Saturday, 27 April 2013

Saga du Rhum museum

The Saga du Rhum museum, located in St Pierre, in the south of Reunion, is on the site of the Isautier family estate. Although centred on rum, you learn about Reunion's history and the importance of  local sugar cane agriculture and industry.

outside the museum (source)

Set up by the eponymous family in 1845 Isautier is one of the oldest rum distillers on Reunion Island, and it still produces rum today. Rum is the world's fourth most popular spirit after liqueur, whisky and brandy, and ranks first in the colourless spirit category ahead of gin and vodka. French overseas departments produce 40% of all the rum sold in Europe.

On arrival at the museum you are greeted outside by samples of different varieties of sugar cane (such as Mapou, Tamarin, Guingham or R570). Rum is a spirit produced exclusively through the alcoholic fermentation and distillation either of molasses from the sugar making process, or cane juice. Explanatory panels explain that the word rum ('rhum' in French) comes from the (English) word "rumbullion" meaning trouble, agitation and great tumult.

a variety of sugar cane stalks (source; © J.-Y. Hoarau)

On entering the museum there are more panels explaining the general history of sugar cane, and we learn that sugar cane arrived in Réunion  (and later Mauritius) in 1665. During the 17th and 18th centuries all of the sugar cane grown on Reunion was used exclusively to manufacture alcohol - sugar production only came later! Reunion grew coffee, spices and food crops, and Ile de France (Mauritius) grew sugar.

machetes for harvesting sugar cane (still used today)

Initially on the island sugar cane was used to make a fermented cane wine (fangourin), then a stronger spirit called gildiv or tafia, and finally arack, ancestor of today's rumIncidentally the word gildiv is apparently a contraction of the English 'kill-devil' - no guesses why!

alembics were used to distil rum before
column stills started to be used

When France lost possession of Ile de France in 1815 it consequently lost most of its sugar production, so sugar cane was encouraged as an export crop on Reunion. With the industrialisation of sugar production at the start of the 19th century and the increase in the number of processing plants, much of the sugar cane juice was used in sugar production. The distilleries used the residue from the sugar crystallisation process – molasses – to manufacture traditional rum from processing plants.

Cane cutters in Reunion in the 1880s (source)

In 1928 there were 31 rum distilleries, but by 1972 only three were left: Isautier, Savanna and Rivière du Mat. That year they joined forces to create the GIE Rhum economic interest group. Together they launched the Rhum Charette brand and embarked on a diversification programme: improving ageing techniques and creating ranges of punches and liqueurs. Today production capacity has never been so high.

pile plate, a popular 20cl flat bottle of Rhum Charette (source)

Sugar cane is now found in 76 countries and is world agriculture's largest crop; 70% of the world's sugar production comes from cane (as opposed to beet). In Reunion it covers about two-thirds of the island's arable land, and Reunion is the leading European producer of sugar cane - and 7th world-wide.

Reunion sugar cane field in flower (© Serge Gelabert)

After this introduction to sugar a walk along a footbridge brings you to a 1940s mill on display; the only complete mill on the island, it has been left in its original location. Such mills are necessary when dealing with sugar cane as the cane's hard stalk casing needs to be crushed to extract the juice. 

the mill consists of a steam engine, a fibre-removing machine,
three crushers and an evacuation pipe for residue.

Each mill consists of three steel cylindrical rollers as the outside casing contains juice-filled cavities which a single pressing can leave intact. This mill, which was in activity until 1980s, crushed 5 tonnes of cane every hour, and the material left over once all the juice has been extracted is known as bagasse, which can be re-used as an energy source. Reunion's two remaining sugar refineries, Gol and Bois Rouge, both use bagasse during the sugar cane production period on Réunion (≈ June to ≈December) to generate electricity; it's currently the island's second source of renewable energy.

Once the juice has been extracted the next stage is fermentation, which is done by adding yeasts which secrete enzymes and thus transform the sugar into alcohol. For traditional rum fermentation takes 24 hours, and produces an alcoholic wine with an alcohol level of 8-8.5° which is ready to be distilled. The longer the fermentation and the purer the substances the more differences in taste there are.

