Eating foie gras on a beach is weird. Not bad weird, more out-of-context weird, like when you see your local barista at the supermarket and can't place them. It's how I feel during my trip to Noumea, New Caledonia's capital. I can't shake the cognitive dissonance between sunbaking on white-sand beaches and eating rich French food. Talk about first world problems.
The French influence began when the country annexed New Caledonia in 1853. About a decade later the cluster of Melanesian islands became a penal colony and since 1946 it's been a French Overseas Territory. The indigenous Kanak people were here first – more than 3000 years ago. Like the islands' inhabitants, the food is culturally diverse.
Tropical fruit, vegetables and seafood are abundant, but the metallic soil isn't conducive to everything (nickel is what initially boosted the country's economy), spurring importation of French wine and cheese and delicacies such as caviar, foie gras and truffles. There's also a small Chinatown and Vietnamese convenience stores. Noumea has a reputation for expensive and average food, but if you know where to go, it can be fresh, affordable and atmospheric. Here's how to do it.
Pack a beach picnic
Make a beeline for Chez Alexandre by Gastronomie Import, a small shop selling terrines, pâtés, black truffles and French cheese. Splurge on a couple of items then fill a basket at one of the fabulous French supermarkets. Casino Port Plaisance's deli is especially good. Buy a corkscrew and pick up French wine at Pavillon des Vins, Maison Ballande or Vinotheque. Amedee and Duck Islands (40 or five minutes on a ferry respectively) are the best sandy picnic spots.
Visit a food festival
New Caledonia has a food festival every month. From a giant omelette festival in April through to others celebrating coffee, avocados, cheese and beef (complete with a rodeo), it's worth checking the calendar when planning your trip.
Head to grocery stores for a taste of multicultural influence. At Vietnamese grocers (try Chez Florence), you'll find generous portions of tuna tartare for less than $A10; Vietnamese spring rolls (called nems) and rice paper rolls; a gelatinous dessert made from cassava flour, coconut and either pumpkin or banana called poe; and my pick for a foodie souvenir, achard, a French-Melanesian confit pickle (vegetables or seafood) that goes criminally well with pâté.
Outside your comfort zone
For regional delicacies, fly or ferry (25 minutes versus 2.5 hours) from Noumea to the Isle of Pines. Eat the elongated snails available at most restaurants, escargots de l'Ile des Pins, and keep an eye out for civet de roussette, a lesser-known delicacy of fruit bat stew. You won't find it in restaurants – it's illegal to sell it – but on Sundays in April when the bats are not nursing, locals are allowed to hunt the otherwise protected mammals. The Kanaks prefer cooking them fur on, while in Noumea you're more likely to see bats on the rotisserie.
Eating out can be pricey and disappointing in Noumea, so do your research. A fantastic budget option is Creperie Le Rocher high up on Promenade Roger Laroque with a view of Baie des Citrons. Shut your eyes while eating savoury galettes (between $13 and $25) and imagine you're in Paris. Chez Toto is a step up – a small French bistro where friendly staff with limited English serve duck, tripe and salade Lyonnaise. Another reliable option is Marmite et Tire Bouchon. Two courses cost the equivalent of $50 (three for $65) and feature French classics – not to mention a cellar stocking Burgundy and Beaujolais. For seafood it's Le Roof, perched on a pier jutting out from Anse Vata beach. Ask for a seat near the fish-viewing hole or on the terrace where you can spot flying fish.
Before dinner, L'Amiraute is the best spot for aperitifs. A respected admiral previously owned the 1920s colonial house during the Pacific War. After a six-month renovation, the current owner installed his Art Nouveau and Deco collection and opened the gallery to the public with a wine list and basic platters. This year he's opening a restaurant, ambitiously aiming for New Caledonia's first Michelin Star. After dinner, head to Domaine du Faubourg, a wine bar with hundreds of French wines available by the half glass, glass and bottle.
Cook like the Kanaks
Bougna is a Kanak dish where protein is wrapped in banana leaves with root vegetables, banana and coconut milk and slow-cooked, traditionally, in the ground. Depending on which part of the country you're in it could be seafood, chicken, or even wild pigs from remote mountain areas. You can try it in restaurants, but a tour of a Kanak village will be your best day on the islands.
To marche with the locals
Port Moselle Market is open Tuesday to Sunday from 5am until 11.30am. Arrive early and watch fishermen unload their catch and barter with stallholders. Keep an eye out for sweet local blue prawns and French-style cheese made from New Caledonian milk. Hungry? There's a crepe station, coffee, croissants and ready-to-eat sashimi.
For sweet tooths
There is a handful of worthy French patisseries, but A La Vieille France is my favourite. Highlights include mini eclairs, caneles and florentines, as well as mini rolls and baguettes for your beach picnic. Chez Tonton Jules has two chocolate stores in Noumea, one more than 30 years old. Samples are generous and the packs make great gifts. For gelato, head to one of the two Amorino stores, where Italian gelato made with excellent ingredients from around the world (Sicilian citrus, Sri Lankan coconut, Madagascan vanilla) are arranged to look like flower petals that melt before you can take a photo.
Immerse yourself in New Caledonian culture and stay at a Table d'Hotes ("host's table"). This network of small-scale accommodation has the option to add on home-cooked meals. You're more likely to find them on the Loyalty Islands or outside Noumea, but if you're sticking to the city, book a meal at La Table de Michelle for affordable French home cooking by the pool.
Sofia Levin was a guest of New Caledonia Tourism.
Getting there: New Caledonia's international airline, Aircalin, flies direct from Australia to Noumea 12 times weekly. Flights take 2.5 hours from Sydney and 3.5 hours from Melbourne. Visit aircalin.com.
Stay: Le Meridien Noumea Resort & Spa, refurbished in late 2015 and located just beside Anse Vata Bay with beachfront access. Visit lemeridiennoumea.com.