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Posts Tagged ‘banana’

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Three glorious scoops, rapidly melting in the South Seas shade.

I’ve turned a lot of corners and had my eyes pop at what I saw, I’ve felt meh about going somewhere only to get knocked out, never saw that coming, I’ll always remember this. These are some of my most exciting food discoveries. A brief chronicle, presented in the hopes that 2016 has plenty more…for the both of us.

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Mo’orea, a tiny island off the coast of Tahiti, was one such corner and one such pop. We’d read about the Lycee Agricole, the farm school, on the island. The students there make homemade ice cream and sorbet from local produce. One day we turned off the main road to a low little cluster of buildings and pulled over. The soursop and the citron sorbets were gorgeous. But the above picture…I wish it could do justice to the quality of the ice cream. Three scoops: banana, vanilla…and gardenia. Locally grown. Or wild, for all I know. It was one of the most exquisite experiences of my life. At the end of a narrow, dusty road on a sandy rock in the middle of the Pacific, I ate flowers.

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Farther north, on Kauai and Maui, I ate lots of mahi and ice cream* and enjoyed every bite. But it’s practically a given, stamped on your plane ticket and all, that you’ll come across great mahi and ice cream (along with sea turtles and a luau every Tuesday night at your hotel). What you don’t expect to come across are pastures filled with cows. We learned Maui of all places has a thriving cattle ranch industry: All of that juicy green grass gets transformed into, I’m told, absolutely righteous steaks and hamburgers. I was in shock; if you blinked, you’d think you were in Wyoming.

Turtle, Kauai

I can’t find my cow pictures and we didn’t do a luau, so here’s a sea turtle.

I grew up slurping nectar from honeysuckle blossoms every spring at the ball field with my sister and our neighbors. A couple of years ago I wondered if I could make something edible with the nectar, as the Lycee students on Mo’orea did with gardenias. Found a recipe for honeysuckle simple syrup, and it was like what Tim Leary said acid was like. Not the flipping-out part, but the opening-your-brain-to-an-entirely-new-universe part. I mixed the syrup into vodka, I sold some to a local bartender, I drenched warm homemade pound cake in it. And soon I’m going to try it out in homemade marshmallows. Why not? And while I’m at it, why not flavor them with the other things I pick: quince, beach plum (they’ll be lavender!), wild mint, persimmons? Tim would be so proud.

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Honeysuckle and its progeny.

I have a cookbook, nearly 50 years old, of English recipes. It’s commonplace to roll one’s eyes at British Isle food, but I’ve never been able to because it tastes as good as it does. Traditional English Christmas cake, Irish fruitcake, Toad-in-the-Hole, and many more recipes later, I found Scotch Woodcock. It sounded pretty good. I was wrong. Anchovies and paste, very softly scrambled eggs, and buttered toast—so simple yet so out-of-the-bloody-park luxurious that I actually started laughing at the first bite. Recommended when you’re a little deprived and disheartened. Winter can do that to you.

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Open face and open mouth.

For my birthday in 2012 my brother and sister-in-law took me to Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, for real Jewish delicatessen. I ordered chicken noodle soup. The big surprise here was the nonchalant way they brought me a bowl that was clearly intended for a full-grown bull mastiff. I brought home leftovers and ate them for lunch for four days.

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For last: this is something I dream of eating all year. They’re so good I almost dream of eating them while I’m in fact eating them. I don’t even have a proper picture of them because I eat them too quickly to grab my camera first. Fried squash blossoms. I made them on a whim in 2013 and was almost overcome by how lovely and delicate they were. Never expected quite that level of good. Stuffed or unstuffed, half burned or delicately browned, that’s enough, I have to stop thinking about them because it’s only January.

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*Lappert’s. Holy cow, go. It’s only sold on the islands, and believe me, I tried to get them to ship it here to the states. Coconut cream. That’s the one!

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Not a lemon cake. Read on for the gripping truth!

I am not an Elvis fan. I mean, I’m not a mouth-foaming, sobbing-on-the-steps-of-Graceland Elvis fan. Seems to me there’s no other kind, and moreover it would require a Swiffer and a lot of Kleenex. I’m not lazy, but that’s a lot of work. His music is good. But his food is even better.

Whenever you see a muffin, crepe, milkshake, or anything named the ‘Elvis’, it usually contains chocolate and/or peanut butter and/or bananas.* And if it can be deep-fried, it will be.** I love it all. But I have a favorite, and while it smugly holds its own in the fattening department, it features none of the above attributes.

Years ago, back when there was a Gourmet Magazine, the editors interviewed Elvis’s personal cook. This lovely lady heaped them with the best kind of blessing: she gave them the recipe for Elvis’s favorite pound cake. The editors mince no words: it was the best pound cake any of them had ever eaten.

The cake looks like nothing; you’re already glancing askance at the pictures wondering why I’m suddenly trying to bore you. Maybe this will help: It contains two sticks of butter, seven eggs (which explains its yellowy-ness), three cups of sugar, and a cup of heavy cream.*** It also calls for cake flour—much more powdery soft than regular AP flour—and has you sift it three times for the ultimate in lightness.

