated were as follows:
- Teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of the glass.
- Add rum to taste.
Ho, ho, ho, indeed!
On Martinique, you could live pretty well on rum, which is cheap and ubiquitous and much better than what I remember sneaking into cans of coke as a rebellious teenager, and accras de morue, or fish fritters, also cheap and ubiquitous. Alternatively, you could spend a fortune on actually foofy cocktails and haute cuisine. (Our best splurge meal was at Ti Toques in Le Marin, involving Caribbean sangria, marlin tartare, and a very delicate and well-cheesed conch lasagne.)
But it turns out that there is one food that is truly unique to Martinique which in and of itself might cause me to get on a plane and go back: Poulet Boucané. Every day at about 11 a.m., roadside grills across the island simultaneously erupt in clouds of the most heavenly-scented smoke, with the urgency of a wide-reaching olfactory air-raid siren, arresting you instantly with the scent of garlic-and-lemon-marinated, farm-fresh chickens roasting on grills above smoldering sugar cane stalks. I gather that natives become fiercely loyal to particular Poulet stands, and that the secrets of particular marinades and grilling techniques are closely guarded. We were told by Jessica and Kader, our hoteliers in St. Anne, that the Poulet Lady with the stand located two roundabouts down the road had absolutely the best; we didn’t want to hurt their feelings by admitting that we had already fallen deeply in love with the Poulet Lady at Snack Kay Tata, just south of the gas station between St. Luce and Rivière Pilote. Her chicken was perfectly fork-tender and blissfully infused with whatever it is that so magically distinguishes this form of chicken from all other forms of grilled chicken I have ever tasted, and by the time we had finished our first lunch with her, we too were bathed in smoky chicken unguents.
“We’ll have to go for a swim to get this smell off,” said Mr. Darcy.
“I don’t ever want to get this smell off,” I said.
I think Mr. Darcy may eventually have lost patience with the way, every day at 11 sharp, when the first delicious cloud of boucané smoke drifted down the street or over the beach or across the water to wherever we happened to be, my nose would immediately start to twitch and I could feel my eyes turn liquid and imploring. But he did indulge my desire to purchase Volume I of Cuisine Créole, a locally published bi-lingual cookbook that included a recipe that I feel I must reproduce here exactly as it appears because of various endearing though unlikely-sounding instructions for creating this dish at home–most notably the sawdust and the wire grating (which in the picture accompanying the recipe appears to have been ripped from a piece of wire fence).