GOSIER, Guadeloupe -- Nothing reveals Guadeloupe's Frenchness better than its love of good food, so put aside any thought of dieting. Guadeloupe has hundreds of restaurants, and prices range from $20 for two for lunch at a single creole place to $100 for two for dinner at a top French restaurant in a four-star hotel.
Dining is generally outdoors and is rarely formal. It helps, of course, to have reservations at popular restaurants. Remember, too, to try local places, for Guadeloupeans like to live well and they support the smaller restaurants with a Gallic gusto for good food and vintage wines. Guadeloupe, for example, is the fifth-largest market in the world for French champagne.
We quickly became addicted to Creole cooking, which is based largely on seafood and is highly seasoned with spices and herbs. The intriguing appetizers include: crab farcis (stuffed land crab served broiled in the shell,) acras de morue (fried cod fritters), feroce d'avocat (puree of avocado, onion, boiled cod and cassava meal served in the shell of the green fruit with a "ferocious" sauce), boudin Creole (blood sausage), and harengs fumes a la Creole (smoked herring flamed in rum, with a sauce of hot pepper, vinegar, oil and onion, served with cucumber or avocado).
Main dishes include pork, poultry and goat but rely heavily on seafood, such as langouste (clawless Caribbean spiny lobster), anguille (eel), oursins (sea urchines), ouassous (giant freshwater crayfish), lambi (not lamb, but conch extracted from its shell, tenderized and either broiled or sauteed), tortue (turtle, either a steak or in a stew) and chatrou (squid).
All the seafood on Guadeloupe is so fresh that the cooks must run the 50 yards from the sea to the grill.
Because bananas are king of the island's crops, they figure prominently on dessert menus, as do pineapples, coconuts and cantaloupes. All are served fresh or are used in sherbets. The Creole dessert specialty is a hot tart of grated coconut and delicate pastry.
Guadeloupe's French chefs combine classic cuisine with variations provided by local produce. French wines and cordials are plentiful and inexpensive compared with American prices. French cheeses also travel well into the tropics and the variety is staggering.
Guadeloupeans are proud of their rum, which is either vieux (dark and old) or jeune (white and young). Some older rums are as smooth as Cognac and are served after dinner. The lighter rums are used in the ubiquitous Ti Punch (Creole for petite punch). It bears no resemblance to what Americans call punch and is an apertif of rum, sugar and lime. Some Creole places serve it in various fruit flavors home-style from Mason jars. Purists insist an ice cube will ruin the punch's delicately balanced bouquet.
On our last night on the island, we had a nightcap at the patio bar of the hotel and felt the languorous pace of Guadeloupe. A steel-drum band playing outside the dining room was finishing its last set and then signed off with La Marseillaise in a beguine tempo.
Gerald Seymour is a free-lance writer.