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Those crumbs are so gracefully arranged, aren’t they? Within seconds they were disgracefully devoured.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the States, and I was torn between two recipes to make for the pre-fireworks picnic I was going to with friends and family. I have always wanted to make this cake, but whined internally that I wasn’t feeling awake enough to handle it. Halfway to the store for ingredients to make cookies, I told myself to stop being ridiculous and bought cream and a pound of butter to make it.

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The snickerdoodles will have hold their snickering.

It came out of the oven about half an hour before I was supposed to bike out to Asbury Park. I sliced it up still warm, and it was like slicing through warm wax—the tenderest, squishiest texture, comparable only to the King’s own belly. (One begat the other, after all.) I wrapped the pieces one over the other in parchment. Then I put it all in a Ziploc, closed it only halfway so steam could escape, and loaded it into my backpack.

The friends and family and I ate Cuban sandwiches and caramelized plantains and then we ate cake. The best reaction came from young Charlie, whose eyes widened as he ate. The King must have been watching from up north, and if that didn’t put the sparkle in his sequins, I miss my guess. I sent the leftovers home with Charlie and his family. Elvis would have wanted that.

And the recipe was not lost to the ages; it’s on Epicurious now, making me happily reconsider my agnosticism.

I have three pound cake recipes. Two are Martha’s, and they are sensational. But I concur with the Gourmet crew: this is the best I have ever tasted.

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Cooling by an open window and toying with the neighbors.

*You will never come across an Elvis spinach salad or hummus platter.

**OH, somewhere someone has figured out a way to deep-fry a milkshake, don’t you think otherwise.

***Crap, I meant to suggest you swallow a Bayer before reading that.

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Indulge me a bit, will you? I wait all year for the tiny crepe stand on the Asbury Park boardwalk to open, and I always eat my inaugural crepe on Memorial Day weekend. The four kids working behind the counter at this place have about as much space as Trader Joe’s allows between cash registers, yet they duck and move between the six hot plates with impressive efficiency. Which is good, because the crowd I was standing in was hungry, as the sun-soaked tend to be.

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This year my sister, who loves to say the crepes made here at this little tin shack are better than those she had in Paris, got the cannoli crepe. It comes with cannoli cream and little chocolate chips. Her friend got a S’mores crepe, with ground Graham crackers, baby marshmallows, and a squiggle of chocolate syrup.

I get what I always get: the Elvis Presley, containing Nutella, sliced bananas, and crumbled Reese’s peanut butter cups—everything but the barbiturates, as I told my friends. (Since you were wondering, there is a Priscilla, which has all of the Elvis ingredients plus vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Elvis could have put away the latter and then ordered in country-style ribs for dessert, so I’d switch the names of the crepes, myself. But I can still eat in peace.)

Getting crepes over Memorial Day afternoon, standing in the late-day sunshine in the middle of a crowded boardwalk, cooing over them and feasting on their gooshy warmth with plastic forks—it’s a very simple, very communal, and intensely satisfying experience. I don’t eat like this normally. It’s almost dizzying, actually, the degree to which this luxury tops the scales of my brain and taste buds. And full disclosure, I saved half and it’s in my fridge. Really cold, it’s good, too. A treat worth the wait once more…at least until tomorrow morning.

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Carrots with the dirt still clinging. I hacked off the tops and fed them to Esmerelda Goat at Silverton Farms. She quite enjoyed them.

Dear Organizers,

Okay, yesterday clinched it.

Compliments first—and soak ’em in, because once I’m done all bets are off.

You know I’m a big fan. I’ve sung arias to farmers and their markets time and again. (Even more than that.)

Here’s what you get right:

1) You created the market in the first place, reviving a homespun way to buy food.

2) People get to meet, kibbutz, share recipes, and have a groovy old time.

3) We get the opportunity to buy food straight from the dirt. And sometimes it still has dirt, or feathers, or errant sticks in with it. This is a plus, I’m telling you. I like finding inchworms. It’s nearing high summer in New Jersey. I’m wildly digging the butterstick squash, the beans, the little potatoes, the sweet bells, and the countless other treasures borne of our happy little Zone 7’s earth and rain and sky.

Okay, put away the Kleenex and turn off the Luther Vandross*. All set? So glad. We’re going to hear a lot more on that last note:

What the…? Mangoes? On a New Jersey farmers’ market table? Jesus H. Sebastian God. I saw a dozen of these yesterday, and it wasn’t the first time. Lemons and limes. Bananas. Blueberries from Canada, when they’re in season right here, right now. When NJ produces 52 million pounds every season.**

Even more insulting, peaches and plums bought at bloody Pathmark, transferred to an aw-shucks-ain’t-that-homey-hope-they-don’t-notice-they’re-from-Bolivia pint box, presented to us with the store stickers still attached, and with the price marked up. To make matters worse (as if you could), most often all of the produce, local or not, is tagged with a ‘Jersey Fresh’ label. That’s stones. Oh, also? That loses you at least one customer, and I can’t imagine I’m alone.

Forget that this mishagoss doesn’t support NJ. Forget that often enough you’re continuing to hoodwink the consumer into thinking produce is in season when it’s not. Even forget the number it’s doing on the environment, bringing in food from thousands of miles away when you can get it right down the road.

Factor in nothing but the incomparable, insane flavor and nutrition that come from collards that were in still in the ground at 7 this morning and still have 4 this-morning’s dew on them. I’ll pay more for them. They’re worth more.

