The best place to have lunch in St-Denis is undoubtedly the Barachois, the seafront park at the northern tip of the city where the history of the island once called l’Île Bourbon began. Choose a food shack – daily menus are posted outside – and order sarcives (when available), rougail (sausages or boucané), massalé or cari and a bottle of Dodo (local ale) or Cot (local lemonade) and then choose a table overlooking the sea, pull up a (wobbly) garden chair and enjoy your food.

At the Barachois, the homespun food is affordable and unpretentious. Tables are set very close to one another and the area is very popular - you can even park your car nearby, a luxury in St-Denis. It’s a prime meeting place, and soon (even faster than on facebook) you will find yourself surrounded by new friends, lost tourists, expats on lunch break and locals eager to explain what goes into the Dakatine sauce or the civet zourite (search no further: it’s octopus).

Some like it hot

Dakatine is simply a brand of peanut butter that’s been adopted by the Réunionais as if it were their own invention, even though it was first concocted in Strasbourg in the 1960s and is still produced in Alsace. Something like the tins of ‘local’ Gérard camembert cheese that, in fact, come from the Seine-et-Marne département on the mainland: definitely worth a try! Tomatoes and, sometimes, onions go into the Dakatine sauce that might be served alongside the rougail sausages. Rougail is a very spicy condiment made of tomatoes, ginger, minced onions, turmeric and bird’s-eye peppers - the same that are used in bonbons piments – with garlic, curry leaves and perhaps some of the small round Keffir limes called combava.

What then are bonbons piments? Well, piment means chilli pepper, and bonbons piments are the sort of finger food that you might have as a snack or set on the table to nibble with aperitifs, in the same league as all manner of samosas, won-tons, crab claws and the mini dumplings called bouchons. They’re as good with rum cocktails as they are with fruit juice. They are so good, in fact, that it’s very tempting to overdo it - your snack easily becomes a complete meal that continues with refills and extra orders until the night has grown old...

Bonbons piments are a form of falafel (usually fried chickpea balls born in the Egypt of the pharaohs) made here with the large white broad beans called pois du Cap and the bird’s-eye peppers, called piments martins. The peppers are rated force 8 - torrid - on the Scoville scale which measures the spicy hotness of chilli peppers, just as the Richter scale measures earthquakes, on a range from zero (neutral) to ten (explosive!).

The best bonbons piments and samosas (filled with sarcive honeyed pork, shark, Kaffir lime, goat meat or bichique small fry) of St-Denis may well be those served at l’Oncle Sam opposite the Bellepierre hospital (you can even have some packed to take home or ship whole crates across the seas) and at the Massalé in centre city. I found the island’s best in St-Pierre, right next to the Kabarhum, who make the best flavoured rum cocktails - called ‘rhums arrangés’ - on the planet!

Sure but what about sorbet?

In any event, for dessert you should head for the Rue Jean-Châtel (which runs north-south to the top of the city), a few hundred metres from the Barachois, and enter the salutary coolness of an ice cream parlour: St-Denis’s finest are opposite one another on this street. After dessert, you might stop in at the Gérard bookshop (it’s nearby, but in this warm and welcoming miniature city, everything is nearby) to buy a book and carry it to the magnificent public garden, the Jardin de l’État. Alternatively, you might rather walk down towards the Cathédrale St-Sauveur, as along the cobbled pedestrianised street which encircles it there are many friendly bars which have recently installed terraces where you can settle in for a good read. You might even get some work done - when it’s actually functioning, wifi is free here.

There are two markets in St-Denis: the ‘petit marché’ (the larger of the two) and the covered ‘grand marché’ which is very small and is devoted to arts and crafts, especially Malagasy, Asian and Mauritian. You’ll find all manner of colourful little objects, bags and wicker containers, fabrics and pretty summer dresses to take home. The petit marché is a food market located in the south of town in the vicinity of the coach station and the Chinese temples. Follow the pedestrianised street to the bottom, where the main post office and mosque are located.

If you’d like to take an edible souvenir back home, small, very sweet Victoria pineapples are a delicious choice; they are sold at the airport at reasonably competitive prices (by the way, you should always have a knife in your pocket when out walking - the pineapples sold by the side of the road are wonderfully refreshing, as are pitaya, the deep pink dragon fruit with a kiwi-like flavour). Or perhaps you’ve got room in your luggage for the marvellous pork sausages called les zandouilles créoles purchased chez Viracaoundin, the Mecca of island charcuterie; or for spices such as vanilla, cinnamon and turmeric.

In the cool of the night

Often, the city wilts a bit when the weather is too hot, but it perks back up as soon as the sun begins to set behind the mountains. This is prime time to head for the Gadiamb – my favourite restaurant – or the Reflet des Îles, a famed establishment that purists define as traditional. You can also take the winding road that climbs into the Hauts after crossing the St-Denis River to enjoy the charms of the St-Bernard, a restaurant established in a former lepers’ hospital. It is justly famous for its rhums arrangés (mind you, you’ll need to drive back down afterwards!) and local cuisine.

If you have a hard time finding it, don’t fret: no one really knows the way, but everyone manages to end up there somehow…

Address book

Île de La Réunion tourism

Le Gadiamb
104, rue Roland-Garros
97400 Saint-Denis
Tel: 0262 20 10 79

Le Reflet des îles
114, rue Pasteur
97400 Saint-Denis
Tel: 0262 21 73 82

Oncle Sam
71, allée des Topazes
97400 Saint-Denis
Tel: 0262 21 33 89

67, rue Jean-Châtel
97400 Saint-Denis
Tel: 0262 21 34 69

The author

Pierre-Brice Lebrun

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The tourist attractions mentioned

Le Barachois Le Barachois
Le Barachois