24 July 2012

Gdańsk: a Sunday at home

We wake to the muted ringing of church bells as pale sunshine spills onto the wooden floorboards of our little apartment. There's no rush to get up, not today—it is Sunday morning, our day off.

Gdansk sunday brunch
Sunday brunch at home: tiny fragrant fraises du bois, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries on local yoghurt
with dark honey and waffles

It is a year since my last post, and we are back in the old city of Gdańsk. Once again, we are here to oversee the work on a new boat. We've watched her take shape, day by day, timing our shipyard visits to coincide with the workers' break so we don't get underfoot. We swipe our security cards on the unimposing little door that opens out into the huge hangar-like workspace, and walk the yellow safety lines towards our new boat. Dusty sunlight high on the rafters, the rasping and clanking and hammering cacophony, the melange of new-boat smells: sweetish thin solvent fumes, the phenolic dryness of wood shavings with the occasional hint of vanillic coumarin, the dull blandness of epoxy resin—and out of all this emerges the shape we are learning inside and out. Day by day, we watch as her structural bones are fleshed out and panelled and polished, as she is inlaid with neat bundles of wire and circuitry whose electrical pulsings will order her movement and fill her with light and sound, as ridged and curved tunnels of plumbing are laid in her bowels. We snap photos, so we know what lies behind each panel; we record serial numbers of each pump and each bubble-wrapped appliance. We ask questions. We make lists, and compile orders for suites of spare parts, for water toys, for uniforms. It is work, and it is fun.

But not today. Today, we sit back in bed to enjoy the sounds of home—the leafy rustling outside the windows, the birdsong, the bells. There will be a lazy leisurely brunch made from our eager selections at the open markets the day before—there were generously heaped pyramids of fruit, and brown eggs, and dark honey and delicious local yoghurt as thick as clotted cream; there were fine-boned little elderly women speaking a stately formal English, sitting behind displays of ruffled chanterelles and the plump lewd shapes of ceps. There will be seconds of coffee (and perhaps thirds). Later on, when the bright panels of sunlight elongate and fade, there will be the deep red gleam of wine. It is Sunday, the day off. 

Gdansk Markets strawberries
only 10 zloty per kilo of these beauties!

Gdansk markets blueberries
fresh succulent berries at the markets

Gdansk sunday herbs
we bought plants to brighten up the flat—a pot of lavender to crush between the fingers for the scent, mint for tea and salads, basil for everything

Gdansk sunny flat
our sun-filled little flat in the Stare Miasto (old city)

Gdansk markets strawberry plate
so sweet and juicy—even the inimitable Mrs Elton could have had no cavil with these

Gdansk markets bounty
the best of shopping at the open markets

07 June 2011

Stare Miasto, Gdańsk: a Sunday morning stroll

The countenance of the smallest child is priceless.

A mermaid at the fountain of Neptune in the heart of the Dlugi Targ [the Long Market]—the headdress places even this oceanid squarely in the fashion of the time. The lumpen infant on her back is less pleasing.

Neptune / Poseidon is truly an appropriate symbol for a port city that has been a maritime trading power since at least the 10th century. How I've loved being in a city with the sea in its veins!

Such vivid colour, even on an overcast day.

This plump little demon lay smirking indolently at all the virtuously hurrying churchgoers that morning.

These poupettes entranced me—such detail. I love the aviator's shearling jacket, the gleam of mischief in the harlequin's smile, and the bridal couple floating blissfully up towards the rooftops like a Chagall painting.

But of course my heart went out to the raven-haired beauty in her fine brocade frou frou and the feathered topper tilted smartly above her wistful face—I expect some rake of a Mirabell or Comte de Valmont has been toying with her affections. Or perhaps she was merely contemplating the next order for her dressmaker. See the marvellously pleated sleeves, the lustrous handsewn pearl beading on her pelisse, the rich gold damask of her gown (I think we are looking at 1780s fashion, here)—can one have cause for melancholy while bedeck'd in such finery?

Well, Ihab Hassan says yes. From the interview with Frank Cioffi:
...I have no calculus of human suffering, and I don’t know which is greater, the pain of a homeless, hungry man or that of a spiritually stricken woman. But I know that they are both intolerable, and that alleviating the one does not necessarily alleviate the other.

The odd little statuette on the left must be the Cheshire cat, melting away into thin air even as we watch. I do rather love the artfully curled tail.

I can't be the only person who thinks this child is a funny wee mortal.

The gleeful dance of Rumpelstiltskin must have looked very much like this. Or perhaps it's a Polish haka to intimidate the evil rubbish-bin he was confronting earlier.