I’m at a farmers market, people. I don’t want some bollocksy greens that were picked a week ago Thursday and have been on vehicles with six different plates from three different countries. If I wanted greens that have more stamps on their passport than Beyonce, I’d go to Pathmark.

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Red plum from a NJ farmer’s tree.

Educate me. Please. I know quite a few farmers. I would never suggest the work a farmer does is easy. I know the powerful resilience it takes to fight the fight every season—against the weather, the bills, the aging machines (especially if he or she is one of them), the land developers whispering sweet nothings through screen doors. Making ends meet and staying optimistic takes a mighty, consistent effort, and they have my respect and gratitude always.

You might be thinking:

1) Some farmers sell non-local produce because they had a bad season.

2) Some only grow two things and want to sell their wares just like everyone else, want to make the trip to the market worth their while.

My rebuttal:

1) This has been a lovely, good-sun and good-rain growing season so far.

2) I see this practice most often among farmers who already have a dozen-plus different homegrown offerings. They set out all of their beautiful produce right next to watermelons from Georgia, picked unripe so they could travel the distance intact, when NJ’s own luscious melons will be in season in only two or so more weeks.

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Purple cabbage in noon-time sunshine.

It’s time—long overdue, to be perfectly honest—to take a page from Greenmarket in NYC. Many years ago when the Market was in its infancy some growers began showing up with bananas. The higher-ups ix-nayed that. Food was to be local, harvested within a certain number of miles, or it wasn’t allowed on the tables.

What’s keeping NJ—or any state or country’s market—from doing the same?

Pull it together,

MCP

*Actually, that you’re welcome to deep-six entirely.

**No, that’s not a typo.

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Seaweed on coral, Tortola

The recent warm days are making me think of barbecue season and the best barbecue I ever ate. Is it treason against the U.S. if I said it was on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands?

Right, we’ll come back to that. First let’s establish setting.

Tortola and Peter Island are two of the delicious Caribbean islands which we visited in early 2008. I was coming out of the throes of a years-long illness which led, at different points, to assorted travel whims. At this point in my recovery, I needed a change of scenery, just for a long weekend. And if it included pale turquoise water sliced with royal blue and had a view of hazy green islands, the kind Peter Pan and Wendy flew across, all the better.

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Tortola isn’t really remote, but it feels as if it is. The customs office is the size of a two-car garage. Chickens run around like squirrels everywhere you go; one of our taxi drivers waited to let a mommy and her seven tawny-colored chicks cross the road.* And a rooster was our 5am wake-up call.**

Our hotel, Long Bay Beach, is the kind of place where the cooking staff picks guava off the tree growing outside your window, every suite has its own hammock, and dawn comes up pink over the water. One whole wall of our room, the one that faced the water, was a sliding screen door, some ten feet long. We left it open whenever we were in the room, loving the balmy wind so much that we even put shells and rocks on anything likely to blow away. One morning on our way to breakfast, a blue macaw flew right over our heads.

Dawn, Long Bay Beach, Tortola

Sand crab, Tortola

A very, very shy sand crab taken with a very, very good zoom.

Pelican, Tortola

A pelican we watched from our balcony as he dove up and down in the water, looking for fish.

Breakfast at the hotel was just my bag: fresh pineapple, banana, guava juice, cereal, yogurt and perfect homemade lemon poppy seed muffins.

First we took a day trip to Peter Island, population 1, because we planned to kayak from there to Dead Chest. This was the place where folklore says Blackbeard marooned 15 men–that’s a one-way island vacation in the middle of bloody nowhere—with just a bottle of rum between them. Everyone we spoke with on Peter Island told us it was nothing more than a giant rock, and dissuaded us from going.

Dead Chest Island, from Peter Island

There it is, across Deadman’s Bay–the appropriately dark island at left.

So we didn’t. Next time. But no worries; instead we hiked the island, which was all at once a glorious tropical Eden…

Peter Island, B.V.I.

Peter Island

and the American southwest, featuring spiky vegetation…

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…and spikier animals.

Sunning iguana, Peter Island

He didn’t budge in the 20 minutes we spent admiring him and his comrades on the rocks. Showboat.

The hills along the three-mile path we hiked were also home to mountain goats, skittish things that would tiptoe near you to get a better look, then would scamper away through the trees.

One more detail about the day trip to Peter Island is worth noting, and that’s the ferry ride. No sitting in the lower cabin and looking through the fogged-over windows for me. I only like ferries if they move at a really good clip and if I can stand right on the bow, letting the sea spray wash over my face and hair and dew-dropping the outermost layer of my clothes.*** This one did. And the view of the islands we passed was hypnotic.

On the way back from Peter Island to Tortola we shared the ferry with several locals returning home for the night. And we witnessed something so charming that it has stayed with me. Up on deck one of the gentlemen broke out some Dominoes and set them on a table. I deducted that this game was played on the ferry every night because other men fell in very smoothly, in a loose and easy choreography. Empty five-gallon buckets were upended for seats, and players joined and left from time to time, including a uniformed kid in charge of the ferry and a grizzled older sailor, an American ex-pat who now lived on Tortola. ‘I haven’t played in 25 years, but what the hell,’ he said, and stayed in for the rest of the ride back. What struck me most was how relaxed and comfortable everyone was with each other, and it was a reminder of how much joy is accessible in the simple. I could see why one would want to slide out of an old life, as if out of a jacket worn too thin at the elbows, and sink happily into a life like this.

