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Posts Tagged ‘salad’

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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I spent part of Christmas morning volunteering at the Salvation Army’s holiday party for the needy. Every square foot of the giant rec room was occupied with food, face painting, Santa, a live band, a walk-around magician, and a toy and winter clothing giveaway, all sponsored by a local Italian restaurant and many, many donors. Yes, we totally tripped over each other, but it was a gas.

I was manning the dish and takeout station when the little girl above came over just to show us her new teddy bear. She glowed like the sun and wiggled a lot, which is why the picture came out somewhat blurry. The woman serving salad beside me said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all it took for us to be that happy was a teddy bear?’

Below, our coats thrown into a heap in the kitchen by a box of aluminum serving pans. That’s mine above left, with the fuchsia scarf.

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The chef seasoning the next massive pan of macaroni and cheese.

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Mr. Cutie below isn’t afraid. And his mom has no qualms about joining him.

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The little boy on the right was very resourceful in thinking to use the box from his new truck as a tray for his two desserts. But he was so amped up that they slid off. I’m actually surprised he made it to his table. This was shot just before both desserts took a splat.

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Face painting, patience, and another pink slip owner.

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A gentleman who came through the buffet had this around his neck, and I said, ‘I love your plane! Did you make that? It’s from an Arizona can!’ He looked amazed and said, ‘Yeah! And you’re the first person I’ve met who knew it was a plane!’

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*A woman came through the buffet line with two children, and I asked her if she wanted plates as well as takeaway boxes. (Both would have been fine.) She said, ‘Oh, no, just the plates; I want to be respectful.’

*Another woman had her eye on some winter gloves being offered free of charge, but didn’t feel comfortable going to the table to get them, so she asked me to be her scout. She was quite earnest; had the color all picked out because she could see them at a distance. I got some for her pal, too. When I brought them over she grinned and high-fived me.

*As I handed out bags of apples and oranges, a man snagged my sleeve and said, ‘Thanks, honey. Merry Christmas.’

*A man in a purple jacket came through the line with a cane featuring a beautifully carved eagle head. I said, ‘That’s gorgeous! Did you make that?’ He tipped up his chin and smirked and said, ‘I designed it!’

Speaking of birds, here are two outside the building with a Christmas bagel. Sounds counter-intuitive, but there it is.

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The deliciousness continued that afternoon, hiking in the Currier-and-Ives-like rolling hills and pastures of Navesink, and shooting as much of the dramatic light as I could…

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..and eating a great deal of the sour cream coffee cake I bake myself every year.

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My Raggedy Ann (circa 1970) always sits under my tree, which is in my room so I can look at the lights as I fall asleep. Sometimes when I refill the water in the base I accidentally bump into her and she flops flat backwards, which kills me every time. She’s old and stained, but she’s still got comic mojo.

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Peace and blessings.

 

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I ate a slice of apple pie at a restaurant on Friday night. It sat on a plate that was predictably be-squiggled in caramel. It had such sharp edges you could have used it to slice diamonds. It looked perfect—but it was in fact a triangle of sugar.* Heavens to Mergatroid, was it sweet. That was all I took away. Call me a zealot, but apple pie is supposed to taste like apples. Right?

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For hire.

This pie? Pump Gully Washer Slurpee intravenously into Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island while tossing yellow Skittles** into her mouth at nine-second intervals, and it will be a few degrees shy of how sweet this was.

And there was no butter in it. Twist the knife.

Sondheim’s Into The Woods hammers home a crucial point in the song ‘I Know Things Now’, Little Red’s post-mortem of her famous scuffle with the wolf. He’s a real smoothie. ‘Even flowers have their dangers….Nice is different than good,’ she tells the audience. There’s a difference, and it’s important to be able to discern one from the other.

You know what I mean, right? Go to any bakery and you’ll see offerings all pretty pretty inside glass cabinets. Many are over-the-top fancy, squares on a platter with Pollack-like splatters or anti-gravity curlicues hovering above. Not until you try them do you find out if they’re quality or schmutz.

Over-the-top is fine. It is. Go nuts, really. But make sure the quality is there.

The chicken noodle soup below, from Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, is a good example of this. Everything in it is from scratch and is homey, honest and real. It just happens to be served in the dinner dish of a full-grown Rottweiler.

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Woof.