Fermentation (source)

Then comes the distillation which is when the product acquires its ultimate flavour. The column still allows the distiller to choose between the non-alchoholic substances which should be retained and those which are likely to reduce the rum's market value by giving it an unpleasant odour or taste.

old copper column still 

Finally comes the blending, storage and ageing in wooden casks. Often these casks are old cognac or whisky barrels. For example Old  Rum matures for at least three years in oak barrels of no more than 650 litres. Due to the tropical climate in Reunion evaporation rates (the angel's share) are higher than in more temperate regions.

casks used for storing and ageing

Traditional industrial rum is made from molasses, and traditional agricultural rum is made from cane juice. The 2012 production of the Isautier distillery in figures:
  • 1 million litres of traditional industrial rum for 2 388 tonnes of molasses.
  • 750 000 bottles of light rum for 380 tonnes of molasses (light rum has practically the same alcohol content as white traditional rum but a more neutral taste and is widely used in the liquor industry especially for making punch).
  • 36 000 bottles of traditional agricultural rum for 226 tonnes of sugar cane juice.
A bottle label from Savanna

Even though alcohol consumption is lower in Reunion (10.5 l) than in mainland France (12.9 l), alcohol addiction amongst men is more frequent in Reunion. There are more teetotallers in Reunion compared to mainland France, but there are also more binge-drinkers. Although rum consumption in Reunion has decreased (in favour of imported drinks such as whisky, beer and wine), rum is still the island's most popular alcoholic beverage. Overall alcohol consumption has decreased by 41% in the last 30 years.

"I'm stopping rum" a fresco at Le Port prison (source)

After a final section of the museum on the history of Reunion island, rum and sugar cane, the visit ends with a visit to the rum-tasting room. Cheers!

part of the selection of rums that can be tasted (source)

Useful links:

a sugar cane juice machine

Further reading:

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Maison Rouge & the Indian Ocean Decorative Art Museum

The Indian Ocean Decorative Art Museum (Musée des Arts Décoratifs de l'océan Indien, or MADOI) opened under its present form in December 2008 at Saint Louis

aerial view (source)

It consists of modern buildings housing temporary exhibitions, located on a former coffee and sugar estate known as Maison Rouge. The 'modern' buildings are in fact the estate's converted stables. 

aerial view (source)

Originally created in 1986, the MADOI received the Musée de France label in 2002 before its present renovation and re-opening in 2008. 

aerial view (source)

Its collections cover the decorative arts proper to the Indian Ocean: furniture, ceramics, photography, architecture, fine arts etc. When we visited (April 2013) the current exhibition was called "On the trail of the tiger - in search of the Dragon's breath" and centred on Chinese decorative art.

entrance to the MADOI

The main Maison Rouge house was built in 1750 by Jacques-Francois Desforges-Boucher, Governor of Bourbon (Reunion) at the time. Changing owners over the years it grew in size, and an upstairs floor was added around 1830. The central and elevated location of the master's house meant all the agricultural activity of the estate could be overseen.

Main house, Maison Rouge

While the front of the house was covered in wooden planks, the sides and back were covered in wooden shingles, known locally as bardeaux.

front and side of the house, showing planks and shingles respectively

The house has not been lived in since at least 1971, and a (badly needed) renovation project is currently underway. 

old photo of Maison Rouge (source)

Servants quarters and various outbuildings (kitchen(s), warehouses, pigeon loft, ironing room, cellar, patio, etc) were located behind the master's house.

