New Caledonia: Kiss and make up

By Sharon Stephenson

New Caledonia's Port Moselle is about as French as it gets, without being in France. Photo / Supplied
New Caledonia's Port Moselle is about as French as it gets, without being in France. Photo / Supplied

Cards on the table. I've never been wild about France. The first time I visited Paris, I had my wallet stolen. The next time, in Provence, I had food poisoning. My third visit included riots and an encounter with a homeless man keen to reveal what he was wearing under his raincoat - not enough, as it happens.

So when the chance arose to visit New Caledonia, that slither of France in the South Pacific, I didn't rush to pack my phrasebook. "But," hubby cried, "it's 25C there" (as opposed to that day's miserable Wellington high of 8C). We could swim and snorkel, enjoy the Pacific's third-largest island, the world's largest lagoon and the world's second-largest coral reef.

By the time his views had turned to buttery croissants and pain au chocolat, the delights of vin rouge and unpasteurised cheese, I was wavering. What clinched it was his suggestion that it would be a chance for me to kiss and make up with France.

So we take the three-hour flight to Noumea on a long-weekend dash for French food and sunshine.

It may sound silly, but I'm astounded at how French New Caledonia is. French is the main language (although English is widely spoken in Noumea), European Union and tricolour flags greet us at the airport and everyone drives a Citroen, Peugeot or Renault - on the other side of the road. Travelling to our hotel, Le Meridien, on the tip of Pointe Magnin, we spy beret-wearing Frenchmen playing boules and, I kid you not, a woman on a bike with crusty baguettes in her basket.

It's just like being in France - minus the 28-hour flight and abrupt Parisians. Perhaps it's the near constant sunshine, but both the indigenous Kanacks and the transplanted French are friendly, eager to help, and don't laugh when you butcher their language.

First on the menu is dinner at Noumea's revolving eaterie, Le Restaurant 360, which provides spectacular views of the sprawling city and suburbs. The gastronomic gods smile on us when we realise we've stumbled into the middle of New Caledonia's inaugural food and wine festival, a Touch of France.

The festival pairs five global celebrity chefs with local cooks to design menus that inject local tastes and produce with an international flair.

The Japanese chef has commandeered Le 360, so we end up devouring a Gallic/Asian combo that goes off in our mouths like a firecracker. I become obsessed with the prawn and lobster - big, fat juicy beasties that have never been anywhere near a freezer.

A caramelised onion tart, an addictive asparagus soup and a hunk of fish the size of my head were also in there somewhere.

Sadly, our short stay means we miss the Korean and Australian chefs. We do, however, make room for the menu from French chef Didier Clement, who has more than a passing acquaintance with Michelin stars.

Held at the Lycee Escoffier, the only foreign outpost of the famous French cooking school, the festival's closing dinner is a treat not only because it gives young New Caledonian chefs the chance to flex their culinary muscles but also because it provides a six-course scoff-fest with matching wines that is so beautifully presented that

I'm not sure whether to photograph it or eat it. Call me biased, but the highlight of the festival is New Zealand chef Julie Le Clerc's menu at Cote Sud Restaurant across the lagoon from our hotel.

Le Clerc, who puts her French/Lebanese ancestry to work on the menu, goes heavy on the seafood and mines the local vanilla plantation for a delectable coconut/papaya dessert.

It gets even better when Le Clerc, New Zealand's gourmet ambassador to New Caledonia, pops out of the kitchen to share a glass of wine and help with our woefully inadequate French.

She reminds us to wander around the market at Port Moselle, where we drink cafe noir (long blacks), watch locals go about their daily food shopping and shake our heads at tiny women consuming their body weight in pastries. French women, it seems, really don't get fat.

Nor do we need much prodding to take up Le Clerc's suggestion of visiting the world famous Maison Ballande at Baie de l'Orphelinat, where we sample camembert from Normandy, port salut from Brittany and a roquefort so strong it threatens to scorch my nose.

Nobody does gluttony like the French. And when you arrive in the middle of a gastronomic festival, it seems rude to say "non".

But we do get a chance to enjoy the bath-temperature water with a spot of snorkelling. And after all I've eaten, it's a miracle someone doesn't try to harpoon me.

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Our Pacific has packages to New Caledonia from $1499 per person, including return flights with Aircalin from Auckland, four nights at the Ramada Plaza, and a three-course meal for two at L'Astrolabe Restaurant. Subject to availability. Book before September 30 for travel October 1 to March 31. Contact Our Pacific on 0800 500 598.

Aircalin has four flights a week from Auckland to Noumea.

Sharon Stephenson flew to New Caledonia courtesy of Aircalin.

- Herald on Sunday

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