Lying in a hammock, sipping a cocktail of rum and lime juice with pure sugarcane, I mentally outline the contrasts between the island I've just left and the one I now find myself on. Manhattan: sounds like a high-speed blender. L'Ilet Oscar: sounds like pounding surf and croaking tree frogs. Manhattan: doesn't always smell so great. L'Ilet Oscar: smells like the best fruit you've ever tasted. Manhattan: population one zillion. L'Ilet Oscar: population 10... me, my husband, four friends and a staff of four. Until coming to l'Ilet Oscar, a 15-minute motorboat ride from the main island of Martinique, I'd thought the only way to vacation on a private island was to own one or to make friends with someone who does, and I'm neither rich enough for the former nor shameless enough for the latter. It turns out, though, that for about $210 per couple per day, you too can be a temporary Onassis.
Approaching La Maison de l'Ilet Oscar, our four-day home away from home, I see a high, tiled roof and a couple of deep verandas peeking out from tropical trees. Up close my husband, an architect, notices the details: "Modest wood construction, colonial wood furnishings, shutters inside and out, mosquito nets over the beds," he observes. "Typical of Creole houses. The air can circulate throughout the house, cooling it." My less trained eye notes the views of the Martinique town of Le François, the forested islands nearby and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
The one thing that reminds me of home is the amazing fusion of cultures and the unique cuisine they produce. Like the people here, the food is a blend of Creole (itself a mélange of French, Spanish and African), Indian (brought over by immigrants in the 1850s) and indigenous Martinican. "The cooking evolves continuously, because new spices and ingredients are introduced all the time," says Marie-Claude Réman, our private chef.
Réman prepares home-style dishes for us, rather than chef's showstoppers. One of the purposes of this trip was to escape from work, which in my case means cooking. Fat chance. The least I can do, I figure, is resolve not to enter the kitchen... to sit back and enjoy having someone else prepare all the meals. And I succeed. For three days.
On our last day, I can no longer resist temptation, and I finally begin a hands-on exploration of the diverse, vibrant traditions of la cuisine martiniquaise. The French influence, Réman points out, is evident in her christophines gratinées, local chayotes stuffed with a mix of bacon, onions and Gruyère cheese. I can taste and smell Spain in the saffron in the matoutou de crabes, a spicy rice-and-crab casserole.
There's also a great emphasis on sauces. Sauce au chien... made from lime juice, habanero chiles, onions, garlic and herbs... complements grilled meats or seafood. The cooking juices of the pork colombo are sweet, with curry and herbal tones. And the tomato sauce over the barracuda steaks is light and refreshing. For desserts, coconut is the most popular ingredient; flan au coco is similar to the French crème caramel and the Spanish flan but is made with coconut milk, rum and, sometimes, coconut pulp (which lends an unexpected grainy texture). "It's a gutsy cuisine," Réman says.
Much as I enjoy having someone cook for me, when I'm on vacation I also relish the chance to have no one cook for me... to put aside my fascination with sauces and spices in favor of raw foods. You might think you like bananas, but you haven't really tasted one until you've plucked and peeled one on its home turf. The pineapples, coconuts and melons grown on Martinique are so aromatic you can almost taste them before taking a bite. Then there are the more exotic fruits, like corossol, which has bumpy green skin and white, velvety flesh that tastes like flowers. Citron sucré (sweet lemon) is like a charmed orange with green skin, and the yellow-green carambole (star fruit) is sweet, yet so tangy it makes me wince.
Leaving this place will be hard. As I reflect on the fact that every sight, scent and sound here is different from every sight, scent and sound at home... that l'Ilet Oscar is, in fact, the sensory opposite of Manhattan... I begin to figure out how I can adapt Réman's recipes to New York City's produce. And I wonder if I'll be able to sling a hammock across the living room of my apartment.
Story and recipes by Corinne Trang, the author of Authentic Vietnamese Cooking: Food from a Family Table and the forthcoming Essentials of Asian Cuisine (both from Simon & Schuster).