Then there are places that have the decency to offer quality but insist on gilding the crap out of the lily. (Exceptions in the dessert realm are rare, in my experience. Here’s one. And I typically order desserts without toppings, which unnerves the wait staff, which I quite enjoy, and which I describe here.)

But while it’s usually desserts that chefs overdoll, it’s not just desserts. The below pizza was made with homemade crust, fresh homemade ricotta and prosciutto, and it all went into a wood-fired oven flown in from Italy. It was gorgeous, just as it was. So why did they need to pelt it silly with arugula? I ended up dragging the greens off with every bite, looking like a sheep with an iron deficiency. My friend’s little daughter didn’t even know it was a pizza. When it arrived she took one look and asked, ‘Can I have some salad?’

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Demands a lawyer.

How screwed up is the food business? Last point of exasperation: inventing stuff that looks cute but makes no conceivable sense in your mouth, like peanut-butter-and-jelly sliders. These are on the menu at a place near me. Adorable little hamburgers—charmers!—topped with…yeah.

Audible sigh.

The American public (and others as well, for all I know) is smitten with nice instead of good. What gives, and what prompted this?

*Corn syrup, more likely, actually.

**Slurpees and Skittles are corn syrup tenants as well.

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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples (Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips (Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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I learned a lot as I researched this post; mainly, that I need to make the radical decision to do all of my research early—like, say, before shooting. If I had, I would have made sure the lilac blossoms below were shot with the ones above. The way it is now, they look like they threw a Lego in the classroom and I put them in timeout.

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Totally hanging their heads.

Anyway. Part 2 of the edible wild series! The sun’s getting closer, it’s greening everything up, and lots of flowers that are blooming now are edible.

Some cheerful reminders:

1) Be sure that what you think you’re picking is what you are in fact picking.

2) Don’t pick from roadsides because dogs have a singular way of worshiping beauty in nature.

3) Don’t pick off other people’s lawns unless they’re pals who definitely don’t use pesticides, and besides you made them devil’s food cake pops last New Year’s Eve and they never said thank you.

Clockwise from top top:

Cherry (Prunus ‘Kwanzan’ Kanzan)

Cherry trees are in the Rose family. Look closely at a wild cherry blossom and a wild rose blossom; you’ll see the former looks like the latter’s kid sister. Pickled cherry blossoms and leaves are a treat in Japan, where an affinity with cherry trees is a sweet part of their nationalism. Note: Eat cherry leaves sparingly; they’re toxic in high amounts.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_blossom

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

I caved and included dandelion blossoms in this post despite the aggravation they gave me a few weeks ago while shooting my first ‘edible wild’ post. Today’s post needed a good blast of yellow, for which they should thank their lucky stars.

Blossoms can be eaten raw (fun in salads), or battered and fried. To me they taste grassy and slightly sweet.

umm.edu/altmed/articles/dandelion-000236.htm
*

Violet (Viola reichenbachiana)

Violets are the cutie patooties of the baking world these days, especially when sugared and arranged on top of cakes. This practice admittedly smacks of Martha, which isn’t always appealing, but in this case it works. A couple of purple or white violets, which have a teeny splash of purple in the middle, look really cool on a cupcake.

I’d heard that violets have a peppery flavor, so I tried one this afternoon to check. It didn’t. Just tasted grassy. Then I thought I tasted a slight, late-in-the-game pepperiness, but it’s just as likely that the garlic I had at lunch was messing with my head. Don’t have garlic for lunch one day, taste a violet and tell me the deal. Their cousins are edible as well—the pansy tastes grassy and the Johnny-Jump-Up tastes like wintergreen. Blossoms and leaves are both edible.

americanvioletsociety.org/Cooking_N_Decorating/ViolaChef_01.htm

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Crab apple (Malus)

The apple is another member of the Rose family, and their blossoms are similar as well. These blossoms have a light, delicate flavor.

The twig shown was clipped from one of the wild trees that grow around the lake and provide the crab apples for my yummy jam every fall.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malus

*

And in timeout we have:

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known the lilac’s blossoms were edible if I hadn’t browsed around Anthropologie last Thursday and seen a book on recipes for edible flowers. Okay.