The reverse of this sign reads antiques, stamps, coins. The rooftops on U. Dluga [Long Street] have such a Dutch look to them—well, after all, Gdańsk was once a prosperous member of the Hanseatic League.

Hanseatic league era roofs

My beloved laptop is throwing a tantrum and flatly refusing to start up past the grey screen—I shan't be able to upload any more photos till we can get the recalcitrant creature to an Apple service centre whe we arrive at Cannes next week. (That sounds quite calm, but really, I am gutted.)

19 May 2011


Today we shall finally cast off our lines—first heading west into the Baltic Sea, following the setting sun towards Denmark. Then through the Kiel-Canal and into the grey North Sea, the cold English Channel, the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Portugal and Galicia and so on until we reach the warm reaches of the Mediterranean, this new boat's summer home.

It will be a three weeks' passage, and the most challenging one we will have done together. The enforced delays—necessary modifications, tardily delivered paperwork—have made us chafe at the bit, we want so badly to set sail.

I think this passage actually began nearly two months ago, anchored off a small island in the Caribbean on a sunny morning. Or perhaps it began three years (or is it four years now? I forget) earlier in a small town in France, when we packed up our belongings to fly to the Virgin Islands.

But the Captain thinks it began on the 5th of April when we cast off our lines from the marina dock that had been a home—of sorts—for three years, and raised our sails, heading south to deliver our former boat to the Windward Islands for her last charter with us as crew.

That was a rough 50-odd hours. We watched as the swell grew into deep rolling troughs, shielding our eyes against the needle-sharp spray as the bow reared up like a distressed animal and came crashing down again, foamy white sea shooting up and past us. The force snapped many of the plastic fastenings to which the trampolines were rigged, and soon enough, the ragged edges of this corner or that were blowing in the wind. The spray forced open a corner of one of the portside UV screens; later on the second night, the screen blew off altogether. But the wind itself was fitful, gusting up uncertainly only to die again, leaving our sails limp and dispirited. Starting the engines gave us little better headway—earlier in the season, the three-blade propellers had been replaced with slower two-blade ones. This meant a loss of speed of half a knot per hour, which seems negligible until you multiply that over the course of a day—then another—and another.

Though the winds did not favour us, the open sea was generous with her gifts: one day we saw whales breaching; the next, we were treated to the joyous larking about of dolphins at the bow. They were so close we could hear their snorting huff as first one then another leapt and dived before our eyes. We saw the lights of Guadeloupe in the distance, and passed the long flank of lovely Martinique. Later, we sighted St Lucia's Pitons, their twin fangs wreathed with cloud; then the rich green peaks and deep valleys of volcanic St Vincent.

We tied off safety barriers in the cockpit at night, and took turns doing our watches. Mugs of hot tea warmed and woke us; we shared a ceremonious cold drink together every sundown. We slept very little. The night sky was very beautiful.

At the end of the third day, quiet little Admiralty Bay in the island of Bequia welcomed us at last. We arrived just after sunset, the orange light catching and reflecting off the salt crystals drying on the boat. When I turned to smile at the Captain, I felt the fine film of salt crack on my cheeks. I licked my dry lips, and tasted the sea.

18 May 2011

New boat

Ten days ago—

The boat is beautiful. Her glossy white topsides catch the light, and the vivid red of the genoa cover and the gennaker, the bimini and the sailbag, look cheery even under cloud. The light teak of the cockpit harmonises with the blonde wood and dark accent panels of the saloon and galley, giving the interior a pleasantly warm, airy look. Only ten days ago, she looked so different—bubblewrap and protective foam layers everywhere, cardboard sheets underfoot and the ceiling and walls gaping uncovered, bristling  with neatly tied bundles of wire and cable. 

We are so impressed with workmanship of the boat—quality materials through and through, and the attention to detail is very pleasing to observe: even the backs of the wall and ceiling panels (which no one but us crew or the occasional technician will ever see) are neatly finished. She has been so well-designed to make sure that maintenance of all her systems (plumbing, electrical, hydraulic) are easily accessible—which makes the 'invisible' part of our job as crew, the behind-the-scenes work that keep a charter running smoothly, much easier.

We can't wait to start welcoming our first charter guests aboard—she is a stunning boat, and will be a real joy to work on.

