The moment I fell in love with Guadeloupe began and ended with a bottle of rum.
There was a lot to love about this French Caribbean archipelago in between, of course. Pristine beaches with turquoise-tinged lagoons, both fresh and balmy; palm trees and flowering fruit trees and tall grasses rustling just so; bright, sunny days with just enough clouds to anoint the sky by day, and frame the glittering show of stars by night. Not a hint of humidity, nor a hint of stress, nor, particularly, of industry.
Everything in Guadeloupe feels home grown, but perfectly so. As we stretched our arms around us by the lagoon at the town of Sainte-Anne on our first day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d accidentally wandered into a postcard. I knew my friend Lamia felt the same when she oh so quietly uttered, “I feel like I’m paradise?” I nodded, while my other friend Jessica (the most frank of our lot) looked around approvingly and said in her soft French accent, “it really feels like holidays.” We took off our suits and bathed naked, feeling wooed, charmed, and very comfortably cupped in a little nugget of “just right” — the kind of just right that would satisfy the most fretful of Goldilocks.
But about that rum. It happened shortly after we found ourselves wandering away from the lilting steel pan rhythms of Sainte-Anne’s sunset market in search of dinner. We turned into a dark residential street and I was surprised when we stopped and the others started clambering out of the car onto what looked like somebody’s back porch. A lady came out. Her name was Emy.
Our exchanges with her that night were limited to three questions and one set of instructions.
The first question she asked was, “Vous avez reservé?” We halted, glancing around the porch that was laid out with tables and chairs. A beat passed, and before we answered, she doubled over, letting out a deep bellowing laugh from the bottom of her belly. Glancing around the empty porch, I began to laugh too, as her hand swept a broad, welcoming gesture and we sat wherever we wanted. Had we arrived ten minutes later, the joke would have been on us, for the little porch rapidly filled to the gills with patrons.
With a throwaway gesture, our host plonked a giant bottle of rum down on our table. After staring at it politely for a few minutes, unsure exactly what we were to do, we called her over and she pointed at each of the other items that were already on the table in turn, indicating that they belonged in our glasses, along with the rum. These were our instructions. Turns out she charges not by the cup, but by inches of rum depleted from the bottle. Grabbing our cups, Helene, the fourth of our group, followed suit, squeezing in each a lime, spooning in some brown sugar, a healthy pour of rum, and finally, a dollop of tart homemade syrup bearing a hand written label that I didn’t understand. It was delicious. We gulped it down and our cheeks flushed as we waited for menus.
They didn’t come. Instead, Emy came over and asked us two more questions in French. “Do you eat fish?” and “Do you eat meat?” “Of course,” replied Jessica matter-of-factly. Our host seemed pleased. “Perfect!” she replied, and disappeared behind a narrow flapping door into a tiny galley kitchen that I later peeked into—it was overflowing on every surface with steaming pots and pans despite a size that would be just about right for the corner of a Lower East Side studio apartment.
What follows is hard to remember exactly, except it began with a basket full of deep fried hollow crispy dough fritters that were fishy in flavor and melted on our tongues. We nearly fought over the last one. A few minutes later, Emy’s daughter laid on our table in swift succession, giant platefuls of steaming deep ochre rice, as rich in flavor as it was in color, sizzling butter grilled shrimp that we ripped apart with our fingers, and a pile of chicken thighs that I will never forget. They were charred and crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside, and dripping in a briny yet bright and freshly acidic juice. After a second of attempting to dismantle my portion with my knife and fork I threw them down and picked the chicken up with my fingers. It only occurred to me afterwards to look up, slightly worried I had been devouring a little too enthusiastically, but it didn’t matter a shred, everyone else was as absorbed in their plates as I had been in mine. When all that was left was a heap of bones and shrimp carcasses, out came Emy’s son, with plastic cups filled to the brim with salty caramel ice cream.
Another glass of rum and it was done. We handed over fifteen euros apiece. I remember afterwards, chasing after our host to thank her profusely, though she seemed to think my enthusiasm a little odd. We descended the stairs from the porch to the street and climbed back into our little car, carrying the homemade passion fruit punch we had bought at the market. We drank it by candlelight under a glittering canopy of stars outside our wooden bungalow on the farm, and slept quickly.
We returned to Emy’s restaurant about a week later. By then, the technicolor palette of the island had begun to wear a little on our eyes, and we had become more than accustomed to the delightful balls of fishy fried dough that preceded every meal on the island, even more so to the ubiquitous Ti-Punch (as the rum cocktail is called) that flowed freely on each of its tabletops. Emy asked us no questions this time, but simply laid out perfectly salted fluffy grains of white rice, grilled red mullet, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside and a Creole chicken curry that made my lips want to sing.
Only then could I really begin to appreciate that her seasonings and textures surpassed anything else we had tasted on the island. I attempted to relay this to her in broken French as she prepared to dig into the last meal of the night—hers. The most I could muster was an emphatic (and horribly cliché) “magnifique!” accompanied by wild hand gestures that almost knocked over my rum. She seemed amused, and offered us some of her “special” rum. It was smokey and clean. Having filled our glasses, she chuckled from deep in her belly and sat down with her family at a table. It was about to be covered with the final offerings from her magic little kitchen.
Chez Emy | Route de Burat 97180 | Sainte-Anne | Guadeloupe