Time to eat.

We asked our cabbie about the Bomba Shack, which Frommer’s listed as the ticket for barbecue in this part of the Caribbean. And apparently on Wednesdays and Sundays they offered all you can eat for $10/plate. Hello.

He stopped next to a set of shacks that looked as if they’d been decorated by a group of pre-teen surfers after a ten-box Mallomar binge.

Bomba Shack, Tortola

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How to explain this place? Here’s one way: The owners apparently have created a god of sorts called Bomba whose nature isn’t clear, and Google was no help. But you’re encouraged to offer sacrifices to it (note underwear, above).

Here’s another way: The Bomba Shack serves shroom-spiked tea when the moon is full.****And they give it to you for free because they aren’t allowed to sell it. The menu is scrawled onto plywood out front. Music—emanating from speakers taller than me—is cranked up to levels that could orbit Jupiter, and grill smoke and customers alike float between the shacks. We paid the cabbie right in the middle of the street and went looking for dinner.

The party is on one side of the street. There, to a very friendly American woman behind a counter, we shrieked that we wanted two plates’ worth; she grinned, took our money and gave us tickets. The cook (a single woman) and picnic tables are on the other side of the street.

You have a choice of barbecued chicken or ribs. Both come with corn on the cob and red beans with rice, and I’ll stop here to bring up a concern that I’m sure is swimming through your logic-loving minds: Exactly what kind of lunatics eat at an open-air shack on a dirt road, one whose owners hand out drugs and worship a deity with a preference for women’s panties?

I’m not saying you don’t have a point. But we did it. One bite of that meal and all sense floated out to sea with the grill smoke. The barbecue sauce had a no-BS kick, and the meat from the chicken and the ribs slid off the bone with no embarrassment whatsoever. It was delectable—one of the great meals of our lives. We shared a table with some amiable Australians, licked our fingers and grinned at each other. Lunacy loves company.

Then we crossed the street to watch the surfers cut through waves shimmering from the apricot-colored sunset, soaking even further into a place where the night wind smells like earth and salt water.

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*For the obvious reason.

**Click the rooster link. Long Bay Beach is yellow–but a muted yellow. Not a biggie.

***My first name comes from the Latin word for ‘sea’ (mars). The genitive is ‘maris’ (of the sea). Put an ‘a’ on the end and you make it feminine: Girl of the sea. Yes, I’m a mermaid. My parents didn’t do this intentionally, but there it is.

****No, we didn’t. The moon wasn’t full, anyway.

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Helpful tip to nighttime travellers to Bora Bora: Be smarter than we were and bring a pocket Mag flashlight, because the porters schlep all of the 80 some-odd suitcases from the ferry on bunch of metal dollies, then unceremoniously dump them onto the dock and walk away. Without light you’ll be climbing blind with everyone else through the heap as if looking for your kid among a group of refugees; and even though yours is wearing an orange ribbon, so are 17 others, so good luck with that.

Kind of a dubious start to the last leg of the vacation, but unlike Taha’a, where we’d just left, the weather the next day was warmer and the sky sunny. Good omen—and, turned out, an accurate one.

Bougainvillea, Bora Bora

Bougainvillea in the morning light.

I had begun this voyage feeling pretty ragged, physically and mentally, the result of years of sickness (and sick of being sick). Bora Bora was the point underneath the pushpin of this whole nutty idea I had to span half the planet. I wanted to absorb that elusive je ne sais quoi, that whatever it was I needed, body and soul, from the blue water I had heard about. I started stitching my wounds back on Mo’orea, in the ray water, and I finished here. I wasn’t 100% healed, but I felt as though what needed attending, what needed dressing, had been. It’s been said that sometimes healing comes from unexpected people, places and things. This felt like a beneficent conspiracy between my psyche (overwhelmed, exhausted, but apparently still intuitive) and these islands. Why this blue, why these islands? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It worked.

These pictures come pretty close to doing the color of the water justice, and I’m grateful, because I really wanted you to see what I saw. It’s a profound, otherworldly blue. I live on the NJ coast, just 3.5 blocks to the ocean. But the Atlantic is like McEnroe—he’s fantastic, but in the front of your mind is always, always the knowledge that he could flatten you at any second.

In contrast, the coral reefs that surround French Polynesia prevent anything more than low tide-sized waves. They lap against the white sand all day long, like a friendly Shih-Tzu, drawing you in. When you do, when you stand out in the middle of the water, you don’t have to fight it. It accommodates you, this astonishingly clear aquamarine color rippling around your waist. You can look straight down to the ocean floor at your feet, at shells, and at any errant, vibrantly colored fish.

Click on this shot…lean toward your space heater (what I’m doing right now as I type this) and get your feet wet with me.

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Below is a good shot of the stripey water. It announces the water’s depth: the darker, the deeper.

Hammock, Novotel Bora Bora

At the Novotel Bora Bora Hotel, looking out to sea over one of those groovy infinity pools.

We visited these islands in the austral winter, in late May-early June. ‘Windswept’ is the best way to describe Bora Bora’s Neverland-like dreaminess, and this image illustrates it well.

