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Baking is not the terrifying thing people make it out to be. Truly, this week you dealt with health insurance, nursed a cold, got rear-ended on a major highway, and had your umbrella blow inside out twice.* After that, putting one’s hands in flour and chopping chocolate is a proven way to set everything to rights, to regain control and start over. And it soothes like nothing else right now, during what can be the coldest month of the year.**

I actually made two soda breads this month. Every March I dream of what soda bread riff I want to do. This year I added blood orange juice and zest, cloves, cinnamon, 65% cacao chocolate chunks, a dose of Grand Marnier, and instead of cow’s milk yogurt I think I used goat’s. The juice added to the yogurt made the dough faintly pink, which I thought was hilarious, and was sorry to see the color kind of fade in the oven. But it was a winner. That’s it above. I pulled pieces off and munched on them warm.

Then for my sister’s birthday I made another soda bread and added unsweetened coconut flakes, 72% cacao chocolate, and a few glugs of Malibu. It was basically a boozy Mounds bar tucked inside some bread. An unorthodox birthday cake. She was a fan.

Today I made a pizza I’ve been wanting to recreate since 2008, when I visited Mo’orea, an island off Tahiti. The shack on the side of the road is called Allo Pizza. Mo’orean locals are generally French speakers and French food eaters with a healthy hunger for fish and their lovely tropical produce. It’s not a combination that calls to mind pizza, but there it was. I wasn’t a food writer then, not officially, but I kept a journal that documented what we did and what we ate; and praise Jesus, or I wouldn’t remember the toppings on this pie: fresh tuna (they call it ‘lagoon fish,’ caught across the street), capers, anchovies, Parmesan, garlic, and herbes de Provence. It’s an unlikely combination, but so was being halfway around the world and eating on the street while dodging guys doing wheelies on mopeds. We did notice that no one wore gloves while handling the toppings, and that there was no refrigeration for the fish. So only we ate there for lunch, as soon as it opened. And just the same, we waited to get sick, but it never happened.

The tuna below was not caught across the street but caught from behind the counter at Whole Foods, a reasonable substitute. It was great fun to make, warming and delicious, wheelies or no wheelies.

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*Yep , right here.
**Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa used to say, ‘When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.’ I can never remember when I parked at Target, but this I remember.

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Sat dumbfounded on my papered seat recently when my doctor told me I had to save meat for special occasions. I don’t mean red meat; I more or less already save that for the odd barbecue, and it’s not that big of a deal to me. I mean my mainstays—chicken and turkey.

But but but but they’re low fat, I said. They’re not as high in fat as red meat, but it’s still all saturated fat, she replied. I was in shock, although I did wake up to enjoy the little verse she performed for me next. Something about eating things that walk on all fours versus things that swim. Finger-plays for adults.

I love weirdo fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies. But I never imagined they would so easily replace poultry for me, and moreover, that it would not bother me that much. That was the second shock.

Now I’m eating mackerel with horseradish mustard stirred in, scooped up with organic blue corn chips like a bleeding hipster, and for breakfast like a crazy person. I love it. I’m having fun picking out new condiments to try as well. The mustard is great; so’s chipotle hot sauce. Trader Joe’s Thai Green Curry Simmer was a disappointment, as it’s almost flavorless and is the same stricken color of the chairs at the DMV to boot. Looking forward to making my own hot sauces again, along with a new recipe for spicy lemon pickle, a recipe from India. It calls for fenugreek seeds and has to sit in the sun for a week. Clearly I’m in.

I’ve been saving poultry, and eggs as well, for every now and then. Gave in a couple of days ago and made myself a new recipe, below. Cut the sugar back by half (see once again and unremittingly: crazy person), cut the eggs down from five to three, and enjoyed one of the smoothest, velvety-est desserts I’ve ever had: old-fashioned lemon pie. Can’t have fish for breakfast every day, after all.

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Ready for action: chocolates in background, toothpicks and drop cup in foreground.

I’m a lifelong sweet-maker/eater, which in my case means I grew up making Duncan Hines cakes and somewhere along the line had a bite of homemade (the cold-truth wallop I needed). Today, a local specialty bakery sells my homemade candy, and occasionally I cater desserts for parties—with everything scratch-made. I can tell if a cookie has butter in it or shortening. I can tell Hershey’s from Mama Ganache*.

But there’s a whole lot I didn’t know, like, just for starters, that Japan has a taste-bud-blowing way with chocolate. Where did that come from? They know from fish, yes; delectable noodles, yes; immaculate presentation and technique, for sure. Chocolate…?

Well, first things first: all quality products start with a mindset of caring. You have to care; and if you do, the product will follow.

When I tried Royce’ Chocolate’s candies in the Village recently and was asked to come back to their Madison Avenue location for a more comprehensive tasting—well, at first I dilly-dallied, right, like you just met me, no, I was stunned at the luxurious mouth feel of these candies, and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Asian chocolates. I’m in.

The story of Royce’ Chocolate starts on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. Do you need a daydream worthy of usurping your job for an hour? Here: the island looks like the landscape beneath the snow-capped Alps, but carpeted in flowers. Google image Hokkaido because I’m not doing it justice. There really are places on earth that look like this. I kind of want to go now.

Here live the cows that produce milk and cream that are the basis of this chocolate. They get to eat what grows on Hokkaido. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time with artisanal cheesemakers who will tell you that what cows eat factors immeasurably into the final product, and which sounds obvious because it is. Look at a Hokkaido photo. I figure anything that ate what grew out of that ground would produce something akin to rainbows.