Intensely fragrant lilac blossoms can serve as a base for homemade syrups, jellies and infusions. But remember they’re like your great aunt who lives in Boca—she never, ever forgets your birthday, but smells as though she takes morning laps in Givenchy Dahlia Noir. A little goes a very long way.

whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm

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I’ve been fascinated by connection all my life. I love digging into the nature of relationships, whether they’re cultivated or if they’re something handed to us—just by virtue of being born on Planet Earth.

It may be that last part that explains my sort of odd obsession with picking fruit from one wild tree or another (or yet another), or from wild plants. It definitely explains why I wanted to undertake the foraging project I’m on now, and have lately been spending my days walking slowly along the streets of my community, back bent toward the ground, as if looking for a lost glove or perhaps my sanity among the newly sprouting vegetation.

This post represents the first look at the food that’s not hawked by the ad slickies at Madison Avenue but instead is quietly offered by the earth, all year, as the sun waxes and wanes. I’ll be continuing this ‘edible wild’ series from time to time during 2013 and hope you dig it.* Mostly I hope that you’ll get as excited as I am about wild food, that you’ll get jazzed to see what’s growing around you and want to learn about it. Besides the connection we have with our own selves—me to myself and you to yourself—I think the most essential connection on earth is the one we have with the earth; and it’s a connection that, to a great extent, has been broken. That can change.

About my choices above…

My home is the suburban NJ, USA shore, dotted with wide and narrow stretches of lake and consisting of sandy soil. The photo above represents a sampling of the edibles growing wild in my area,** although I’m sure there are many more.

Helpful note 1: Obviously don’t forage too close to roadsides, where dogs might have, ahem, frequented; and be wary of wild edibles growing too near residential properties, as they might have taken on pesticides used there.

Helpful note 2: I am no botanist or horticulturist (to which any of my bio teachers can attest). Among the above foods shown I’ve eaten wild garlic and dandelion only. To learn what else was edible, I sought out online sources for assistance. Above all, before eating it, be sure that what you think is a certain plant is in fact a certain plant.

Please chime in with your additions, clarifications—and recipes, if you’ve got ’em. And I’d love to hear what grows near you.

Clockwise from top:

Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

Enjoy blossoms raw in salads, cooked, dried or made into a syrup that can be used as a drink mixer.

ediblewildfood.com/blog/2012/04/pruning-forsythia-but-save-the-blossoms/

localkitchenblog.com/2010/04/13/forsythia-syrup/

Clover (Trifolium)

Kind of shadowed; sorry about that. Entirely edible, but seems to benefit from the addition of salt to ease digestion.

northernbushcraft.com/plants/clover/notes.htm

Snowdrop (Galanthus spp.)

Not so much a food as a tonic, purported to soothe stomach and joint pain as well as women’s reproductive problems.

gardenguides.com/92486-snowdrop-flowers.html

Wild Garlic (Allium vineale)

What we kids used to call ‘onion grass’ and pull up just to sniff its assertive fragrance—it should smell strongly of onions or garlic. Chop and enjoy raw or cooked. Eat it now, when it’s tender; once summer hits and it’s about to go to seed, the interior of these cylindrical sprouts becomes woody and dry.

ppws.vt.edu/scott/weed_id/allvi.htm

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)***

Roots, blossoms and young leaves edible; any longer than a finger’s length and the leaves become too bitter for me (but you might like them like that). This healthy plant can also be used as a tonic. And since Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is one of my favorite books, one summer I was inspired to steep a bunch of flowers in vodka and a simple syrup, and made a lovely pale yellow liqueur.

umm.edu/altmed/articles/dandelion-000236.htm

Spring Crocus (Crocus Vernus)

Bulb, blossom and stigma all edible. I tried to dig up a bulb for the photo, but the ground was really resistant, and I didn’t want to damage the other flowers to get it.

arthurleej.com/p-o-m-Feb13.html

*Pun totally intentional. Shocker.

**I know plants from the ocean are missing from this picture. I really wanted to include some, but it’s been a cold month so far. Once it gets warmer I’ll see what I can find there.

***Why aren’t there any dandelion blossoms in this picture, Maris? Because I searched across three towns for some and then gave up and took the shot. Guess how many I saw the next few days? I’m not even kidding: It was as if they hid under the ground, giggling, then exploded like popcorn in a Jiffy Pop pan once I uploaded the picture. I even passed a whole lawn of them and considered coming back with my camera, but I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction.

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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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