Windy day, Bora Bora

Some self-important travellers call this island ‘Bora Boring’. I’ll grant that you do more or less have to be a water/watersport person, or a content-to-lie-on-the-beach person, or a deep-pocketed person who can afford the 4×4 tours that take you into the heart of the island to see maraes and World War II cannons. Nightlife is zipola. There’s not much of a town to speak of. We spent most of the travel kitty on the motu picnic back on Mo’orea, so doing anything pricey here was out of the question.

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Excuse me, but why isn’t US currency so awesome looking?

But I say more or less because we really were happy just to wander. Each morning we walked along the only traversable road, the one that encircles the island, about a mile away from the hotel. For breakfast we ate wonderful croissants, slices of fresh baguette and local fruit and drank mango juice. Once, on our way back to the hotel, we took the beach instead of the road and looked for shells. Another day we took a walk into town and bought a little sack of vanilla beans and a couple of necklaces from a lady under an awning. Turns out the island attitude as well as the water had soaked into us, and that attitude’s name is RELAX.

Local color, Bora Bora

Local color.

When I remember Bora Bora, I think of vignettes, little freeze frames that reveal the unique flavor of the place.

I think of a little boy, about five years old, getting into his mom’s car. All he was wearing was a grin—not even shoes—and he was what my own mom would call brown as a berry. Going around starkers in public is something I will obviously never experience, but with my fair complexion, neither will I know the freedom of never having to wear sunblock. Every day of my life I wear it, and always will. I envied him.

I think of a stray dog we saw on the street one day, standing in a deep puddle, looking into it and wagging furiously. There must have been a fish or a crab in the water, and he was totally entertained, just walking back and forth with his muddy paws, trying to anticipate where whatever it was would go next. It was adorable. And I think of another stray dog on the beach, barking and wagging at a woman. Turns out she was throwing a small coconut into the water and he was retrieving it, over and over.

I think of the local guys zipping around on mopeds, doing stunts that would have driven Evel Knievel to take up stamp collecting. First they’d peel out down the road, then they’d do wheelies, and then they’d stand on their seats at the same time. One guy after another. No helmets. Laughing. I kept wondering if I was destined to remember Bora Bora as the island where I saw a man die right in front of me. Thankfully it never happened. Never, either, did I see cops or law enforcement of any kind. The attitude on Bora Bora is not just RELAX but also laissez faire.*

And I think of the food. Some of it is meh (like pizza crust, predictably frozen), but pizza toppings were always good. The Mai Tai Polynesia Hotel had a pie covered with ham and hot, fresh chunks of sweet local pineapple. For dessert we had their delicious banana tatin with a dip of vanilla ice cream.**

Baguettes in grocery store, Bora Bora

Baguettes for the taking in the local supermarche.

One place we frequented for dinner had lousy service (Michael likened it to our 1998 Orlando, FL visit to a Waffle House, which shared its philosophy: ‘Committed to getting you the hell out of here as quickly as possible’) but we kept going to La Bounty because their chocolate cake was outrageous. Dense, creamy, flourless, topped with hot fudge and chopped almonds and pistachios. And it was warm. And it came with a little pitcher full of creme anglaise, because if you’re eating this cake anyway, why just dip your toes in when you could be swimming in happiness?

I sound like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The island was settled by the FRENCH.

One place we went to was a certified home run—food, service, atmosphere—and that place was Bloody Mary’s.

A board outside showcased all of the famous people who have eaten there. And this guy was right outside the door. At night he gets spotlighted in green.

Tiki, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Bloody Mary’s has sand for a floor and lacquered wooden tables and stools. They also have an incredible cheeseburger, appropriately named ‘The Jimmy Buffett’, and equally incredible local coconut ice cream.

Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Wooden stool, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Cool close-up.

We had the place to ourselves for the most part until an inevitable feral cat wandered in, as laissez faire as management. He was quiet, but effectively communicated his opinion on the best place for cheeseburgers.

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Pigs. Share.

As enjoyable as the food at Bloody Mary’s was, the bathrooms were even better. The one for les femmes was outfitted with a sink made of pebbles that went right up the wall. No taps. When you pulled a chain from the ceiling, after a beat, water trickled down in a wide stream from the top pebbles into a basin in the center. This thing KILLED me.

Pour les hommes: Well…I’m told the urinal featured a phallic flush pull-chain.

Hanging at home on my wall I have a vintage printer’s rack in which I display rocks from famous and unforgettable places all over the world. From this trip I have a rock from the water beneath our bungalow on Mo’orea, a lava stone from a marae on Raiatea, and a cement-like rock from the garden in the bathroom at Bloody Mary’s. Sentimental sap, me.

Leaving Bora Bora

*Something I forgot to tell you that further proves this point: In our room at the Club Bali Ha’i on Mo’orea, on the wall was a framed letter which in very polite language stated something along the lines of, ‘We realize there may be uneven stepping stones on some of the paths here, or there may be some overhanging branches over others, or that your room walls and floors may have exposed pipes, etc. Please take into consideration that what is construed as dangerous where you are from (most visitors to Tahiti are Americans, Australians or Japanese), it is not necessarily construed as dangerous to islanders. Please try to relax and have a good time.’

