Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mango Mania

We took off out of the Pitons in St. Lucia, cruising across the smooth as glass waters and as I looked up at the beautiful conical mountains I thought to myself, this day is like no other, there will never again be a day like this, I should appreciate it. I don’t know why this thought went through my mind, but after an extremely trying week, it seamed like a good thing to focus on; all the possibilities that lay ahead... We pulled into Soufrere, a tiny, French fishing village with storybook architecture and winding streets – it looked like a movie set, or a lost town in the South of France. A rasta on shore helped lift my bags out of the tender and grabbed his friend, Raymond, to take me to the airport.

The taxi wound through the mountainous rainforest en route to the capital city of Castries. We passed through amazing little towns that although run down, were full of life and color. Street vendors with mountains of banana’s and alien looking local produce, women carried bags of laundry on their heads, little children in their Sunday best walking down the street, and brightly colored houses pocked the mountainside – it was just what I always imagined the Caribbean to be. As we wound through the hills, I couldn’t help but notice everywhere I looked were enormous, bushy mango trees bursting with the largest, most plump mangoes begging to be picked, and bigger than any I’d seen on the islands so far. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast that morning, or even had a proper cup of tea so I was lusting over the thought of just being able to pick and eat. My lucky moment came when the taxi ground to a halt in front of a Rastafarian on the side of the road selling coconuts and mangoes and with a live boa constrictor in his hands. The taxi driver and the rasta chatted away in their thick accents in island Creole and soon we were parked. I hadn’t made any mention of being breakfast-deprived, but the taxi driver must’ve read my thoughts for as soon as we were parked the rasta wielded his giant machete and lobbed off the top of two coconuts and handed them to us to drink, and when we finished, he hacked them in half, creating a spoon out of a piece of husk and showed me how to scoop out the young, sweet flesh to eat, all the while playing with the wild boa he had in his hand. As we all stood around chatting, the rasta and the taxi driver were friends and somehow in the course of conversation the boa (named “Daniel”, by the rasta) ended up wrapped around my neck as I held its head at a safe distance. After some joking and picture taking, he handed me a mango and said, “dis is for you, lovely lady”. Then, it was time to continue our journey to the airport….

As we made our way around the mountains and through banana plantations, I studied my mango and thought about how I should go about eating it. “Peel it wit’ your teeth, mon” and so I did, biting through the skin and then ripping the peel away with my fingers. The fruit inside was bright gold and juicy and the pulp was like custard. I gnawed and chewed at the pit and the fiber to get every last ounce of fruit. Like a four-year-old, I had juice running down my chin and my fingers were a goopy, sticky mess – which I vowed to lick clean so not one drop would go to waste. As I slurped away at my fingers, the drivers friend who was travelling with us looked back at me and laughed, and thankfully handed me a towel. “That was the best mango I’ve ever had”, “there are 52 different varieties of mangoes on St. Lucia”, the driver declared, “Great, I’ll have to come back to try them all!”. This was living…

Earthly Delights

The aroma of ganja and garlic filled the air. “five more minutes, mon”, he inhaled deeply off a joint as thick as his thumb, and easily four inches long. “D’er baking right now, all da garlic is infusin’ in dem”. His eyes were like slits, his hair pulled into a fluffly little ball atop his head, sun glasses balanced precariously above his eyebrows, long forgotten, as if they’d been resting there forever. Offenbach’s “Orpheaus in the Underworld” (the ‘can-can’ as you and I know it) played incessantly on the cell phone in his pocket.

We’d pulled into the cul de sac on Union Island that afternoon with the intention of digging a pit and making our own barbeque. But when we arrived to the beach, a man who called himself “Shark Attack” was set up with everything for barbequing, including dishes, silverware and a hot grill. We chatted over rum punch and planned out the evening. I brought him a sack full of lobster and watched in awe as he pulled out an enormous specimen of a machete and proceeded to split 4 lobsters clean in half – like a hot knife thru butter - right down the center. He nestled the lobsters into a cozy bed of hot embers and slathered them with a thick layer of “Shark Attacks” homemade garlic sauce. I was able to procure a recipe from him – lots of grated fresh garlic and ginger, the venerable ‘all purpose ‘Green Seasoning’ found throughout the Grenadines and butter. Honestly, I was distracted. Yes, by the smell of the ganja – but also by the irrepressible concern that the lobsters were being overcooked. I’d done everything right thus far with the guests and I couldn’t screw up now by having the lobsters overcooked!