Outbuildings to the side of the house; note the pond in front

Behind the main house and its annexes was a large orchard, a vegetable garden and a patch for growing medicinal plants.

calabash growing in the orchard

What makes Maison Rouge special is the fact that it is the last coffee estate in the French overseas departments from the 18th century to have withstood time, largely due to the fact that it is located between two steep-sided ravines.

part of the garden surrounding the house

Its layout is directly copied from the 17th century European rural manor house model: frontal access, a centrally positioned main house, the presence of farming and service buildings, a distinction between the front and the back of the estate, and a fence around the entire unit.

watercolour by Patu de Rosement of early 19th century
coffee cultivation on Bourbon (source)

Today it's still possible to see the argamasas or flat surfaces that were used to dry the coffee berries. As the cultivation of coffee declined on the island, sugar cane was introduced to the estate and a processing plant was constructed in 1835. However the latter was destroyed in 1920 when a large fertiliser warehouse was built to replace it.

Maison Rouge argamasas (source)

Across the road from the main part of the estate is a large banyan tree, which would have been used as a place of worship by the estate's Indian indentured labourers before the current temple was built. It was originally surrounded by a garden where plants known for their medicinal, magical or religious properties were grown.

Banyan tree

For more information visit (in French only) or the Facebook page:

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Suggested reading (in French):

If you read French you might enjoy Fantômes Blancs, a graphic novel in two volumes (1: Maison rouge and 2: Bénédicte), set at Maison Rouge. The scenario is by Appollo, whose graphic novel Bourbon Island 1730 I review here.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Hiking Grande Chaloupe to La Redoute

Early one wet and windy day recently we started our hike at La Grande Chaloupe, a small village belonging to the municipality of Saint Denis, and located alongside the Route du Littoral coast road. Despite its size Grande Chaloupe holds an important place in local history as thousands of slaves, and later indentured workers, passed through the lazaret quarantine located here.

former train station, Grande Chaloupe

In 1878 the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer et du Port de la Réunion (CPR) was created, and for the next 3 years workers built the 10 km of tunnels between Saint Denis and La Possession

an over-ripe fruit from a sandbox tree, Grande Chaloupe

The whole railway ran from Saint Benoit to Saint Pierre and was inaugurated in 1882. Grande Chaloupe was one of the stations. The CPR stopped operating in 1963, but since 1988 an association called "Ti Train" has preserved the railway heritage at Grande Chaloupe.

The remaining steam locomotive at La Grande Chaloupe:
 a Schneider 030 T type 88

Today though our aim was hiking, not culture or history, so we set off in the direction of the Chemin des Anglais, a paved track which connects La Montagne to La Possession.  

Built in the 18th century on the orders of the government official Honoré de Crémont, it was designed to improve communication between Saint Denis and the island's west.

the paved Chemin des Anglais

In 1810 the English invaders, having landed near Saint Paul in the west, used the path to attack Saint Denis, and since then the Chemin Cremont has been called the Chemin des Anglais.

Looking back down at the Route du Littoral and
Grande Chaloupe from the Chemin des Anglais

Grande Chaloupe valley is home to one one of the last surviving low altitude dry forests, and plant and animal species in this area are particularly endangered.

The vegetation consists of species adapted to high temperatures and low rainfall: few examples remain on the island, and Grande Chaloupe is one of the finest examples.

After coming to the end of the Chemin des Anglais we arrived on the tarmacked road at the village of St Bernard.

at Saint Bernard

Agarista salicifolia, known locally as bois de rempart,
 is endemic to Reunion, and extremely toxic 

After a short walk on paved roads, we then got back onto the hiking paths and crossed an area known as the Colorado, which is a nature park located ≈300-700 metres above Saint Denis.

a panther chameleon, known locally as an endormi 

waterfall, seen from Colorado

weather radar station, Colorado

Once we had crossed the Colorado we then had just under 4 km to hike down to the stadium in Saint Denis known as La Redoute.

path to La Redoute

The Redoute stadium is the arrival point for Reunion's famous Grand Raid cross-island ultra marathon, which takes places every October, and the 15 km we'd just hiked are the final kilometres of that race. We of course were not as tired as those who've just completed 170 gruelling kilometres!

La Redoute stadium, seen from the hiking path

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  • For more on the English invasion of Réunion see the footnote of this post.
  • For more on St Bernard see this post.
  • For a video about the Grand Raid see here.