**French Polynesia does way better with restaurant desserts than the US. They not only taste better, but they’re a better value. A basic US restaurant will want $7 or more for their desserts, and in my experience, more often than not, it’s a sugary, chemical-laden, very recently boxed and frozen little sliver of something onto which is piled cheap ice cream and pretend whipped cream. Your gracious restaurant hosts are betting you will be too impressed/distracted by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice that they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. On these islands, for all we knew they might have served us some frozen desserts. But even if they were, they were bloody good quality, and for the equivalent of $7 or so you got a lot for your money.

By the way, if you are very reasonably wondering why I haven’t posted any pictures of the food we ate on this trip, it’s because we took the trip when I was not yet a food writer. Being a lifelong writer and a lifelong, rabid foodie, though, I took copious notes about WHAT we ate. Thank goodness.

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Raiatea

Mo’orea–>Raiatea and Taha’a.

Which was a great time, but before we get there I want to relay the essential differences between airport regulations in the US versus those in the South Pacific, and here they are: Locals go barefoot in the airport, and feral cats mosey freely in and out of the open doors and beg for a piece of your lagoon fish sandwich. I’m trying to imagine what Newark Airport would look like with the travelers free-footing it all hakuna matata, at customs and everywhere else in the building, while expertly swerving their Samsonite Tri-Core spinners to avoid hitting some 25 well-fed, roaming tortoiseshells.*

To put an even finer point on the no-shoe thing, the guy who picked us up from the airport and took us to Sunset Beach Motel sported a sun-bleached ponytail, equally sun-bleached tank and board shorts and chic French accent, but he wore no shoes the entire time we stayed. That includes driving and walking us into the local grocery store. I think it’s safe to assume that right now, this exact minute, he’s barefoot. On these islands you’re in flip flops, worn until the soles are translucent, or you’re barefoot. It’s awesome.

The above is offered to give you an idea of just how remote Raiatea is, and let me know if it did the job. Next to Mo’orea—which is pretty far-flung, I’ll grant; the locals cook their dinner in the ground as often as in the oven—Raiatea feels like the tropical outback. Yes, there’s a bit of civilization, but I felt more isolated on this island than anywhere I’ve ever been. It was a usually exhilarating, oftentimes uneasy feeling of being quite literally Nowhere. I love the feeling of being detached from what I know well; I love seeing vegetation and landscapes unlike anything I’ve seen before. Here I felt pushed to the teetering edge, to the razor-thin sliver, of that feeling. Which is good for a girl now and again.

Back to the food in the grocery store, because you knew I wasn’t going to let that slide. I love food shopping in foreign places. Here (as well as in Scotland and on the Caribbean islands I’ve visited) eggs are left out on the counter. Produce is exotic and spiny. And the vanilla yogurt wasn’t like any vanilla yogurt I have tasted, and believe you me, I live on Stonyfield. The stuff doesn’t even taste like vanilla, to tell you the truth. It’s not mellow and sweet; it’s tangy, sharp and floral. We ate cups of this every morning for breakfast and liked it more every day.

That was our cottage below; our living room strewn with freshly picked hibiscus (the bedroom and bathroom were, too); and the view of the ocean from our porch.

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Sunset Beach Motel, Raiatea

The dock was ours alone to use. The tiny island of Taha’a was visible on the horizon, as was Bora Bora. Snorkelling was terrific off the dock. Floating with fins and a mask, arms at my side, it was very easy to feel like one of the fish—a dreamy and exquisitely peaceful feeling. At night we lay on our backs and looked up at the stars. In so very remote a place, with so little electricity being used, they looked like rock salt thrown across black velvet.

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Twice we had dinner at The Sea Horse restaurant in town. When we first made the reservation, the guy on the phone said he’d come pick us up and bring us back. A little weird, but the lady at the front desk said that was a courtesy the restaurant typically gives, and not to worry about it.**

So we’re in the car with this guy and he casually tells us he’s not just the driver but the owner of the restaurant. We were speechless—can you imagine Eric Ripert chauffeuring you back and forth to dinner? It was normal here. We got there without incident, and dinner was great. Michael’s fried rice with salty dried fish was especially incredible. I’m hitting up my Asian friends to help me find that fish here so I can replicate it. Dessert was profiteroles—puffs filled with local vanilla ice cream in a very, very thick chocolate sauce and served in a banana split bowl. Num.***

Raiatea is called ‘the sacred island’ because it features so many maraes (ma-REYES), ancient areas of worship marked with stones, much like Stonehenge and similar edifices throughout the UK. They’re humble and at the same time magnificent. In the US, if former President McKinley once hiccuped near a building, we put up a sign commemorating that heartfelt event. But something nice about this area of the world: You more or less happen upon places. Or you ask a local and they’ll point in a direction. And there are very few signs saying what’s what. Stuff is what it is, and that sort of lends dignity.

Here are two maraes on the water.

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Marae, Raiatea

One day we visited a family-run black pearl operation called Tahi. A sweet, energetic Polynesian girl, married to a Frenchman, was our guide. With a heavy French accent, she asked us if we could come back at 1 o’clock. We did, and I rolled down the window to call out to her, ‘Tu es pret (are you ready)?’ We had just met her and I should have used the more formal ‘vous,’ but I didn’t. And even though it’s five years later, even though I’m on the other side of this big blue ball and will likely never meet her again, I am still kicking myself for speaking to her in the informal.****

The girl took us along with three grinning young Frenchmen by speedboat out to the black pearl ‘farm’, the small, enclosed wooden hut on stilts a half mile or so out into the Pacific. There she and her family do the delicate, labor-intensive work of cultivating black pearls.