I returned to the table, took a sip of my Planters rum punch – sweet and strong, walked back to the bbq and in my most calm, collected voice said, “hey man, you sure they need 5 more minutes”? “ya mon – 5 more minutes”. I stood by and watched and now I just figured the man must know what he’s doing. The smell of roasting garlic filled my senses and put me at ease. Intuition, that’s how I know how my cooking is coming along and I had to pay Shark Attack my respect and know that he uses his senses too, and knows how to cook a lobster.

“You’re a popular man” I joked with him, as the can-can number played on his cell phone over and over again. He took a rip from his never ending joint, “ya mon, but I have the choice not to answer it”. He smiled and laughed and one by one, pulled the lobsters off of the bbq and piled them onto a platter. I ferried the platters to the table and served the enormous half tails to the guests, as well as to myself, and to our first mate.

I took my first stab at the half-lobster in front of me, it that was the length and width of my forearm. For one more brief moment I was skeptical, but my taste buds rejected my fear as the buttery, garlicky sweetness of lobster, tinged with smoke, melted in my mouth. You couldn’t have bought a better dinner at the finest restaurant in Manhattan – to say the least about the ambiance. An almost full moon, casting a magical glow across the mountainous landscape of Union Island, lighted the sky. The white, sandy beach shined, the stars sparkled, the ocean provided the background music of its gentle waves crashing upon the shore, and the finest earthly aromas filled the air.

Wine flowed like water, and soon – and completely unexpectedly - the ganja did as well among this group of guests whose identity I have sworn to complete and total secrecy. The lobsters were spectacular and soon after the lobsters came a plate of bonito, heavily spiced and bbq’d. We’d brought along a crock of foie gras, German potato salad, mixed greens with local tomatoes and a cheese platter of raw milk camembert, Roquefort and Chaumes, all perfectly aged, fresh baguette and several bottles of Geourge De Boufs Boujaleaise. It was feast fit for the Crown.

I could’ve shoved all the dished to the ground, cleared the table, climbed on top and fallen asleep in a state of gluttonous satisfaction – but that would’ve been totally inappropriate in front of our guests. Instead, our first mate and I cleared the table of the glassware that belonged to the boat, left everything else and went to fetch the tender. I’d say, our BBQ on the beach was a complete and utter success.

Rasta pasta...

All was not lost on the charter with the bonafide movie star and malfunctioning galley. When it got to the point where I could only use the stovetop, I decided to bust out the pasta maker and spent an afternoon in the galley making fresh linguine – for which I was accused by said movie star of showing off. But from her, I will take that as a compliment.

I had found two bags of Italian semolina pasta flour in one of the cupboards. The flour was from Italy and based on that fact alone, I assumed it must be good. Not having a pasta recipe, I decided to wing it. There’s one great thing that I love about homemade pasta, even if it’s not perfect, it’s still heaps better than any dried pasta from the grocery store… So, with that, I piled the soft, yellow flour into a mound on the counter top adding a bit of wheat flour, as I’ve found that straight semolina flour can sometimes be a bit more fragile to work with as it doesn’t have the glutens that wheat flour has. I created a well in the center of the flour and added 4 egg yolks and two whole eggs – for no other reason other than the fact that I couldn’t recall whether pasta is usually made with whole eggs or yolks – then, a pinch of salt and some olive oil and proceeded to smoosh it around until I had a nice, soft, kneadable dough. I kneeded and kneaded until the dough was smooth and pliable, soft, but not tacky.

I started to set up the pasta maker on the tiny counter. But this was a little sailing yacht (my mom always laughs when I say “little” – 80 ft., that’s little by mega yacht standards) and there was a lip around the counter tip which created a challenge using the vice grip that secured the past maker to the counter… but with extra cutting boards, lots of non-skid, and a little patients I made it work and set to the task of cranking 2 heaping trays of linguine.

