Friday, June 19, 2009

June 18, 2009 - Salomon Atoll, Chagos

The anchorage at Boddam has emptied out as many of the repeat visitors head back to Malaysia and Thailand. As new boats arrive here in Salomon Atoll, they are staying up at Takamaka, the anchorage closer to the pass into the atoll. I can't blame them. The trip from that end of the atoll to this one involves dodging lots of coral heads. Once one gets down to this end of the atoll, it is best to moor to a coral head, rather than dropping anchor and letting the chain drag through a field of pristine coral, destroying everything it touches (and mucking up the chain). It is easier for short term visitors to stay up at Takamaka and use their own anchor. As a result, there are now twice as many boats up at Takamaka as there are down at Boddam, the inverse of the situation when we arrived in Chagos last month.

When it became available, we moved onto a coral head mooring close to the beach that is known as "The Queen's Mooring" because it is the one chosen by the first yacht to arrive in Chagos every year. It has been a nice change of scene, particularly for me. Usually, when I'm down below on Mata'irea, I can't see anything but sky out of the side ports or windows. Sten is tall enough to have a panoramic view around us, but my vertically challenged world is just blue. However, anchored this close in to shore, I can see the palm trees. Suddenly, my world includes green and yellow and and if I stand on my tippy-toes, a swath of white beach and aquamarine sea. The sunsets in this spot are terrific. The pink sky above the palms does wonderful things as it reflects off of the shallow water close to shore.

With only four boats at Boddam, it was the perfect opportunity for us to invite everyone over. We started looking around for a theme. It didn't take long to find one. We had been given a bottle of single malt scotch by one of the boats we met in Sri Lanka. We already had a single malt on board. For two people who don't drink scotch, we had a lot of it cluttering up the liquor cabinet. So we put the bottles on the cockpit table and called it a scotch tasting. Well, this isn't Iowa, but if you build it in Chagos, they will come, and come bearing single malt and appetizers. We ended up with two twelve year old Islay's - Bowmore and Coal Ila, a ten and eighteen year Highland - Glenmorangie and Highland Park. After a few hours of sipping our various ways through the collection of bottles, I had developed a preference for the Islay's, but Sten still preferred s/v Tigger's amber boat brew.

The morning after the scotch tasting I harvested the first batch of (somewhat trampled) lettuce from our cockpit garden, which we had for dinner with some grilled grouper and pickled tomatoes. It was wonderful to have some fresh greens. So I sowed a fresh batch of seeds in the pot. We should have another salad in about a month.

We've taken long walks ashore, looking for green things to supplement our diet, but the few lime trees on Boddam had been picked clean long before we got here and the taro leaves are of the inedible variety. So we were excited to learn that there was a tree here called a bilimbi that grows cucumbers out of its trunk. At first we thought our legs were being pulled (Sure, and it grows right next to the money tree?), but after following the directions given by a departing yacht, and fighting our way though a cloud of mosquitos and dense underbrush, we found a few trees with waxy, green, elongated fruit growing out of their trunks. We were stoked to have a source of fresh fruit, but upon getting them back to the boat and cutting into them, we found that they were so acidic that they were inedible. I understand that in the Seychelles bilimbi are used in salads, but I am not exaggerating when I say that I could feel the enamel being stripped from my teeth after biting into one.

I asked around and learned that the only use that yachties have found for the bilimbi is to make jam out of it. Not being big jam eaters, but not about to let a source of vitamin C go to waste, I emailed my sister and asked her to do a little research for us. Alena reported back that making jam out of bilimbi is traditional in Malaysia. In the Philippines and Goa, bilimbi is eaten raw, dipped in salt and spice. So we tried that. Phleh. Again with the enamel stripping. We clearly had to do something to this stuff to break down or neutralize the acid.

Next, I tried cutting it into thin disks, and briefly boiling it simple syrup. I mixed the bilimbi syrup with soda water to make a bilimbi fizz, which was very refreshing. Served over ice with a splash of vodka, it made a unique (Sten's word) cocktail. Last night, while toasting Silver Fern's fourth anniversary of cruising, we mixed a little bilimbi syrup in each glass of sparkling wine to make a bilimbi bellini, which also turned out pretty well.

After making the bilimbi syrup, I dried the candied bilimbi disks in the oven. The disks have a star shaped design in the center that, together with the taste and texture of the fruit, makes me think that the bilimbi is a relative of the star fruit (carambola). Candied bilimbi disks look like small translucent sand dollars.

From Alena's research, we also learned that bilimbi is used in curries. So, we added chopped, raw bilimbi to some leftover Thai curry before we reheated it. The result wasn't offensive, but not something that I'd rush to make again. The sourness of the bilimbi just didn't jive with the other flavors.

Alena reported that bilimbi was used in India to make pickles and that it could be used to make chutney as well. We have enough pickles at the moment, but we're running short on chutney. So I whipped up a batch of bilimbi chutney, working from a mango chutney recipe. It is delicious; definitely the best use we've found for bilimbi yet.

We figured that the highly acidic bilimbi juice could also be used in the place of lime juice in ceviche. We love ceviche, but after five weeks in Chagos (and one Cinco de Junio) lime is a limited commodity on board (I'm hoarding our last cup of fresh frozen lime juice for cocktails). But when Sten came home yesterday with a good sized Green Jobfish (a type of snapper) within a few minutes of my finding a small bag of Andaman chilies in the back of the fridge, we figured it was time to give bilimbi ceviche a go. So this morning we went for a long walk, stopping on the way back to pick another small batch of bilimbis. After squeezing the bilimbis, we left the fish to marinate in the bilimbi juice while we went off to snorkel the reef. After three hours, we drained the juice off the fish, mixed in the rest of the ingredients and set it aside while we fried up some very old, stale white corn tortillas to make chips. I don't know if it was the bilimbi marinade or the freshly fried chips, but the bilimbi ceviche disappeared quickly during happy hour.

Chagos Cocktail

Boil 2 cups water and two cups sugar to make simple syrup.
Add thinly sliced bilimbi.
Let sit for 15 minutes.
Remove bilimbi and dry in oven at 200F for one hour.
Let bilimbi syrup cool.

In cocktail shaker, mix:
2oz vodka
2oz bilimbi syrup.
Shake and pour over ice for a Bilimbi Gimlet.
Top up with soda water to turn your gimlet into a Bilimbi Fizz.
Decorate with candied bilimbi.

Bilimbi Chutney

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 cups coarsely chopped bilimbi
1/3 cup candied ginger finely chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

Briefly toast spices in a dry saucepan to wake them up then set aside. Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, and cook until soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, and cook until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool. Serve at room temperature.

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