Exploring the Odd Charm of French Guiana as an Expedition Chef

Ann Ideon is a geographer, who becoming a chef, enjoys challenges that expedition cooking brings. When not on the road, she runs her little catering business in Tartu.

“So where were you again? French New-Guinea?” asks a friend, who despite being a geographer gets the names and locations thoroughly mixed up. Although aiming diametrically off in geographical latitude-longitude terms, this question does capture the general essence of Estonians’ knowledge of French Guiana – which is close to nothing.

Yet, a certain number of Estonians are well aware of French Guiana and the riches her pristine jungles hide, which is also the reason the Doctoral School of Earth Sciences and Ecology recently held a multi-disciplinary expedition to French Guiana. And as a very important person of the expedition, I got to go as well – as a chef.

Expedition in French Guinea

Expedition members taking a lesson in practical geology: looking for gold. Image credit: Ann Ideon

The odd charm of French Guiana

“So what’s it like?” my friend continues probing. A word comes to mind – bizarre. Sitting in a cosy pocket between Suriname and Brazil on South America’s northern coast, this little corner of the world represents a curious melange of people and cultures – here French croissants meet Amazonian rain forests, the best food available comes from Vietnamese pho soup joints, native Amerindians still live in their jungle villages, and a happy crowd of beer-drinking Creoles greet you every time you pull up to a local shop. And they do not miss a day.

As a former French penal colony and current overseas department of France, French Guiana is also a part of the European Union. A content part, I must add, since being heavily subsidized by and dependent on France, Guiana has little interest in gaining independence or developing too much.

This ‘little interest’ is actually the essence of why Guiana comes off as charming – there simply is no pressure! With the Caribbean basin at its doorstep, Guiana’s few beaches can hardly compete with the former, and unless the grim penal past and rocket-launching strikes your interest, French Guiana has few major sites to visit, resulting in very little tourist infrastructure. And there are very few tourists altogether: as it is connected to the world by mere 5 international flights and sports Parisian prices, this is not a backpacker haven, and only the hardy make their way to French Guiana.

Beach in French Guiana

The western border of the EU against Suriname more closely resembles an African village – the majority of the population is of black and Creole descent. Image credit: Ann Ideon.

 A research group with multiple interests

We consider ourselves the ‘hardy’ and as soon as our expedition party, consisting of 25 PhD students and supervisors of different Estonian universities, has settled into our comfortable and airy lodges in the middle of a pristine jungle at Kaw Nature Reserve, a mere 60 km from the capital Cayenne, the research begins. This is what we have come for – the nature, namely the rain forests, which cover almost all of French Guiana besides the coastal area, and offer ample opportunities for studies.

The entomologists led by Erki Õunap from the Department of Zoology disappear to set up light traps for catching specific night insects and moths. Geologists led by professor Kalle Kirsimäe from the UT Department of Geology head out in order to find relevant outcrops for developing a ‘thermometer’ for geological processes of yore.

Ichthyologists led by Markus Vetemaa from the Estonian Marine Institute set out for the ocean and rivers with the aim of finding no less than 30 tarpons in order to extract their otholiths. In laymen terms they were finding specific massive fish, which feed in rivers and live in seas, remove a part of their head with a small ‘stone’ called an otholith that records data and which can be read like rings on a tree. With any luck, after running specific tests on that otholith, the latter can reveal a lot about the behaviour of tarpons.

Since all of the other research groups file out one after another, disappearing to study bird song and fungi, beetles and river sediments, biogas and mycorrhiza, our camp is nearly deserted by 8 am in the morning; that is, except for me and a Colombian housekeeper, who despite my passable Spanish and obliterated French, keeps jabbering away in quick French and even quicker Spanish, leaving  me often with just one option: smiling and nodding, while super-sonic-processing what might or might not have just passed between us.

Researchers in the jungle

Entomologists setting up their equipment in the jungle: light traps for catching moths, beetles and other insects. Image credit: Ann Ideon

Into the unknown – into the jungle

Visiting the Amazonian jungle itself for the first time is a fascinating experience: when observing the dizzying array of plants around you and hearing the jungle live and breathe, the realization also hits that you have no reference to this ecosystem! You have no idea what is edible and what is not, what is harmless or poisonous. Surely, common sense tells you not to poke every living creature, but common sense offers little solace when catching yourself at a thought of how likely a puma attack on humans might be and what one should do during that unfortunate occurrence.

Yet, after a small adaption period, you find yourself picking through the jungle with relative ease, even without a machete, padding barefooted around the freshly found jungle campsite, teasing tarantulas out of their tunnels, and fishing for fresh water rays with a makeshift spear, while keeping an eye out for electric eels and the possible appearance of an anaconda.


Adaption taken to the extreme: Sergei Põlme, after living in French Guiana for a year, knows how to approach an anaconda. Image credit: Markus Vetemaa

After a while you also find yourself looking forward to certain aspects of the jungle: the way its vertical layers and structures show best in the first light of the morning and massive blue Morpho butterflies lazily batting their way through the morning haze; how warm, close, and quiet it gets after midday downpours and the noise frogs and howler monkeys make while ‘serenading’ into the darkness.

Curiosities of the local cuisine

Having graduated in geography at the University of Tartu and later sociology and social anthropology at Central European University, both the nature and society of French Guiana offered me plenty for late-night contemplation. Yet, I had another agenda and mission: once breakfast was served and dinner still hours away to delve deeper into the local cuisine.  This delicious mission proved yet again interesting – a potpourri of Amazonian, French, Caribbean and Asian influences.

local catch

The ancient-looking catfish attipas (Hoplosternum littorale) inhabiting the rivers and streams of the Amazonian basin is a valued food source. Image credit: Ann Ideon

The French presence manifests itself loudly in the supermarkets, with most goods imported from France – the bread, the cheese, the wine – you name it. Yet local fresh food markets show more of the Amazonian side, with exotic roots like manioc, yams and taro, and different local fruits and greens being sold. The true displays of Amazonian foodstuffs – the seafood stalls – manage to leave me dazed, since besides rays and crabs I cannot identify any of the fish, which come in all shapes and sizes, some looking downright prehistoric.

Taking French methods and flavours, Guianese cuisine mixes them quite freely with Caribbean and Asian ingredients, which sometimes offer quite curious combinations. For example, a popular dish called Chicken Colombo, based on a Caribbean version of a curry powder, gets some of its flavours from thoroughly Mediterranean herbs like rosemary and thyme. And this flavour, just to be clear, is interesting in a good way.

local catch

Contemplation in the kitchen – how to skin and fillet a ray? Image credit: Ann Ideon.

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