Bon appétit! Diner à Chez Linda
Up and over a steep hill, 6 of us walked for 45 minutes beneath the shadows of banana stalks, mango trees, and a blackening sky. Reaching our destination, we stepped through the darkness across a cement, shell-embossed path toward the silhouette of a woman waving to us from a lit doorway. We slipped off our shoes and stepped into a spacious room, at the center of which stood a rectangular table set for eight. Looping strands of pink, yellow, white, and multicolor shell necklaces dangled from alcoves around the large room. The local news was playing on television in the corner, announcing the arrival of humpback whales in the Australs on their migratory loop from Antarctica.
It had been more than a month since Neil and I enjoyed a meal in a restaurant—quite literally, we had not seen a proper eatery since early May. What better place to break our fast than at Chez Linda, the charming pension that overlooks the southern arc of Raivavae’s lagoon. Chez Linda is pretty much the island’s only restaurant.
We were greeted with clasped hands and kisses on our cheeks by Linda, her mother, and her cousin. “Would you like to eat now?” Linda’s voice sounded like a song. She speaks English beautifully, imbuing our native tongue with the bright cadence and singsong quality of Polynesian and French. Her every word was spoken through a smile that radiated sweetness and warmth. “Yes, we would love to eat now!”
My tummy had been rumbling all day awaiting the evening’s dining excursion. Linda and her family do not maintain regular hours; dinner is only available with at least a day’s notice. Unlike restaurants back home, we were not asked for entrée preferences or dietary restrictions. We were attending a traditional meal and were only instructed as to when we should arrive. We were nothing short of delighted to watch the feast of Raivavaen cuisine be spread upon the colorful tablecloth before us. At the head and foot of the table, place settings 7 and 8 were taken by Linda and her cousin who joined us for supper.
Plates of taro and coconut bread, baguette rounds, poisson cru and salad, and two gourmet main dishes were placed family-style on the table. Much of the fare was completely new to us. We learned that taro bears a striking resemblance to a russet potato in flavor, but with the sinewy, fibrous texture of yucca. We all agreed that coconut bread was divine. The dough is steamed, not baked, and within a cocoon of coconut fronds, no less. We’d tried poisson cru (aka “Tahitian salad”) on Taravai in the Gambiers, thanks to John from s/v Sparrow. Poisson cru is essentially ceviche (i.e., raw fish marinated in lime juice and tossed with vegetables, such as onions and tomatoes) with a squeeze of fresh-wrung coconut milk.
The first of the two mains was a creamy, dark green Polynesian curry made from the leaves of taro and prepared with chicken. The flavor of the dish was as intense as its color and reminded us of spinach. The second dish was rich and steamy, yellow in color, and made of coconut milk and giant clams pried from the coral heads scattered about the lagoon. We’d seen heaps of the giant clams during our snorkel near Moto Tuitui, large purple-and-blue lipped behemoths the size of basketballs! The flavor of the ocean satiated my hunger, as well as my curiosity. I’m a bit of a carnivore, and I’d hoped we’d get to taste one from the moment I laid eyes on the creatures! Every bite was absolutely delectable!
We peppered our hosts with dozens of questions, nearly as eager to consume information about the island’s culture as we were to savor our meal. Linda’s cousin has a lively personality. She was quick to burst into a laughter that was contagious, especially when we found ourselves speaking in circles, at a loss for how to describe something in French or English or by playing charades. On several occasions, we resorted to making noises. Exactly what noise does a curly horned mountain goat make, I ask you? We learned that when a couple gets married on Raivavae they select new names for one each other and that the literal translation of “Raivavae” is “blue sky.”
Dessert was a thick banana bread pudding of sorts, sticky and sweet. The second dessert course (seriously, we were given two desserts) was chocolate cake with coconut ice cream. It was truly a pleasure to be welcomed into Linda’s home. For each of the three couples, our hosts generously packaged a to-go plate of poisson cru and filled an old jam jar with freshly ground coffee grown on the slopes of the Mt. Hiro. They even spared us the three kilometer walk back to Rairu, loading us into the back of their truck and driving us to the wharf, where our dinghies were tethered in a row beneath the moon.
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