The true taste of Chamarel: Colours, flavours, music and history
JACQUES ACHILLES FOR BIRD STORY AGENCY
WHEN we hear Mauritius, we imagine clear warm coloured blue turquoise waters and endless white beaches—a true picture, of course, but an incomplete one. The country has much more to offer.
The true Mauritian experience possibly lies on the road to Chamarel.
Located halfway between the upper lands and the coastal region and surrounded by rivers, mountains, forests, sugar cane and pineapple fields is Chamarel- a village in the southwestern part of Mauritius.
Unlike many Mauritian villages, which sacrificed their cultures and structures at the altar of ‘responding to tourists’ needs,’ Chamarel refused to compromise. They refused to allow developers to build big hotels, tourist shops and other attractions that could modify the village scenery.
The people of Chamarel stood for nature, and in turn, nature rewarded the village bountifully. Today, authenticity is the village’s main attraction.
With a population of 1,000, Chamarel offers a unique experience through cuisine, music, stories, craftsmanship and legends. This village is also renowned for its seven-colour earth, where the sand spread out in different layers of colours; red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow and every imaginable shade in between – but the different coloured grains of sand never mix.
But maybe the secret to the tastes of Chamarel doesn’t lie in the sand, but in Marie-Ange’s kitchen. In her old cast-iron pot, happily humming on a very low fire.
Lifting the lid, the owner of Barbizon restaurant releases savoury steam from her famous wild boar civet. In another pot, a spicy chicken curry bathes in a beautiful saffron-coloured sauce. To accompany that, there’s smoked white rice, manioc fries, a pickle of pumpkin, peanuts in tomato sauce, jackfruit curry with potatoes and red beans mixed with spinach.
Almost all the food and ingredients have been sourced within the village. It’s a matter of pride for this cook, who specialises in local cuisine and who believes that visitors should eat food only grown in the village.
With its rustic decor, the Barbizon restaurant has resorted to authenticity to see off competition that has become stiffer with every passing year. To keep the restaurant’s reputation, Marie-Ange and her husband, Ricaud L’Intelligent, innovate with what the village offers them.
The restaurant offers, for example, a pickle of Vacoas, fruit native to the island, when available.
“Our culture, our traditions, our know-how, are assets which are now being added to the tourist attractions sites which already existed and which are being established,” said Ricaud L’Intelligent, who is also the village councillor.
L’Intelligent is particularly proud of the coffee they offer to customers. The beans that produce the aromatic beverage are grilled in a stone oven from trees that grow wild on the island.
But what if the secret to the taste of Chamarel was not inside Marie-Ange’s kitchen but actually in another kitchen – one at the end of a small road opposite her restaurant?
Here, the bees from Nadine Ramsamy Appadoo’s hives buzz around the flowers and forests that surround the village.
The bees produce a unique honey scent, giving Appadoo’s pastries their famous taste. She also makes rillettes and sausages—of pork, venison, and chicken — with local spices such as curry leaves and rougaille (tomato) paste: an extraordinary combination of Fromage de tête (a type of cheese), roasted pork, samosas, chilli paste and jam.
“Chamarel has a lot to offer visitors in terms of encounters, discoveries and experiences because the village itself is unique”, Appadoo explained.
She extends her range of products with preparations made from hares, ducks and rabbits, which farmers and hunters in the village provide.
In this village, where red pineapples and wild berries grow naturally, fruit trees are numerous in the courtyards and the forest. Breadfruit, papaya, mango, lychee, passion fruit, Chinese guava, and citrus are eaten plain or in different sauces.
“Our product range evolves according to what we find in the region,” explains Appadoo.
These traditional recipes of Chamarel flatter the land and visitors now seek out this experience when they come from other regions of Mauritius and abroad.
Through the years, an increasing number of local inhabitants have developed restaurants and table d’hôte (a table set aside for guesthouse residents, who sit at the same table as their host) in their yards where guests can enjoy a unique culinary experience.
“People come here to enjoy the unique ambience and atmosphere of the village. These are our main strengths. We are in favour of a development that preserves the soul of Chamarel,” said Nadine and her husband, Pierre-Alain Appadoo.
Away from the food, one would wager that the true taste of Chamarel is its music. Chamarel is home to the Rastafarian movement in Mauritius.
The Natir musical group live deep in the valley and away from the village’s main road. Under the shade of a breadfruit tree, they form a circle around a cauldron placed on a wood fire.
This recreated scene gave birth to Seggae music- a mix of Mauritian sega and reggae, in the late 80s.
The Natir combines Mauritian traditional sega music with Jamaican reggae, a unique genre that has since gained popularity in Mauritius, Rodrigues, Reunion, Madagascar and Seychelles.
“Our space, Baz Natir, is always open to visitors. We welcome people from different regions and from around the world. The main thing is that visitors come with a positive spirit. We share with them what we have and our music”, says Néville Célérine, bassist of Natir.
While lunch simmers in the shared courtyard, Néville Célérine and Lom Dick, the musical group’s leaders, retell their music’s history.
