food / travel

Unfurl The Mystery Of Tahiti's Fragrant Monoi Road

Tahiti sunset
Tahiti sunset
Simon Roger

PAPEETE – Regardless of what geographers might say, there is a certain proximity between Tahiti and Iceland…

The lush green rock dropped in the middle of the southeast Pacific Ocean might be a hundred times smaller than the chunk of windswept ice in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, but insularity is not about surface or latitude. Both islands were born from volcanic events. The Polynesian island and her far-away cousin are two wild creations. To get to know them, there is nothing better than to hit the coastal road – another thing they have in common.

Since 2010, the 100-kilometer long paved road that encircles Tahiti Nui Island ("The Big Island") and partly continues onto Tahiti Iti (the "Small Tahiti," the eastern peninsula) is called "the Monoï road." A more enchanting name than the obscure "PK" (which stands for “kilometric points”), the name used until then to refer to the different segments of the loop. It is also an invitation to discover the botanic heritage of the most famous island of French Polynesia.

The main components of Monoï, whose oil is the local specialty, come from two plant varieties commonly found in this far corner of the world: Tiaré flowers (also known as Gardenia tahitensis or Tahitian Gardenia) and coconut trees. Plunge some Tiaré petals in coconut oil, leave the mixture macerate in the open and then filter it. This is how you make the skin and hair softener that Captain Thomas Cook wrote about in his travel essays.

What's that smell?

Before leaving Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, it is a good idea to take a walk through the city’s market – the first of the Monoï Road's twenty-two stops. On the ground floor of the building, the smell of exotic fruits is mixed with the smell of fish and freshly cut flowers. But the smell that stands out the most is the smell of Tiaré flowers, whose star-shaped white corollas with their fragrant scent are used to make the flower necklaces that adorn the necks of tourists during traditional ceremonies.

Our second destination, at the no. 6 stop, gives us an opportunity to discover another way of using Tiaré flowers. Behind a green façade – its color faded with the monsoon rains – lies the island’s oldest Monoï factory. Established in 1942, Tiki Parfumerie has since then modernized its manufacturing and conditioning techniques. The modernization started slow and then picked up speed during the "sunny years – the 1970s and 1980s – when Monoï sales boomed in the U.S. and in Europe," explains Sandra Langy, one of the company heads. "Overseas, Monoï has often been used, mistakenly, as tanning lotion. But in fact, what makes it interesting is its skin care and hair softener virtues," she explains. "Here we also use it to protect ourselves from the cold."

The cold? This is all relative in a region where temperatures rarely go below 25° Celsius in July and August – the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months. A walk around the gardens of the Tahiti Museum, near Punuaauia, is a good way to see the effects of humidity and heat on the local flora. "Polynesia is a land of plenty, where everything can grow," sums up Eric Vaxelaire, director of Papeete’s Monoï Institute, who is serving as our guide. Candlenuts, banyans, walnuts, breadfruits, water morinda, pandanus, taro, hibiscus, bamboo, cordyline, coconut trees … Tropical vegetation never seems to run out of imagination.

White or black sand…

Two different kinds of sceneries can be seen on the road that plunges down toward the Southern tip of Tahiti Nui Island. On the driver’s side, a dense forest covers the hillside of the crater that lies in the middle of the island. On the passenger’s side, the beach shows off its nuanced colors, white or black sand depending of the characteristics of the soil. Further away, the barrier reef serves as the ultimate defense against the assaults of the ocean.

Our next stop is near the village of Papara. The improvised parking area looks like an itinerant market. People sell "hot mape" (boiled mape tree chestnust), as well as strings of fish and Monoï sold in small, recycled bottles. Alongside "industrial techniques" which have allowed Tahiti to export nearly 90% of its production -- and which has been protected by the French “controlled destination of origin” certification (AOC) since 1992 - - there is also an artisanal production.

Robert Peretia has not forgotten the know-how he was taught as a child. "Grating coconut has always been a punishment for me," says the 50-year-old man with a smile, before kneading his mixture made of tiaré flowers and sprouted coconut to which he adds the abdomen of a hermit crab to accelerate the exudation process. After five years in the parachute corps, the idea of making Monoï came naturally to him. "Instead of buying Monoï at the drugstore to give massages to my four children, I started to make my own, using the same methods my parents used."

Not far from Robert Pertia’s house stretches the tiaré flower fields of Taharu’u Fleurs. A plantation of 300 small trees (some plantations have more 10,000 trees) whose buttons are picked early in the morning, before dewdrops have a chance to alter the plant’s active principle.

To satisfy the demands of Monoï production, fields now stretch as far as the plains and on the neighboring Tahitian islands, notably in Moorea.

Further out, in the Leeward Islands, there is a new road to explore. It is the unpaved road that leads to the apetahi tiaré, an endemic variety of the plant that can only be found on the remote highlands of Raiatea Island.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!