17 May 2011

Poland: Stocznia Gdańsk

cranes near our dock

The day is overcast; against the flat grey sky, the articulated skeletal limbs of cranes move slowly, as if numbed with cold. The weather suits the place, which on superficial inspection appears to be a great heaped junkyard—a grave of robot bones, vast warehouses filled with little more than dusty light and populated only by crumbling piles of plastic refuse, remnants of hoses like dead snakes on the floor, walls patched with fading posters of women with glossy open mouths. Layered traces of old grafitti emerge from the peeling shreds of newer ones. There is every shade of drab, from oxidized ferrous russet to mossy copper viridian to soot-stained lead. It is as if the clean outlines of a Charles Sheeler painting had been filled in with the raucous visual textures of Robert Rauschenberg. A pair of incongruous white swans glide as gracefully upon the dull green canal as if it were a pristine lake.

This is Stocznia Gdańsk, the historic shipyard built on a sluggish canal of the river Martwa Visla (the aptly named "dead Vistula") which empties into the Baltic Sea. To this day, perhaps precisely because its modern industry lives both on the surface of and in-between the undemolished relics of its former life, a ramshackle grandeur suffuses even the disused tram tracks burrowing into the chipped and sprouted cobblestones, and lends a sort of apocalyptic glamour to the rusting abandoned pipe systems that rear abruptly against the sky like mechanized robots from a 1950s science fiction film. Their great welded joins must once have safeguarded the passage of oil and gas through the labyrinth of pipes that fed the industrial beast of old. Now, many of them carry only echoing wind and history.

But on the rare sunny day, the working cranes can look almost festive against a surprisingly blue sky, as they come alive with explosive insectile creakings. A row of dwarfish metal blowers guards the front lines of a troop of of taller machines—a squat robot army with large blank heads standing sentry over their discarded former demesne. The machines have not won, after all; humans now occupy the day. Unusually, there seem to be as many women as men here, all clad in an Orwellian uniform of dull overalls, swarming purposefully over the hulks and shells of pleasure-boats in the making.

Walking in the shipyard, each step kicks up a small puff of storied dust that settles back into the ground or on the strewn debris, powdering them with a protective sprinkling of drab. And yet in shaded corners and on the ragged periphery, the trees—tender of leaf and sweet of bud—are reminders that this is Maytime. Cheerful weeds like the bright yellow dandelions—pisse-en-lit, as the French call them—push determinedly between cracks in the paving. They grow so lush that one morning, we arrive at the shipyard and see them being mown down. The air is faintly peppery with the smell of their dismemberment.

I like being here in the spring, imagining (probably inaccurately) that some of these walks take me through the very grounds where the thousands of workers of the Solidarność movement also walked; I like thinking that from here, the dominoes began to fall, and the oppressive former regimes of Eastern Europe began to crumble away—a giddy thought. It makes me think of the other side of the world, of the other spring of liberty awakening, albeit more painfully, in countries as isolated from hope as this one may once have been. So it all changes.

Omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis
. Everything changes, and we change with them. Here in Poland, with cold yellow clouds above me, surrounded by the sweet steely fumes of solvents and the urgent whispered conversations of shipwrights and electricians, our former Caribbean life shrinks into the distance. Yet it was only forty-seven days ago when the Captain and I were crouched over the laptop in our cabin, while our charter guests were off snorkeling the gentle blue waters nearby. A stray patch of sunshine fell across the computer screen. The email we were re-reading offered us a job on a new 70' catamaran chartering the Mediterranean in the summer months followed by a transatlantic voyage and the winter months chartering the Caribbean. We looked at each other one more time, a silent question, asking,  Are you sure? Are we sure? He nodded. A drop of sweat trickled down my arm as I moved the keyboard towards me. I typed out our answer and clicked the "Send" button with a smart nervous flourish.  

Yes, I had written, yes we will, yes.

old pipe systems

disused cranes in front of the office

a robot army
another view

28 January 2011

sapphires and caramels: more than the sum of their parts

"My mother was a very strong character and she dominated us completely," says one of our guests as she leans companiably over my galley counter, "Oh, we grew up poor, really—we didn't have very much, and had to learn to make do. But. Every time my father was in the doghouse with my mom, he would come home with a five-pound box of chocolates for her. My brother and I always got to taste some as a treat. But after the first day, the box would mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again!"

There is laughter all around. On request, we've stocked up the boat with bars of dark Belgian chocolate, but a large box of See's candy also sits on the salon table, a generously shared gift from one of the ladies.

"I grew up in Japan—we were a military family," says another guest, her delicately featured face crinkled into a smile. "I remember these caramels wrapped in rice paper—edible rice paper. We weren't supposed to have them! My mother was worried about, you know, sanitation; she didn't want us to get sick from eating something... but we loved those caramels, and somehow talked our nanny into bringing them for us!"

