Making a meal of Mauritius
South Africa's favourite holiday playground has a new venue. Hilary Biller checked in while Raymond Preston took the pictures
We'd spotted the large bunch of greenery flapping in the wind. Surreal really - the leaves appeared to be hanging in mid-air, moving down the road at breakneck speed. Suddenly the vision came to an abrupt halt.
It was only then that we saw the bicycle, and the owner, as his head appeared to one side of the baggage to check for oncoming traffic.
"Water spinach," explained our host for the day, executive chef Vijranand Kallooa of the new Long Beach Hotel on the east coast of Mauritius.
"Madumbe leaves," said the photographer, who considers himself a bit of a horticulturalist.
Like the bicycle, we too were heading towards the Flacq market, one of the country's largest open-air venues. It was early Sunday morning and it was bustling.
"Sunday is a busy day for shopping," said the chef. "The wives clean the house and the husbands are sent to buy the ingredients for the ritual Sunday lunch."
The Creoles clearly have a penchant for leaves. Under the makeshift covers of the market, there were mountains of interesting leaves - some more familiar than others. Large pumpkin-like ones with the telltale tendrils; a sort of marog wild spinach; the curious, almost spiky stalk and curly greens of the chou chou vine, which grows prolifically in Mauritius; and then the arum-style of leaf (some of which we'd seen earlier) with the long, brown stalk of the water spinach.
"Good for braising," said the chef, his eyes lighting up as he stuffed handfuls of a variety of leaves into plastic bags. Handing over what looked like a paltry amount of rupees, he added, "With garlic, ginger, and dried chilli. Mmmm. Maybe a little dried fish. Delicious." That was to be lunch.
We were visiting the island's Long Beach Hotel development. Part of Sun Resorts, it is one of the island's newest resorts, hugging a strip of the east coast on the Belle Mare Peninsula. Mauritius has long been a favoured playground of South African holidaymakers. With some 110 hotels already, this development, planned well before the global recession, is an ambitious project.
Established on the 24ha site of the old Le Coco Beach Hotel, it has 255 rooms with a capacity for close to 600 guests. Touted as "carefree piazza-style living on the longest and widest stretch of white-sand coastline of any Mauritian resort", Long Island is not a typical island getaway.
What you will find is an unusual design set along a long strip of beach. It is contemporary yet different. Framed by the large, tiled piazza with shops, bars and restaurants branching off from the square, the hub of the resort is the life around two swimming pools - one large freshwater that overlooks the beach and the bigger heated pool - and, of course, the aquamarine sea.
The accommodation is arranged in tiers that run along the stretch of coastline. The superior beach-front rooms have sliders onto private patios and are just a short walk away from the beach. The rooms are large and serene with beautiful bathrooms. Yes, it's five star.
On reflection, our group of a dozen or so were like a large, extended family taking their annual holiday. There were the young, sporty types who took to the water. They worked their way through the wide array of watersports - parasailing, waterskiing, wind surfing and kayaking.
The "girls" spent their time lounging by the pool ensuring they were just close enough to the bar or a waiter so they could work their way through the cocktail list. Of course, I helped - and I can highly recommend the hotel signature cocktail, the curry leaf mojito.
There always has to be at least one bookish sort of auntie determined to sniff out the more serious side of the resort.
She discovered the yoga class and the spa. Clutching her notebook close to her chest, she dutifully jotted down notes and asked all the pertinent questions - like how environmentally friendly was the hotel? Yes, she'd checked there was solar energy and eco-friendly lighting - and a compost site. And she checked out the facilities for children, which got a big thumbs up.
My role? Like the greedy cousin always snuffing out the food, which is why the photographer and I got to spend the day with their executive chef, Kallooa.
Eating is an integral part of any holiday experience and at Long Island the menu is big. With five different restaurants, the choice is wide. For breakfast and dinner, Le Marche is perfectly situated.
It has a lovely indoor/outdoor feel with tall shutters opening onto the beach. You could happily spend hours here feeling that you were on the beach, just with all the added comforts of friendly service, good food and excellent coffee.
Next door, Sapori - styled like the local Italian eatery - has a small menu including some of Italy's best exports such as pizza and pasta but with a rider: all are prepared by local chefs.
For Oriental flavour, there is the Japanese restaurant Hasu, where we had some good sushi and excellent tempura prawns.
If you prefer Chinese, there is Chopsticks, a large, informal family-style eatery situated right next to the large pool. It offers a mix of modern casual/Cantonese food.
For lovers of seafood, another restaurant, Tides, close to the pool bar and shoreline, is where you can enjoy both the local catch and other fishy fare.
Our day with the chef meant we got to experience the authentic local flavour of the island in the four dishes he prepared for us.
We watched closely as he used the local ingredients and those we had picked-up at the market, and quickly transformed them, cooking them wok-style, into four different dishes.
There was a fish curry with pieces of locally caught fish, lightly pan-fried and combined with a spicy blend and small, round, green aubergines of the sort one cannot find in South Africa.
The pile of leaves in the plastic bag from the market were well washed, barely chopped and quickly stir-fried with lots of garlic, chilli and onion. They cooked down to a delicious green mass of varying textures and tastes.
Perhaps the highlight, though, came in a really spicy blend of salted dried fish (not dissimilar to our smoked snoek), finely flaked and fried together with the cornerstones of Creole cuisine - garlic, tomato, ginger, curry leaves, tomato, spring onion, coriander, chilli and thyme. Lots of it.
"This is the kind of food we eat at home," said Kallooa, as we greedily lapped it up.
Kallooa has been wooing guests with his cooking for nearly 35 years.
"I love cooking. For me, it is not a chore. I could cook on the moon," he laughed.
"Preparing good food is like a well-dressed woman. It must be nicely done because we eat with our eyes." - Biller and Preston were guests of World Leisure Holidays and Sun Resorts Long Beach