I made a sauce of local Caribbean lobsters, porcini mushrooms, leeks, white wine, cognac and a bit of cream one of the best sauces I think I’ve ever made. I served a half lobster tail atop the pasta, which was greeted with a boisterous round of applause. The guests departed early the next morning, I immediately went to the dive shop and signed up for a few dives in Antigua – then it was off to join another yacht…

Buffalo Mozzarella Napoleons to Start

Gold Plated Chocolate Mousse for Dessert

Thursday, April 12, 2007


With exception to the refrigeration breakdown, the freezer breakdown, the stove breakdown, the oven breakdown, and the mix up with the provisioner, everything is going swimmingly…

Friday afternoon: The produce delivery from the provisioner arrived. Bags of fresh basil, mint, chives, beautiful baby bok-choy, zucchinis and eggplants so fresh and gorgeous, the best produce I’ve gotten on the islands thus far, everything practically glowed. The provisioner has their own shipments flown in weekly, so they aren’t dependant upon the deliveries coming in by freighter to the grocery stores which often arrive in a sorry state of despair; sagging and wilted lettuce, over-ripe fruit – everything at least 2 weeks old before even hitting the shelves. I sorted and packed my groceries into my mini-refrigerators, washed my herbs and lettuces and wrapped them in paper towels to prevent spoilage. Broke down some of my produce to make room – but hardly an inch of space remained and I still had lots of locally made yogurts and goats cheese arriving on Saturday which I had know idea how I would make fit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised this season by the abundance of local produce in the market place. A lot of islands in the Caribbean have given up their farming culture, in the name of industrialization and convenience, and made way instead for mass produced, factory farmed produce from the States and elsewhere – but this season I’ve found beautiful local lettuces, tomatoes and herbs, as well as a lot of produce native to the Caribbean – green papayas, pigeon peas, miniature bananas (they are called “figs” by the locals – but they aren’t the figs that we know of back in the states – they are actually sweet little bananas that taste almost like a strawberry!) – but all of this that I’d found on my own had to fit, along with everything the provisioner brought.

There was a mix-up though with the provisioner, another yacht already departed had received my meat and fish order, so now my meat and fish delivery would not be arriving until Saturday and the guest pickup was Sunday. No problem, I told myself, there was still time to prep between grocery shopping trips.

Saturday morning: My Antiguan made yogurts, goats cheese and ice-creams arrived, a tough squeeze into the spare corners of the fridge. The yogurts were amazing – creamy, tart and fresh, no preservatives or stabilizers – I was thrilled. Good yogurt can be hard to find on the islands. Often times what is available is some brand loaded with thickeners and stabilizers that give it an almost grainy texture and lacks tartness. I’m finicky about yogurt; it’s one of my favourite foods. The local goat cheese was also amazing; creamy and sharp.

As I put my order away I noticed two of the three refrigerators weren’t keeping very cool. My sandwich meats and cheeses were nearly room temperature. I let the captain know that something was wrong. He pulled everything out of the refrigerators, a fan that feeds both of them had blown – no worries, another one is on its way, 15 minutes – island time. Then he got a phone call, sorry, no fan until Sunday, the day of our pickup – yup, that’s island time for you. I hoped my ingredients would last through the night. Two more half days of prep lost to refrigeration repairs.

Saturday afternoon: the provisioner said she’d be here by 3pm. 3pm came and went, as did 4pm. At 5pm she finally arrived – dropped the coolers on the dock and said she’d be right back after she made another delivery. Totally overwhelmed, my inexperience with yachts this small was apparent, three oversized coolers filled to the brim with lobsters, sushi grade tuna, filet mignon, scallops, rack of lamb, etc. sat menacingly on the dock. How would never fit everything in my limited freezer space, I thought I’d be lucky to fit half… I hastily began sorting through everything, separating what I would take and what I’d return to the provisioner, when the captain appeared. I gulped down the lump in my throat and said, “I think I over-provisioned. It won’t fit, I’m going to have to return some items”, I was sure the captain would have my head. “No worries”, he said. The captain disappeared into the galley, re-organized the freezers and amazingly fit everything, absolutely everything in!

Sunday: The day of the guests arrival and I felt totally unprepared. I wasn’t able to prep much in advance because of the refrigeration being torn apart (and everything splayed across my limited counter space) and now their was hardly room in the fridge to store anything even if I had prepped more in advance. But still, I’d made a few desserts, sauces, pestos – so I was slightly ahead of the game.