A pearl nuclei (they get them from Mississippi) will be placed into each of the oysters below, which are about the size of a bagel and quite flat and scaly. Then they’ll be put back into the water for something like three years.

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Here is a pearl, still rough, being extracted from its host oyster.

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And now polished.

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The shade a pearl becomes depends on the unique colors of its host. Below is an example of the variety of colors available, along with a white pearl nuclei, held by one of the grinning young Frenchmen. He spoke a little English and I spoke a little French. It was cool.

Black pearls, Raiatea

One night for dinner we went to a local pizza restaurant called Le Napoli. The wood burning stove was smoky and the place was enclosed, but it was loud and fun, and the Quatre Saisons, Four Seasons, pizza was yummy. It was divided into quarters and each had a different topping. Une famille with two cute little kids sat at the counter, and the cook gave them each a little piece of dough and plastic rollers, and they goofed with them and had a good time. For dessert we shared a scoop of local vanilla ice cream—we ate vanilla shamelessly and in every conceivable guise throughout this trip—and a scoop of taro, brownish/purplish, musky sweet.

We took another trip into town to get a highly recommended coconut milk at a highly recommended place, but the store hours we were given were wrong, plus the place didn’t sell it anyway, so curse you, Frommer’s Guide. Returned our car to the Avis dealership, where the proprietor’s daughter was sitting on the sofa with her bottle watching Dora the Explorer in French, which still sort of freaks me a little.

It was time to pack up and leave Raiatea. We’d board the next puddle jumper to Bora Bora right after a day trip to Taha’a, one of the ‘vanilla islands.’

I’d read that there were places in the South Seas in which the very air smelled like vanilla. So entranced were we with this notion that we had to find out. And okay, Taha’a was not one of those places, but despite its very small population and drizzly weather, that island was such an adventure that it didn’t matter what it smelled like.

We met the tour group on a dock; the director, Edwin, was a cross between Don Juan and Buddy Hackett, if both of them spoke French. He assured us that once we got to Taha’a his son would take over in English for those of us who hadn’t spoken a word of French since college. (Cough.) In the meantime, I translated what he said to Michael, which was not missed by Edwin, who got quite the bang out of it.

Once we arrived on the island we got into 4x4s and headed to a vanilla plantation, where we toured the fields…

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…learned that vanilla, an orchid varietal, must be hand pollinated and sun dried…

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…and saw vanilla pods in various stages of curing. Below are unripe pods in a muslin sack with ripened pods. The smell of vanilla inside the little building was almost intoxicating, and we wouldn’t have minded getting drunk on it. Tahitian vanilla is quite different from Madagascar’s, which may be more prevalent in the US, and which might explain why the vanilla yogurt I was eating in French Polynesia was a completely different animal from what I’d eaten at home all of my life. Not to knock Madagascar vanilla, but they’re slimmer and have less going on. Tahitian pods are large, moist, soft, plump as raisins, and intensely aromatic. (When I got home and started eating garden-variety US vanilla yogurt again, it tasted kind of lackluster, vanilla-wise. I had gotten used to being clobbered with that Tahitian flavor.)

Tahitian vanilla beans, Taha'a

Next was the trek to lunch through the interior of the island. Driving along the bumps in the road (and please apply that term in the loosest possible way—imagine strapping old car batteries, Progresso soup cans, and empty 1-gallon plastic bottles of Tide to your car tires, and now drive) took about an hour. But it was a veritable jungle, Rudyard Kipling on his best day, with dense palms, fruit bearing trees, and tiny, vibrantly colored wild orchids wound around tree trunks. Again, it was breathtaking to be in an entirely new environment, even if it required shaking loose a few molar fillings to enjoy it.

Edwin pulled over to a little clearing and with a long knife stripped a branch from a wild hibiscus tree, cut off and reinserted a portion of it, notched it and had made a flute. His son jumped out another time and said, ‘I’m just going to get an anaconda,’ which we (okay, I) half believed; he came back holding an oddly shaped fruit. He split it in half and held it out to me, saying how sweet it smelled. Then he almost wet his board shorts laughing at me when I bought it, because it smelled like bleu cheese that had been left overnight in the trunk of a Plymouth. Now I see noni fruit everywhere in the US, at exorbitant prices. Marketers tout it as a cure-all, and so did he, deadpanning, ‘I’m actually 89 years old, not 30.’

Edwin stopped now and then to cut down ripe papayas and other fruits with his groovy knife (see him and groovy knife below with a coconut). Lunch was at his house, and his wife prepared it all: poisson cru (very popular Tahitian dish; it’s like tuna ceviche, made with coconut milk and lime juice), mahi mahi with a vanilla cream sauce (I loved how locals used vanilla in savory dishes as well as sweet ones), coconut bread, sashimi, fish balls and rice. The fruit Edwin had collected was our dessert. Papaya, pineapple, banana and guava, chopped up into fruit salad and all so meltingly ripe that it was half fruit and half juice. Never saw the inside of a refrigerator, either; and without the distraction of being cold we could taste the nuances of every sweet, floral, succulent, crazy-beyond-organic fruit. He joked that it was Del Monte. They wish.

