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Mauritian escape

On the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, where the exotic is everyday, ancient technology yields products highly sought after in European cities.

Mauritian escape - model sailing ships

Serge is nonplussed. “Alinghi didn’t like me to copy their boat. They were annoyed and said to stop. Even when I asked, they said no. The plans were just there on the internet …” His voice trails off, but it’s no surprise to us: we Kiwis know all about protests by Alinghi. We look at his sleek red and black America’s Cup contender. It’s identical to Alinghi 5, right down to the sliding hatch on the deck, the pulleys and the rigging, and we marvel at the skill that created something so accurate – and so small. Well, it’s small compared with the original, but here in the showroom of Historic Marine in the scruffy north Mauritius town of Goodlands, it’s one of the bigger models. It’s more colourful than most of the ships on display – Endeavour, Bounty and Titanic among them – though their natural wood and classic lines have their own appeal, and close inspection shows even more tiny detail on their much busier decks.

Out the back, people are hunched over worktables, cutting, sanding, gluing and varnishing. Men are assembling the hulls and masts and women are threading and knotting the complicated rigging on old-fashioned sailing ships, and painting the wood with fine-tipped brushes. “All hand-made,” says Serge proudly, explaining that it can take up to seven months to complete a model, scaling it down from the original plans and constructing it from balsa and teak, or cast copper, brass and bronze (“No plastic or fibreglass!”). The sails have a local flavour, literally: the cotton is aged by being soaked in Mauritian vanilla tea. They beautifully made models command up to €20,000 ($31,000), and are bought by collectors living far from this Indian Ocean island and its harmonious mix of French, African, Indian and Chinese immigrants.

Mauritians, however, are the only people likely to buy the manioc biscuits produced near Mahébourg in the Biscuiterie Henri Rault. They’ve been made to the same recipe for the past 140 years, and the factory itself looks like it hasn’t changed in that time: the women work in long aprons and frilly mob-caps. One feeds a 7m-long brick oven with bundled sugar cane leaves as the others mix ground manioc flour with melted butter and flavourings from locally grown plants – that vanilla again, cinnamon, aniseed and peppermint – and pack it into metal moulds. They are pushed and flipped along the oven top, baking and drying, until they reach the end, where they’re finally wrapped in white paper and labelled. It’s a lot of trouble to go to, for hackingly dry, bland biscuits that aren’t even particularly sweet, but the factory turns out 15,000 daily to feed demand not just locally, but also in France and Australia, where many Mauritians long for this taste of home.

If the biscuit ladies look Victorian, the women working the salt pans could be refugees from the Middle Ages. Swathed, despite the heat, in sacking cloaks with boots, hats and gloves, they’re bowed under the weight of their heaped wicker baskets – as anyone would be with 20kg of salt on their head. At the Tamarin Salt Works on the west coast, seawater is pumped daily up the slopes of Mt Calme to work its way back down through a patchwork of stone and clay pools, as the sun and wind evaporate it. The speed of the flow down the hill is carefully controlled by the simplest of methods: the pipes between pools are drilled with holes, into which sticks are poked to limit the volume of water passing through. After five days the last drops dry off, leaving a coating of crusty white salt to be shovelled up, piled into baskets and carried to the mill for crushing into a fine powder. A litre of seawater yields 30g of salt. Flavoured with chilli or pepper, it’s a classy condiment; left coarse and bagged up, it’s used instead of chlorine in private swimming pools; ground more finely, it’s neatly packaged for pedicures at the island’s spas. We suspect the women doing the hot, heavy work needed to produce it wouldn’t know a pedicure from a pelican.

Mauritius - the Tamarin Salt Works

Down a lush, jungly lane where even the light seems green, a bare-chested man in an open tin shed is bent over a wood fire producing something even more exotic. Above the flames, a copper vat is steaming, the vapours contained in a curly pipe leading to a glass bottle. Dripping slowly into it is lemongrass oil, tangy and invigorating, mouthwateringly fresh. Deepak says he also distils eucalyptus, frangipani, jasmine and peppermint, but his star product is ylang ylang oil, made from the flowers of a tree from the custard apple family. The flowers aren’t quite ready yet – they’re just opening on the trees, lime green against the glossy leaves – but already they’re scenting the air, heady and seductive. Soon, Deepak will be bringing in intoxicating basketfuls of them, tossing them into the hot water. It will take 50kg of flowers to make just a litre of oil. Standing by his basic little still, we feel a long way from the sophistication of Paris; but that’s where his oil will go, to be the base for one of the world’s most famous perfumes, Chanel No. 5. It’s also good for relieving stress, he tells us earnestly: two drops in hot water, breathed in. We look at him poking at his fire in the fragrant bush, surrounded by birds and flowers, and wonder how he knows.