SIMPSON BAY, ST. MAARTEN – 10/10/10 was the convenient date that “Country Sint Maarten” was born. This island has been shared between the Dutch and the French for nearly 400 years. About a third of the island is Dutch, the other two-thirds is French. The border between the two is and always has been open.
For many years, the Dutch side of the island, along with Curacao and Bonnaire, also Dutch possessions, were a sort of confederacy with a limited amount of self government within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Governance was puzzling; Dutch law bears no resemblance to U.S. or English common law. The official currency was the Netherlands Antilles guilder, but dollars were easier to use and accepted everywhere.
Under the new arrangement, Country Sint Maarten is now an independent country with a relationship to Holland, not unlike Canada and Australia have with Great Britain.
When you’re on the French side, however, you are technically in France. The Euro is the currency (currently around $1.40 to the dollar). French is the official language and the law is the same as it is in France. The road signs are European so you need to study the idiograms to figure out what you can and cannot do. The speed limit signs also switch from miles on the Dutch side to kilometers on the French side.
Enough with the technical stuff. Let’s talk food. I’ve been a regular visitor to Sint Maarten/St. Martin for nearly 20 years. Among the cognoscenti, it used to be that you stayed on the Dutch side and ate on the French side. There were always fairly decent restaurants on the Dutch side, but the rest were ordinary, bad or recognizable American fast food franchise outlets.
Make no mistake: the French side has some loser restaurants, too, mostly in the touristy areas. But if you know how to make your way to the village of Grand Case, you will be in Restaurant Nirvana. If a town could be said to have a cottage industry, Grand Case’s industry is great restaurants.
They don’t make it easy for the first-timer to find Restaurant Row. It’s a do-not-enter-one-way street coming into town. You’ve got to make your way through an unlit road and then through a sort of barrio (I don’t know the French equivalent of that word) that at first glance is a little scary.
Navigate your way over the potholed road that also has speed bumps and you suddenly find yourself on Rue de Grand Case and one restaurant after another sits there to confuse you. How do you choose? For a gourmand, it’s an ongoing tasty experiment. If you were to eat in one per night, you’d need well over a month to sample every one.
These days, some of the restaurateurs will make your choice a bit easier if you will pay cash rather than use a credit card. Cash gets you one-for-one Euro to dollar. Credit card users pay the full exchange rate. I’ve always believed that sometimes you have to pay a premium for great food, but if you can get a significant discount, it’s worth the ATM service fee to pay in cash.
While the restaurants in Grand Case have menus that are overwhelmingly French in their approach (and language), there are wonderful Italian and Caribbean-Creole places, too. You will not, however, see any fast food franchise operations. The league of chefs and owners of the restaurants in Grand Case, I think, won’t allow it.
Every so often, the chefs in Grand Case will get together to publish a small cookbook of some of their more famous offerings. The proceeds go to a local charity of their choice. All of the recipes are in French and English. While the measurements are metric, these chefs have made some of their signature dishes accessible to us for about 10 bucks. Worth every penny, or six Euros.
I am still eating my way through Rue de Grand Case after all these years, and I have three editions of the little cookbook from the chefs of Grand Case. It’s tempting to keep going back to the restaurants that you love, but I had to make a rule that during my annual time here, I have to eat at three or four new ones.
Happily, my ongoing Grand Case grand experiment begins as you read this.
I wish all of you a Happy New Year. May 2011 be one of health, joy and prosperity.
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