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French Polynesia, and especially Raiatea, has one more charm, and that’s its gecko population. These little dudes are everywhere, including in your hotel room, including including in your bathroom, making me think twice about leaving the light off to sit on the toilet in the middle of the night (and once there WAS one on the toilet seat, and I shooed him away because he was way too tiny and cute to die in such a horrifying way). Geckos can be anywhere from an inch to maybe a foot long. When they crawl they sashay their little hips from side to side. We kept our carry-ons tightly zippered the whole time we were on Raiatea just in case any had delusions of adventure.

Gecko, Raiatea

There it is, on the horizon: Next stop, last stop…

Bora Bora.

Bora Bora, from Raiatea

*Kind of sounds like a gas. Not that our overburdened health system could handle it.

**It’s amazing how much trust we gave the people on this trip. I’m not kidding. First the sharks and then this. We’d seen the Indiana Jones trilogy countless times, plus are from the NY metropolitan tri-state area, and freely admit, ‘AAAAAH he says he’s from the restaurant but it’s really his shifty brother-in-law and he’s going to spear us or whatever they kill you with out here and leave us to be eaten by pythons and feral cats’ was the first thing that went through our minds. But if you think about it, what do we know about stateside taxi drivers, or car service guys? We jump in their cars without thinking. We trust them. Why, in God’s name? Do you ever wonder?

(To my newest readers, this is exactly the brand of lunacy I find myself paddling around in from time to time. Friendly heads up. Welcome to me.)

***The island kept surprising me. When we rented a car (a citron-colored Citroen, in the land of citron, no less!), the woman who dropped it off to us was brought back to the Avis office in a Rolls-Royce.

****Another fine example to illustrate the parenthetical statement, above.

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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A week or so ago I started feeling overwhelmed—by everything, by nothing. All of the details of my life swarmed up and around me and my concentration was like a hummingbird’s: I went from place to place and from thought to thought but couldn’t seem to finish anything. I wasn’t really cooking, either. I kept a bunch of elements—cheese, wraps, vegetables, yogurt—in the refrigerator, but there wasn’t anything prepared, no go-to meals ready for when I was starving at 12:15pm. Each day on my calendar had a list attached of stuff to do, but I still felt as though time was getting away from me, that I wasn’t spending it wisely. And worst of all, I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do about it because I couldn’t settle on one thought for long enough to accomplish anything. It was frustrating to say the least.

And yet…amid all of this chaos, quiet, insistent thoughts nudged me from time to time. They felt like life preservers, ways I could pull myself out of this anxiety. I didn’t know if they really were, because they sounded so ordinary.

I want to bake bread again.

I want the house to feel cleaner.

I want to rest.

One afternoon I decided to find out if these thoughts had any merit. I cancelled everything on my to-do list, and instead I would clean and cook. As I took out the vacuum, I felt a bit of serenity bloom in my chest, sort of wrapping itself around the stress and neutralizing it. That night I made banana bread for my breakfast so I could have a proper breakfast all week. Chopped up a leftover dark chocolate bar into the batter just for fun. As it baked it smelled peaceful—really it did. Homey. And I made enough zucchini cakes to last me the week.

They’re so simple that they’re hardly a recipe: The day before you want to eat them, take a bunch of zucchini, however much you want, green, yellow or both. Wash well of grit (especially if you get them from a farm or a farmers market). Chop off the ends, slice the zucchini into wedges into your Cuisinart, and blitz. Turn the whole thing out into a strainer (or if you have a ton, into a colander set over a bowl). Put it into the fridge to drain. You want it to be pretty dry.

The next day, take it out and add chopped onion, an egg or two, salt and pepper, and a crumbly cheese like feta or ricotta salata. Stir it all up.

Turn your oven to 350. Take out a rimmed cookie sheet and line it with parchment. With your hands, form cakes out of handfuls of the zucchini mixture and place on the sheet. Bake for 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on how brown you like them. These are great dipped into hot sauce or left on their own, hot or cold. They’re healthy and satisfying, too.

By the time I went to bed my blood pressure had gone down to a soft beat and I felt delicious inside. Looking back I suppose it was deprivation that had been eating at me, that I had just needed to take care of myself better. I was, and still am, so surprised and happy that peace was accessible, and grateful that something in me told me what I needed to do. I didn’t have to hunt for it in a self-help book (which was good, because I never would have been able to concentrate on it) or try 714 different things at random in the hopes that they would pull me out of my anxiety. And paradoxically, by doing this I ended up getting the rest I needed; it was restful knowing I was in a clean house, and that I had great meals waiting for me.

I am sure I have probably offended some people, probably all of them women, by this account of what I did to make myself feel better. I guess it doesn’t seem like a feminist way to handle stress, that instead I should have been strapping on my attache for a corporate takeover or something like that. But I do consider myself a feminist—hard core. A clean house and a full larder is what worked for me, though I understand it wouldn’t be everyone’s way out. I admire any way a woman (or man, for that matter) is able to regain peace and a personal sense of power. Maybe that’s what the essence of feminism is, after all. Maybe it simply comes down to each woman knowing she has the ability and the right to do whatever she needs to do to get there.

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