As teenagers, they inherited music from their grandfathers and fathers. In the 80s, they chose the path of Rastafarianism influenced by the Mauritian musician Ras Rodoman. Rodoman exiled himself from the city to the woods of Chamarel on his return from Jamaica, where he had rubbed shoulders with Bob Marley.
This is how Natir, the first Rasta community in Mauritius, was formed.
In 1987, the musical band made an ode to their village in the first Mauritian reggae album. It included what has become the anthem of the Chamarelois: Samarel kuler Natirel. Singers like Kaya, Ras Natty Baby and others came here to learn seggae before releasing their albums which changed the musical scene.
Natir’s bandstand stands exactly where the late Kaya found inspiration to compose his debut Roots of Seggae album in the eighties. Like Ras Natty, the singer had settled in Chamarel to understand the genre and became its first ambassador.
Next to the bandstand, a cabin made of logs and rusty iron sheets serves as a rehearsal studio for the Maroon Brothers.
The members of this group are the children of Natir musicians, their heirs.
“We are in a new generation of musicians. Music is part of our culture and we are always happy to share and pass it on”, explained Lom Dick.
Néville Célérine and Lom Dick also believe the taste of Charamel is its originality.
“As early as the 1980s we sang ‘Pity for Chamarel, Pity for Nature’ to plead for the preservation of the village. Certainly, things must move forward, but we must not change Chamarel.”
For the religious, the taste of Charamel probably lies behind the village church, along the path that leads to the river. Covered with a vault of mango tree branches, the trail leads to a cave carved into the earth where a giant statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed.
“We call her the Virgin of Chamarel. Those who know her come from afar to pray and light candles. It’s one of the places we encourage tourists to go to when we see them walking through the streets,” says a ploughman sitting beside the road.
A little further along, Pascal Laridain is taking his lunch break under a large tree. After lunch, he will continue mowing the large lawn in front of the former convent of the Sisters.
Abandoned for several years, this old building comes from an ancient period with vestige remnants. Among them is a Creole hut which served as a work room and whose wood is protected with beautiful blue paint.
“There are a lot of things to see here if you take the time to stroll through the streets and talk to the locals,” he says.
One of the examples is the Community Garden that he points to in the dirt alley next to the St. Jacques Primary School.
His mother, Marlène Laridain, who takes care of the maintenance of the old convent, recalls a time when the villagers gathered there for various activities. Having lived in Chamarel for 52 years, she knows almost everything about the village.
“Back in the days, there were only straw huts and there was no running water. We did laundry in the river. The arrival of tourists has allowed things to change. But not at the expense of our culture and our quality of life,” she says.
Art and craftsmanship are also very much present in Chamarel. The people here are inspired by nature and fresh air. The artisans still make fatak brooms according to traditional methods, while the sculptors carve the shapes they discover in the wood given to them by the forest.
The rich and dynamic culture of Chamarel could well be because of its history.
In 1785, while Mauritius was still a French colony, Charles-Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel inherited these lands in the mountains of the then-called Ile de France from his father-in-law, the notary Jean Louis Lousteau.
De Chazal De Chamarel settled there around 1793 and named the village after himself. He exploited the forests to provide wood to the colony, and his workforce constituted enslaved people from Madagascar, Mozambique and other African countries. He also cultivated coffee, indigo, cotton and sugar cane.
Later, wood exploitation was abandoned as runaway slaves came to live there.
In Chamarel, stories and legends of the escaped slaves still circulate today.
“Our grandparents always told us the stories of the enslaved people and masters who lived here. In some places in the forest, you can find traces of the escapee’s passage, such as stone walls and a few objects,” explained Patrick Désiré, born in the village 60 years ago.
Walking between the trees and the tall grass, Désiré points out an abandoned cemetery in the middle of a wood on the outskirts of the village. The oldest tombs date from the 1800s and the most recent are from the early 1900s.
There is, among other things, a pyramidal monument with a copper plaque. Dated 1877, it is dedicated to the elder Charles Pitot de la Beaujardière, his family and his friends.
“I sometimes accompany visitors here. Even if they have been forgotten, these tombs bear witness to our history and several of our ancestors rest here,” explained Désiré.
The candles, coins and other objects found on the old carved stone tombs and around a large, abandoned cross show that people still come here for rituals.
“These people come to pray or do witchcraft. In the past, Chamarel was famous for these rites. There were powerful wizards here. Legends remain present with some inhabitants. They believe that spirits from the past are still circulating in our streets,” explained one of Désiré’s neighbours.
Néville Célérine and Lom Dick of Natir also speak of a spirit living in the village. They feel it by their side and say they live thanks to its benevolence. Committed to keeping it alive in their texts and music, like the others, they sing the glory of what they call Lespri Samarel: The Spirit of Chamarel.
While there may be many spirits in Chamarel, there is no doubt that this village is full of colours, flavours, and inspiration, with a door readily open for anyone who wants to discover it.
As Ricaud L’Intelligent says, “The Chamarelois are naturally open and welcoming people. Just approach us, and we will open our doors to you.”