Paul Rush visits the gourmet capital of the South Pacific.
One of the richest experiences a traveller can have is to make an unexpected discovery of something that's truly special.
It's often a chance encounter that brings that special something into the spotlight and it can involve food. My Vanuatuan gastronomic epiphany was to meet up with a big black Charolais bull when I was hoofing it down the pig root road to Hog Harbour on the island of Espiritu Santo.
I learned that this jet-black bovine giant was in fact the famous gourmet delicacy known around the world as Santo Beef and I was meeting the big boy with the classic sagging jowls, in the flesh so to speak.
In a remote Melanesian island nation like Vanuatu, with a proud French colonial heritage, one might expect to find cordon bleu cuisine served up with Gallic flair by Paris-trained chefs, in restaurants with romantic and evocative names. Indeed there are fine eating establishments both in Port Vila, the capital and in Luganville on the big northern island of Espiritu Santo.
In fact Vanuatu is such a potpourri of cultures and food styles that it is becoming known as the gourmet capital of the South Pacific. Port Vila has an exotic mix of fifty restaurants and bistros serving ethnic cuisine, which is a fusion of the best of Europe, Asia and Melanesia. This is intriguingly blended with local specialties like coconut crab, wild pigeon and flying fox. There is an abundance of seafood, led by the tasty poulet fish. Also a well-stocked farmer's market of fresh fruit, vegetables and the ubiquitous kava root that produces the mouth-numbing, mind-bending national drink.
"Vive la difference" is the catch cry in Port Vila as chefs conjure up traditional French dishes like onion soup and l'escargots along with poulet fish basquaise. Blended delicacies include poissin cru raw fish salad, marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.
Then there is Santo Beef, which is rapidly gaining an international reputation for its exceptional quality and lean, tender 'beefy' taste. Remarkably this small island nation is regularly exporting beef packs to Australia, one of the world's top beef producers. Recently a trial shipment of Santo Beef was sent to New Zealand, opening up a new market - Mon Dieu!
At Boucherie Traverso, Port Vila's mini-market deli, I meet Marco Traverso whose great-grandfather came out from France to manage a coconut plantation and later brought in beef cattle. Ironically the very first cows to arrive in Vanuatu were Jerseys brought in by the missionaries for milking. French planters then introduced Charolais cattle to 'mow the grass' in the coconut plantations, and as the beef by-product developed, more breeds came in like Limmosin, Angus, Hereford, Simmental and Piedmontese.
In the last 20 years Brahmin cattle have been brought in from Australia, so current beef stock is a diverse mix of breeds. The Australian knowledge of tropical breeds has proved invaluable to the industry and Brahmin cattle have thrived in the high temperatures and frequent rain. Marco is planning further exports to the Pacific Islands and tells me with a rueful smile that 'there are not enough cattle here to supply the United States yet.'
Mangoes Resort restaurant is tastefully bedecked with bright red hibiscus flowers and surrounded by lush tropical gardens, and it is here that I decide to put this renowned beef product to the taste test. Carlos the chef tells me that Santo beef is usually served downtown with fries or garden salads with mustard dressing.
However, tonight he has prepared organic eye-filet steak served with kumala croquettes and a side salad with a choice of red wine and mushroom sauce, cracked pepper or blue cheese. The meal is delicious and the steak is perfectly tender with no gristle or the chewiness that often mars a good steak. I'm warming to this product in a big way.
In Luganville, Santo's main town, Toru Mochizuki of Santo Meat Packers gives me the lowdown on why the local beef produce is so special. "Our nutrient-rich pasture is 100% per cent natural with year-round growth and constant high humidity, so it never dries out. No hay, silage, chemicals or fertilizer are added, only the necessary mineral supplements. Vanuatu is one of the cleanest countries in the world for raising cattle."
Toru explains that meat packers can't legally say the product is organic as only two farmers on Santo have organic certificates, but it's as close to pure organic as it's possible to achieve. No holding pens are used to coral the cattle and vets never use hormones or antibiotics on the stock.
Even though the cattle are "bitzas" of mixed breed, three year olds get to 550kg in carcass weight and dress out to around 300kg. Toru prefers the lean "beefy" flavour of the young steers to the Australian corn and cotton seed fed meat with the marbling effect that is so popular on the Japanese market. The marbling taste comes from the fat streaks but with Santo beef taste is derived from lean muscle.
All that remains is for me to try the incomparable beef on its home turf - Espiritu Santo Island. At Coral Quay Resort just outside Luganville, I enjoy an eye-filet steak meal with owner Charmaine Viljoen. It's a mouth-watering feast for the eye and the palate, tender as always, and true to that special beefy taste.
We choose a New Zealand pinot noir as accompaniment. Chairmaine explains how delighted she is to be in the hospitality industry on a beautiful tropical island that is home to the "happiest people on earth". This title was awarded in 2007 by a British think tank called the New Economic Foundation and it reflects the unique qualities of this lush tropical island where people live well off the land and sea with no financial worries and minimal impact on the local ecology. It is an unspoiled land where natural resources are converted into long and happy lives for its citizens and into succulent beef for the world.
From the French balcony of Coral Quay restaurant we look out over mirror-like waters of the channel to magical Aoere Island, which rises out of the shimmering haze like the mythical Bali Hai. To be here with a glass of wine and a superb steak is pure bliss.
Air Vanuatu has regular services from Auckland
Domestic Van Air flies to all major islands in the country
Bauerfield Airport is 10 minutes from the capital Port Vila
Nationals of Commonwealth countries do not require a visa
The vatu, at around 1000vt=NZ$16. Australian dollars are accepted in many shops and hotels in Port Vila
The dry season is May to October with an average temperature of 23° C. The green season is from November to April at a 28°C average