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I found muscatel raisins after eight tries. Statistics show* most people give up on muscatels after two or three.

It’s not that I have a personal thing against Thompsons, the garden-variety dark raisins we all know. But an Irish reader gave me an old Christmastime recipe (‘Raisin Cake from the Blasket Islands’) that calls for a half-pound of muscatels, and I’ve never used them or even tasted them before. I wanted to honor the recipe, as well as the recipe writer, who gets a virtual kiss for translating archaic measurements like ‘a small knob of butter’ and ‘3 mugfuls of flour’ into modern measurements.

Muscatels are double or triple the size of Thompsons, and they tend to be described as ‘big and meaty.’ This was appealing. And I like trying new things, learning new things. This conviction is compelling enough that I called all over the county and into New York City looking for these raisins.

I found them in my own town—if you can believe it—walking a couple of blocks in sideways rain, in a tiny store frequented by our Middle Eastern residents. The place had big cans of coconut milk, pita bread (they call it ‘Syrian bread’), and delectable staples like kibbe and sanbusak. The clear plastic container, labeled Rasins, cost $3 for over a pound. And man alive, they’re big and meaty.

When I made the cake, I plumped up the raisins even more in a festive trifecta of warm water, my homemade vanilla extract, and my newly distilled crab apple schnapps. There they are above, luxuriating in their boozy Jacuzzi.

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Rare mid-recipe action shot, which I avoid because I am very messy in the kitchen. Note the tight view.

Then a steam roll of ideas clicked together like IKEA end table joints when they actually fit, and the first came to me when I was nosing around the store. I was surrounded by unusual and exotic ingredients, so I got to thinking about techniques, and dishes, and cultures, and thought how wildly cool it is that there are so many different ways to live. Isn’t it the best kind of insane that if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cook with whole coriander seeds, I could? That all I have to do is sniff it, learn how other cultures use it, and do what they do (and, bonus round, eventually end up experimenting with it until I discover something new)? That all I have to do is be curious about it in order to learn about it, and in doing so, my life gets a little bigger? That I can choose this?

…Then a friend posted about personal integrity via arbitrary food preferences, and I thought about how much I love differences of opinion** because Miss Sociology Nerd always finds it fascinating, expansive. (As I write this, another friend asked if I wanted to go out for Filipino food next week. How exciting is that? I get to taste flavors I’ve never tasted before!)

…Then I got to thinking about the socio-political atrocities in the news lately, and how much I believe it’s based on narrow-minded thinking that inevitably leads to narrow-minded acting.

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Just took it out of the oven, and it smells like a very buttery soda bread. And then I put it back in because the center sunk pitifully. I cut into it and it was all goopy. Nice. My tester lies like a tourist on a beach towel.

And here’s what I came up with: The problem is that insidious narrow-minded thinking. And it’s deliberate. Why in the name of the earth, heavens, and all assorted cherubim would we choose to make our lives smaller rather than bigger?

It’s a broader topic than one blog can tackle, much less a food blog, and I’m sure there’s more than one culprit. But if we want to discuss one of them:

I can remember a time in my own life when I made a point to make my life smaller, too. It was when I was really sick, stress sick from old crap that had been piling up unresolved for too long, and really, really terrified. My health was so erratic from day to day that I wanted routine and predictability in every other aspect of life. After about seven years I was pretty much clear of it, and wanted adventure on both a micro and micro scale.***

If my story sounds familiar and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s at least part of what’s keeping you from a big life, please take this as an emphatic nudge. It’s new-leaf time. We need to shake off the crap that we end up wearing for years on end, like Miss Havisham in her old wedding dress, worn every single day since she was stood up at the altar decades earlier. Old crap can’t be wished away; would that it could. And a mantra like ‘serenity now’—yeah, that doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

1) Tell the truth. Now tell the rest.

2) Spread it all out on the table, every little bit.

3) Get a coach to help you sift through it. Discuss, discern, discard.

4) Mourn whatever needs mourning. Then take off the damn dress.

The cake is out of the oven for the second time and I’m having a slice at tea time. Can’t wait to taste the difference between these raisins and Thompsons, as well as the difference between a cooked cake and one that has a center like lava.

Wishing you a life as big and meaty as a muscatel raisin.

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*Exhaustively researched by someone other than me. It’s possible.

**As long as—and this is a big as long as—they’re delivered respectfully and don’t attack anyone.

***We’d gone to Disney World every year and suddenly I wanted to go to the French Polynesia. Macro.

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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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