A final and groovy note: Royce’ Chocolate is easily more stringent about cleanliness than the Mayo Clinic. Workers must wear special uniforms and then go through fans that blow extraneous dust off of them as they enter work areas. Not impressed yet? The factory was deliberately designed without right angles, where dirt and dust can collect. Thank you very much.

Okay. So.

What we ate (my sister came along. Oh, the belabored arm twisting. You can tell we’re related.)

Potato Chip Chocolate Fromage Blanc–I’m open-minded, and I love chocolate, and potato chips, and cheese, but this threw me. I thought it would taste okay, tops. No. Awesome. Addictive.  Each chip is coated in white chocolate and fromage blanc cheese. Salty, crunchy, sweet, creamy.

Potato Chip Chocolate Original–Coated on one side with milk chocolate. This keeps the chips from becoming flabby; they were good and thick, and had a great crunch.

Maccha Almond Chocolates–Roasted almonds coated in white chocolate and then with green tea chocolate. (An obligatory word about white chocolate. Many hate it; to me, it’s always been just okay. I tried theirs, and forgive me for sounding like a QVC commercial, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever tried. It tastes like homemade vanilla fudge.)

Baton Cookie Hazel Cacao–A fragile, crisp hazelnut cookie, coated on one side with dark chocolate and infused with cacao nibs.

Marshmallow Chocolate Milk Coffee–I love these cuties. Tater-tot-sized marshmallows coated with coffee chocolate. Soft and lovely.

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Pure Chocolates Venezuela Bitter & Ghana Sweet–Simple medallions that showcase several different chocolate varieties, from white all the way to 90% cacao (that’s 90% cacao to 10% sugar). I love dark chocolate, but don’t usually go above the upper 60s because it usually tastes like dirt, to put it plainly. I tried the 80% and then the 90%, and was genuinely surprised that no matter how high the percentage, it remained smooth and complex. Not bitter at all. How did they do that? I’ll always be a 60s girl, but this was delicious.

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Prafeuille Chocolat Maccha–Green tea sauce sandwiched between green tea-infused chocolate. Very delicate and aromatic.

Duo Praline–Soft, white Maccha chocolate with ground green tea, covered with fragrant green tea sauce, and further covered in a milk chocolate shell.

Chocolate Wafers Hazel Cream–A really good-quality version of the wafer-and-icing cookies we grew up devouring. These have hazelnut cream between the wafers and are coated with chocolate.

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And these tasted like chilled chocolate butter cream.

Many thanks to Athena Pappas, who did the gracious inviting, serving, and question-answering. She’s at the Madison Avenue store. (They have three locations—here as well as in Bryant Park and the Village.)

I’m happy to chirp about a company I like, so please take this as an emphatic chirp: this chocolate is exquisite for holiday gifts, unlike any your giftees have tasted. Royce’ Chocolates made with cream need refrigeration, and the stores provide a complimentary ice pack and insulating bag for them.

Have a creamy Christmas.

Royce’ Chocolate

New York, NY

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*Then again, so can a lemur.

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Classic adage:

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, lawyer and epicure

Modern adage and same thing:

Walk me through your checkout line and I’ll tell you who you are.

-Elinor Lipman, novelist and presumably epicure

Some say the surest way to learn about past cultures is not by examining their history books, but by examining their cookbooks. Point well taken: The food on your great-grandparents’ table was a manifestation of their priorities, skills and resources. From planning it to growing, harvesting, cooking and serving it, their world and worldview were distilled down to a particular bread and soup. And it’s no different for us today. The food we choose to eat reflects who we are, how we live and what matters to us.

I’ve written before about my mom’s incredible banana bread above. I love it because my mom made it, because it’s said incredible, and because it’s a scratch recipe. That tells you I value 1) caring effort (especially when, in her case, the smell of raw bananas turns her stomach) 2) good food 3) integrity. I still make it today because all of those points matter to me. They are at the heart of who I am.

Think about what you eat and what it says about you. Maybe you have to have your cherry pie with whipped cream because that’s how it was always served at your aunt’s July 4th barbecue. You miss her, and eating cherry pie this way brings her close to you. Maybe you love fried conch. It’s your dream to live in Bermuda, and fried conch transports you to those pink beaches for a few moments. Or maybe you avoided your uncle’s killer yummy baklava until you were 30 because you knew it all but floated in a pound of melted butter and you were afraid you’d love it and bloat up to manatee levels. This shows you loved good food but you were body image conscious.*

Recently I met an Australian in his early 60s. I asked him what he grew up eating, and suddenly he lit up like a firefly, telling me about the fish he and his family caught—speared, actually!—when he was young. And although he had lived in the States for a very long while and had not eaten some of those varieties of fish in decades, he told me he could still remember how they tasted. His love of adventure, fresh food, his homeland, and his family came through with every word and gesture.

It’s a good rule of thumb, actually: Just met someone new and want to get to know him? Ask him what dinnertime was like at his house. Watch his expression and listen carefully to the words he chooses to describe it. His answer will reveal a lot about him, I promise you.

Let’s go one step further: I read about a food historian who could compile a family’s story—its heritage, its strengths and weaknesses, even its dirty laundry—with astonishing accuracy, simply by hearing what that family ate every Thanksgiving. Food and culture are hardwired.

That godawful string bean casserole with the onion topping makes it onto your Thanksgiving every year even though you hate it. You make it because your family loves it, and you love them. That says a lot about you, doesn’t it?

What dishes, flavors and ingredients are essential components of what make you, you?

***

project: you, me and the world: Reminder, everybody—the deadline for your recipes is June 27, 2013. I’m getting some fantastic stuff. Keep them coming 🙂

* My obscure references aren’t always about me!

/okay, fine, this one is too.

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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.

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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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