I've no doubt they tasted all the better for being a forbidden treat...

In my mind's palate, I can taste the soft creamy bonbons from the peace offering given by one man to his strong-minded wife; I can taste the first crispness of the fragile rice paper, melting almost instantly into the caramel chewiness of a furtive gift.

This is one of my favourite times of the night on this charter—dinner service is over, and people often stop to chat, their last glass of wine in hand, as we finish washing up the dishes. In this last week, we've had the pleasure of hearing stories about living in Russia and Malaysia and Nashville and Montana, of hunting elk and deer, how to use a paper guide for quilting, a stay in a Tuscan villa with a wonderful chef. Stories of running a friends' culinary club at home, of the most awesome intro to a live Rolling Stones concert ever (a man strolled casually onto the stage without fanfare and launched into a rousing and joyfully strident guitar solo... that man turned out to be Keith Richards). We've heard what it is like to facet a sapphire for the first time. 

I didn't know that sapphires come in so many colours. Like jewelled confectionery—gleaming citrus lime and orange, a deep violet that flashes green, a startling hot pink, as well as the blue that I associate with sapphire itself. The stone is called corundum, says our guest as she shows me her handcrafted ring of Montana sapphires, it comes in all these colours. Except when it's red—then it's a true ruby, not called a sapphire.

Later, I find out that the word corundum comes from "kuruntam", a Tamil word meaning "ruby".

"The first sapphire I ever faceted... oh I was nervous," she says. "It was given me by a friend of my father—it was he who taught me how to cut gems. Well, it turned out smaller than it should have!"

"But you did it," I tell her, fascinated and admiring. "It must require such precision—a meticulous eye."

When I first saw the preference sheet for this charter, my heart sank. I imagined seven long days and nights of rigidly planned logistics designed to accommodate each and every one of their listed preferences. I imagined arduous hours in the galley, hunched over a tightly regimented series of separate chopping boards, utensils, pans; I imagined a constant fight against time to get the separate meals plated and ready.

Well, I was right about the fight against time... but I had forgotten something important: that our guests are so much more than the boxes they have ticked off on their preference sheets. Chicken? Check. Beef? Check. Pork? Seven yes, one no. Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray? Dewars or JWB? Water consumption-high. Soda consumption- moderate to low. All this tells me nothing of the real people with whom we will share seven days and nights exploring this lovely little string of islands called the BVI.

And now I find the charter I thought I would remember solely for the intensive planning and the logistics, is a charter I remember for the people. For their stories. For their generous sharing of moments that gave us vivid, beguiling glimpses into other histories, other lives.

16 January 2011

Deep breath

In about four hours and twenty minutes, The Captain and I begin the first of a series of five back-to-back charters, all on 24-hour-turnaround—that means forty-two days straight of work.

That seems like a great deal, until one considers that last season, we did a solid seventeen consecutive weeks on-charter with only one full day off in that seventeen weeks. To this day, we are not sure how we pulled that one off without going insane (although going to Venezuela instead of insane would have been my preferred choice at the time). Forty-two days suddenly seems lightweight in comparison, especially if we keep reminding ourselves of the perks of the job...

Foam on the sea

I'm so happy—I think I've cracked the solution to presenting a stabler foam with my lobster bisque. It could still do with a some refinement, but I think I'm finally understanding the principles of structure.

The whole idea of intense pure flavour in floating lightly on the dish as an evanescent foam appeals to me, it is so appropriate for our sultry Caribbean weather.

This is a lobster and mango salad presentation: whole Maine lobster tails poached lightly in coconut milk, shallots, fennel, celery, ginger and dry vermouth. I eased each fat tail out of its shell, cooled them and sliced them into medallions for the salad. Then I returned the shells to the poaching liquid and continued the stockmaking till the liquid could absorb no more flavour.

The base is the lobster stock from the shells, infused with fresh ginger. I reduced that to half the volume and added some creamy coconut milk and the barest hint of lime. It is as pale as foam on the sea without the addition of saffron threads or tomato!

