Granules of Mauritian history

Sudha Pillai | Updated on November 29, 2019 Published on November 29, 2019

Pick-me-ups: The tour ends with a tasting of sugars, jams, honey and rum at the museum shop   -  SUDHA PILLAI

Before Mauritius became known as a tourist hotspot, sugar cane was its bread and butter. A museum tells the complex story of sugar

Did you know that a single stalk of sugar cane can produce up to 20 litres of juice or 2 kg of sugar? Or that the sugar used for tiramisu is not suitable for vanilla custard? Before I stepped into L’Aventure du Sucre (the sugar museum) in Mauritius, I only thought there were two kinds of sugar — white and brown. So, pardon me if I mistook muscovado dark to be an enticing men’s perfume.

When, after 177 years of sugar production, the Beau Plan Sugar Estate in Pamplemousses, Mauritius, shut shop in 1999, the factory building was converted into a museum — L’Aventure du Sucre. The museum is part of the Slave Route Project launched by Unesco in 1994 to break the silence surrounding slave trade and its history around the world. L’Aventure du Sucre tells the complex story of sugar, which is entwined with the history of Mauritius for almost four centuries.

Bittersweet beginnings

Before Mauritius became known as a tourist hotspot, sugar was the primary economic driver of the island. The first sugar cane plant was brought to the island by the Dutch in 1635, from Java, Indonesia. Back then, sugar cane was crushed using a hand mill to obtain sugar syrup, from which came arrack.

Under the French, who ruled the Indian Ocean island from 1710-1810, the history of Mauritius was shaped by sugar. The French established more than 60 sugar factories on the island, and African slaves were brought in to work in the sugar cane fields. The settlers supplied sugar and arrack to the East India Company’s fleet that used to dock in Port Louis en route to the East.

It was, however, under the British (1810-1968) that more than 280 sugar factories were established and sugar exports began. When slavery was abolished in 1835, the British brought indentured or contract labourers from India to work in the plantations, leading to one of the largest migrations in the world. It is believed that around 2 million workers were shipped to plantations. In the shadow of the chimneys of the sugar factories, the foundations of the diverse Mauritian society were laid.

The inside story

Hedged by sugar cane plants, the Beau Plan Sugar factory looks gritty — and mysterious. Looming large is the old factory chimney — a 108-ft tall circular structure made of cut stone.

The museum has some of the factory’s original machinery — pipes, vats, vessels, and also two locomotives — which gives an idea about the process of sugar making. However, it is the large wooden barge that was once used to transport sugar from Mauritius to Madagascar, that occupies centre-stage. The museum is exhaustive in its telling of the story of sugar, the early cultivation of sugar cane, the role of slavery, and the export of sugar to the world — through exhibits, interactive aids, videos and photographs.

The museum’s two mascots — Floryse the mongoose and Raj the Indian mynah — guide children, regaling them with stories and quizzes. (Interestingly, the French brought the Indian mynah to Mauritius to control locusts and the mongoose to control the menace of rats and snakes in the plantation fields.) Former factory workers act as guides. One can also tour the museum using a freely downloadable audio guide app. A complete tour of the museum, for 425 Mauritian rupees (approximately ₹830), takes three hours.

At the end of the tour, it’s time for a meal in the award-winning on-site restaurant called Le Fangourin, overlooking the mountains and plateaus. My sumptuous lunch kicked off with a millefeuille of smoked marlin, and waldorf salad topped with fresh heart of palm and passionfruit vinaigrette. This was followed by a fillet of fish served with a coconut and cauliflower emulsion and watercress purée. The dessert, a dark chocolate fondant with molasses and coconut and vanilla ice cream, was nothing short of bliss.

There’s also Village Boutik, a cosy little shop with 12 varieties of unrefined sugar, local rum, jams and honey on offer. I left the shop with a sachet of dark muscovado — not a men’s perfume, but sugar for meat marinades.

Sweet notes

Coffee crystals: Large, golden, dry brown sugar with a crunchy texture and best used in coffee, toppings and yoghurt

Golden caster: Crispy in texture and used in cheesecake, apple pie, tea and coffee

Golden granulated sugar: Has a free-flowing texture and is best used in cakes, jams, fresh juice, tiramisu and cereals

Special raw sugar: Granulated sugar used in rice puddings, custards and loaf cakes

Demerara: Fine, shiny and crispy sugar crystals that taste best in teacakes, crispy cookies and apple crumble

Dry demerara: Used in pancakes, French toast, Swiss rolls and brioche 

Standard demerara: Suitable for vanilla custard, crème brûlée, caramel sauce and infusions

Dark brown demerara: Best for dark chocolate fondant

    Sudha Pillai is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

    Published on November 29, 2019
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