I was told the oven could be a bit temperamental – this would prove to be an understatement of epic proportion. I realized this the first morning the guests were on board. I had started to preheat the oven while I assembled my ingredients for banana bread. The oven went out 3 times before it finally decided to stay lit. The banana bread took almost an hour and a half to bake. I guessed that it may have been some sort of airflow issue and stuck a spoon in the door to allow air into the oven while it warmed up. 70% of the time, this worked. For the remainder of the charter the oven would prove as reliable a provider of heat as rubbing two sticks together. No, correction, rubbing two sticks together would be more reliable. Muffins in the morning took nearly an hour to bake, my puff pastry turned to sunken little puddles of molten butter and flour, my lamb steamed. I nearly tore my hair out of my head to get my mind off of the agonizing pain being inflicted upon my soul by this insidious, evil oven that could only have been created by the devil himself to torture me.

Then, there was the stove. The stove has four burners; three that provide just enough heat to bring a pot of water to a simmer and one just big enough to light the little Frenchman’s cigarette that built the yacht. On the third day, a burner on the stove decided to stop working – in the middle of putting out dinner. It wasn’t the cigarette lighter-sized burner that went out, it was the big one, of course. Oh, and let’s not stop there. I mean, why, after all, we’ve just gotten started? Also on the third day one of the freezers decided to go on the fritz. Fortunately it was the one with mostly bread and pastry in it – but the other freezers as well began to teeter on the verge of not-quite-frozen. On the 5th day, the odds of getting the oven to work were 100 to 1 and so the captain asked me if I could limit my meals to things that only need to be cooked on the stovetop – on the two-burner-one-cigarette-lighter stovetop. Having my eyeballs gouged out by tire irons would be a more enjoyable and satisfying experience than cooking in this godforsaken galley.

And, of course, all of this couldn’t happen under worse possible circumstances. We have a legend on board; a real-life, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming, bonafide legend. Not some tacky, Hollywood here-today-gone-tomorrow starlet. But a real legend, someone I grew up watching in the movies, someone I respect and admire and my galley is on the brink of total collapse. I am “gutted”, as the Brits would say. Crestfallen. But I put on my cheeriest face and do my best, and when no one is looking – I click the heels of my bare feet together and say, "there's no place like home, there's no place like home"...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Crew quarters, crew dimes, crew nickles...

If there was enough room for a running head start, I could slide into my bunk like a batter sliding into home plate. Fortunately, the designer of the bunk beds was generous enough to create a 6 inch lip on the bottom bunk that extends out beyond the width of the top bunk so that I can lie down and jimmy myself into the roughly 18 inch high incision in the wall. Its like spelunking trying to get in there, I need a lantern attachment on my forehead so that I can find my way to the pillow!

Not much air can circulate in this slit of a bed, so immediately upon manoeuvring myself into it – I begin to feel overheated, claustrophobic and restless, but if I sleep semi-diagonally so that my head sticks out into the room, I can breath. The real problem is this, no matter how hard I remind myself that I can’t sit up, inevitably, my alarm goes off and I shoot straight up out of bed and I conk myself on my head. HARD. EVERY MORNING. Not a fun way to wake up and I think I’m beginning to see an indentation forming - in my forehead! Then, there are the nights that I flail my arms around, probably dreaming (a nightmare, really) that I’ve fallen into the works of a sardine packing machine – packed tightly into a tin, next to all those hapless fish and the machine is just about to seal the top. I flail my arms for help and knock them on the ceiling above me hard enough to wake me up. It’s like being buried alive.

The 6’, 4” inch tall engineer aboard the previous yacht that I worked says, since joining the yacht world, he has become Cro-Magnon Man – a hunched over, knuckle dragger. I’m 5’5” and a majority of the time I find crew quarters to be so extremely uncomfortable, I can’t imagine being a foot taller! Yacht designers and yacht owners should be forced, FORCED to spend a month in their crew quarters just to get a taste for what it is like – because 99.9% of the time, the quarters are designed for midgets, halflings, or Nicole Richie. To be comfortable in the quarters I am in right now, I’d have to be so thin I’d be transparent; and some considers these particular quarters ‘good’!

Perhaps they are called crew “quarters”, because they are a quarter of the size they should be. Or, perhaps it’s because a quarter is all the owner would spend on the space the crew would be living in. Maybe they should be called crew “dimes”. Crew quarters, uggg.

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