On the island of Martinique, the spring festival takes on a particularly delicious flavour, discovers Francesca Murray
I’ve experienced Easter in many different parts of the world, but I’ll never forget my first Easter in Martinique. Locally referred to as Pâques, Easter officially kicks off on Good Friday and culminates on the Monday, a public holiday also known as Lundi de Pâques. It marks the end of Lent, a period of fasting that corresponds with the peak of the Caribbean dry season.
Martinique has a high concentration of practising Catholics, and even those who don’t participate in fasting respect the 40 days following Ash Wednesday. People refrain from throwing parties, and eat fish in place of red meat on Fridays – an attempt to purge themselves from the madness of Carnival. Easter has its own foods, festivities and rituals that take place throughout the weekend. Little did I know that celebrating Easter on this French Caribbean island would result in exchanging Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies for eating crab – and lots of it.
If you spend Good Friday in a Martinican home, you’ll likely wake up to the savoury smell of batter being prepared from scratch. Accras, a Creole fritter made from fried dough infused with local spices, is another popular dish consumed during Easter. Before indulging in accras, many people spend the day reverencing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by attending Mass and making a pilgrimage known as the Chemin de la Croix (Way of the Cross). In Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital, this pilgrimage takes place at Le Calvaire.
I wanted to take part in this cultural practice, so I called up a friend who agreed to show me the ropes. I grabbed my Bible, and together we walked up Fort-de-France’s version of Calvary, stopping at all 14 stations and nodding “bonjour” as we passed families lighting candles and reciting prayers. I began to feel tired as the hot midday sun beamed down on us, but I quietly forged ahead, reminding myself that this pilgrimage was meant to be undertaken with respect and humility.
The reward for reaching the final station was a spectacular panorama of the bay of Fort-de-France and an unobstructed view of Les Trois-Îlets in the distance.
I felt a serene sense of accomplishment as the sea breeze gently blew across my face. Even those who aren’t religious will be moved by the vista that awaits.
Similar pilgrimages take place across the island, and the concept is the same for each: follow the steps, greet each other with kindness, and take a moment to reflect. Afterwards, people go home to fry and eat fresh accras made with codfish, shrimp or vegetables.
Saturday & Sunday: the party starts
On Easter Saturday, the weight of Lent is slowly lifted. Traditionally, people attend a Saturday Mass called Samedi Gloria, and nightlife begins to resume. Swaré bèlè, or bèlè dances, are held at various locations to celebrate the occasion. Tournoi de Danmyé, a dance similar to Brazilian capoeira, is also prevalent, and crowds gather in the afternoon to watch the spectacle unfold.
Easter Sunday is just as jovial, and music can be overheard drifting from the cathedrals across the island in the early morning. Churchgoers smile and greet each other warmly in Creole as they double-cheek kiss and go about their day. Some meet their families at the beach to get an early start on the crab-eating; others prepare for the grand feast of Lundi de Pâques.
Eating crabs on Easter Monday is to Martinique what eating turkey is to American Thanksgiving or British Christmas: synonymous, non-negotiable. Much to my delight, I was invited to join in Easter Monday’s festivities. I eagerly offered to earn my seat at the table by helping wash the crabs, also known as matoutou.
My offer was swiftly accepted, and I was ushered into the backyard where the smell of citrus filled the air. I took a seat next to a tub filled with more than 100 crabs doused with water and oranges. This is a traditional method of cleaning the crabs, which are often found in the muddy trenches of the mangroves. We got to work scrubbing the legs and then the body, and before I knew it the smell of oranges was replaced by the scent of Creole spices. The aroma of peppers, bay leaves and garlic filled my nostrils as the sauce began to boil.
The crabs were placed in a giant pot to marinate as we gathered up some bottles of homemade rum. We would be joining the rest of my friend’s family, a clan of more than 30 people who were anxiously awaiting our arrival. On the way we passed street vendors waving crabs, offering a last-minute sale to those who weren’t able to catch enough themselves.
The hunt for crab is an integral part of the run-up to Easter Monday, and the process begins as early as January. Homemade box traps are hidden along the rivers and in the mangroves; once captured, the crabs are kept in cages where they are raised on a strict diet of grass until it’s time for cooking. The tradition of eating land crabs is one that was passed down from the Arawaks, who would cook them in a spicy sauce called taumalin made from peppers and cassava juice. The recipe has undergone some changes, most notably with the addition of the flesh from the crab’s body as a main ingredient in the matoutou sauce. It may be considered a delicacy now, but when the French settlers first arrived they rejected this local dish, as they preferred to wait for ships to come with supplies from Europe.
The beauty of Easter in Martinique is that it’s a joyous time when visitors are welcome to take part in the traditions. Mass is open to the public, and the cathedrals of Fort-de-France, St Pierre and Sainte Anne are easily accessible to tourists. Le Calvaire in Fort-de-France is open year-round, so those who prefer not to interfere with the pilgrimage can go anytime they feel comfortable. To get a taste of the flavours of matoutou, Hotel Bambou offers an Easter buffet featuring crab. You may not find chocolate eggs on Martinique – but you will find an enriching life experience and foods you won’t taste anywhere else.
5 traditions across the Caribbean
1 Fly a kite
Symbolic of Jesus rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, the popular pastime of kite-flying peaks at Easter time. Look to the skies of Guyana, Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada for especially colourful displays.
2 Eat traditional dishes
Eating fish on Fridays is a long-standing Christian tradition, especially on Good Friday. In Barbados, hit the annual Oistins Fish Festival.
3 Crack an egg
On Good Friday, at precisely midday, break an egg in a bowl, leave the white out in the sun and, once it’s dried, look at the shape it’s formed
to read your future.
4 Stick a tree
On Good Friday, many people make a cut in the bark of the physic nut tree to release its red sap, which is believed to be particularly red on this day, symbolising the blood of Christ.
5 But DON’T swim in the sea
Legend has it that if you venture into the water after noon on Good Friday you will turn into a fish!