The first treatment I tried: no stabiliser, just 250 mls of reduction in the ISI whip charged with one nitrous oxide capsule.

lobster espuma | sans stabliser I

The dense mousse-like texture degraded quickly into a more open foam as we served it, as seen below.

lobster espuma | sans stabiliser II

For my second try, I used the same base but this time I whirred 1/2 teaspoon of lecithin granules with 250 mls of the base using an stick immersion blender in place of the ISI whip.

lobster espuma | immersion lobster espuma | lecithin

The foam that collected on the surface was light, with large frothy open bubbles that remained stable for presentation. I did notice that halfway through consumption, the foam had begun to dissolve back into liquid at the bottom of the martini glasses.

lobster espuma | plus stabliser I
Salade d'homard et sa ècume

This time, I presented the Maine lobster tails as retro-kitsch 1970s avocado cocktail salad.

lobster espuma | plus stabliser II

I may try next time to thicken the reduction a little with a liaision to see if the yolks and cream might give a little more protein structure, and compare that to thickening with a standard roux.

I am having so much fun playing around with this! Next stop—xanthan gum...

11 January 2011

Views from the office

I ought to add that considering my current 'office views' fore and aft this morning, I've absolutely no cause for either wailing or repining about my lot in life. 

Office View, aft
my office view, aft: The Captain getting ready to pick up our guests from their island idyll
Oyé mire—¡una isla encantadora!
Office View, fore
office view, fore: our lovely guests meeting their private 'water taxi'!

Today's date is 01•11•11. This makes me happy (yes, I am easily amused).

Charter Challenge #1 for 2011

The preference sheet I received for our upcoming charter reads, in part:
  • 1 x lactose-free diet
  • 2 x gluten-free diet
  • 1 x low-salt, low fat diet
  • 2 x seafood allergy (one of whom also does not eat pork)
  • 2 x allergy to the Capsicum family (so no bell peppers or chillies of any sort)
  • 1 x allergy to walnuts
  • 2 x no garlic
... out of a full group of eight.

The preference sheet is one of the charter chef's best friends. This invaluable document is the one sent out to all the clients, in which they tick off boxes and/or detail their likes and dislikes, preferred wines, spirits, mixers, preferred breakfast style, favourite flavours, any allergies etc.

When your crew receives this document, we follow it up by emailing and/or phoning you to confirm the information—we want to make sure that we stock up the boat with as many as your favourites as possible, and that we plan our menus to accommodate each group's particular idiosyncrasies. It's all about personalising the trip for you—we want you to enjoy yourself thoroughly!

We've had a remarkably easy run lately—both our NYE group (a charming Louisiana family) and our current guests (a lovely genial group from Buenos Aires) have been incredibly easy-going omnivores. So I suppose I've been about due for more of a challenge!

Although I've dealt with all of these specialised preferences in the past (and perversely—or so my friends tell me—have enjoyed the fun of having to be creative with the dishes) this will be the first time I deal with ALL of these on the one charter. This is going to be an interesting challenge for me—unless they are having chicken, every meal will have to be customised.

Time to switch on the charterbot's Ingenuity and Logistics panels...

05 January 2011

Whip It! [whip it good!]

Whip It!
When a problem comes along, you must whip it
Before the cream sits out too long, you must whip it
...ah, Devo. To think I am old enough to remember them...

Rather late in the day for the culinary zeitgeist, nevertheless, contemporaneity be damned... I am having far too much fun making espumas and 'air' with my ISI Gourmet Whip (a lovely thoughtful gift from The Captain, who spotted me gazing yearningly at it in the manner of a lovesick sheep while we were in Sint Maarten).

So much fun, in fact, that I've spritzed my merry way through my original supply of nitrous oxide capsules with alarming rapidity... lobster espuma, chocolate chilli velvet and mango foam are the top three so far (not on the same plate, mind. Well, not yet. Ha). Fortunately, a kind friend brought me back another two boxes of nitrous oxide from Naco in St Thomas—thanks, Admiral!

The kitsch retro packaging makes me even happier than the possession of the actual capsules. Seriously, is this not all sorts of adorable? I am in love with the go-go boots, the 1960s backcombing and best of all... the girl on the package is actually wearing a semblance of the amazing 1965 YSL 'Mondrian' shift dress!


I went speed-shopping yesterday and treated myself to a tin of lecithin granules and a packet of xanthan gum... I'm keen to learn how to stabilise some of my foams now. 
I am loving my fun ride on the late [foam] train... stay tuned for updates and tales of  
s p l a t t e r (o, the horror).

03 January 2011

the charterbot in All At Sea magazine

The January edition of All At Sea magazine's coverage of the CYS Boat Show culinary competition includes the charterbot, who counts herself so lucky to be featured alongside the likes of the amazing Lisa Mead (chef and artist) of motor yacht Viaggio, and Lori Cady on the beautiful catamaran Saboré.

Thank you so much for the interview, Captain Jan!

about this blog

Occasional vignettes from the life of a charter chef who loves simply messing about on boats.

"I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."
MFK Fisher


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