Being “foodies,” as the Kiwis call those who enjoy fine dining, this is a subject that is near and dear to our hearts-and stomachs. At sea, the thing we often look forward to nearly as much as landfall in a tropical paradise is the next meal-and it’s gotta be good!
Early on in my sailing career, I tended to over-provision. I think that this was due to a combination of factors like inexperience, excellent food selection and availability in the US and uncertainty about what might be on offer at our next destination. Over the years, as we passage with fewer crew, I’ve learned how to get more meals from less food, and to find out in advance what’s available from the grocery stores over the horizon.
When passaging, I usually carry enough food for twice the estimated passage time. The main meals for the passage are usually pre-planned, pre-cooked, and very yummy. The back-up food would be things that are easy to store and quick to prepare like pasta, red beans and rice, instant soups and the like. When we are coastal cruising or island hopping, we have a better idea of when we will provisions again, so we may only need to shop for a week or so, unless we are heading off to some remote and secluded place where we plan to spend a month or more.
In the States, the choices for provisioning are overwhelming. With options like Price Costco, Sam’s Club, Trader Joes, and huge, well stocked supermarkets everywhere, it’s just too easy. When one gets to parts of Mexico and many other third world countries, provisioning can seem more like and endless scavenger hunt than a quick dash to the local Safeway. Then add to the frustration with a long hike and/or a taxi or bus ride with melting items, a wet dinghy ride out to the boat, and offloading wet bags of food from a pitching dink, sometimes in the rain, and it can be just plain no fun. So, as you can imagine, we try to do as much provisioning as we can when it is convenient, and just fill in with fresh items when it becomes necessary. In any event, I provision the non-perishables a few days before our departure date, and the perishables at the last possible moment before we depart.
For the past few years, I’ve been cruising the South Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia. For the most part, there are at least a few reasonably well stocked grocery stores in Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. If you are going to Tonga or Niue, you will usually find the basics, (bread, eggs, milk and some canned foods) but anything more exotic may require scavenger hunting. While New Zealand and Australia don’t have the immense warehouse clubs like in the States, the regular grocery stores down under are excellent and have nearly everything one could want. I do most of my regular shopping there, and fill in a gourmet item or two from specialty shops such as Italian or Asian, when I run across them.
We’re fortunate to have almost all the space we need for food storage right in the galley. This is owing partly to a large galley, and partly because I’ve been able to maximize the use of galley space by the use of storage baskets in and on top of the lockers, nesting cooking pots and pans with removable handles, and nesting, graduated sized, sealed containers for leftover food storage. In addition, Moonshadow has two very large lockers in the aft head (situated at the aft end of the galley) which are great for storing some of the bulk food and drink overflow, and there’s enough room under the salon settee to cellar a supply of wine for an entire cruising season. That said, we purchase items in packaging that is boats-storage friendly (plastic bags or bottles, Tetra packs), or repack items in storage containers such as Klick-Klacks or Rubbermaid plastic tubs so they fit better on the shelves and are sealed from insects and moisture. I can usually do a visual to see what we’re low on or out of in just a few minutes, but I usually keep a running grocery list going.
Protecting perishable food is a subject big enough for an entire book, and it has been done very well by Janet Bailey in her book “Keeping Food Fresh.” I keep a copy on board on the reference book shelf and refer to it regularly. Since we have ample fridge and freezer space, it’s not too difficult for us, be we do use a few tricks. We buy perishables at the last possible moment, with the latest “use by” dates, or in the case of fresh fruits and veggies, as un-ripe as possible. Many vegetables (like tomatoes and cabbage) keep perfectly well un-refrigerated. Eggs keep well un-refrigerated if you buy them that way, which is how they are commonly sold in most of the third world, as well as Australia and New Zealand. “Green bags” work very well for long term fruit and vegetable storage. We’ve kept lettuce fresh for weeks in them, and some items like oranges, apples and carrots for more than a month. West Marine sells them under the brand name of Evert Fresh Bags. In New Zealand they are called Peak Fresh Bags and sold in many grocery stores in the fresh fruit and veggie section. We use UHT milk in Tetra packs which will keep for nine months without refrigeration and once opened, can last up to a couple of weeks in the fridge. Fruit juices in Tetra packs store easily and keep well for months. We’ve found that it’s a good idea to keep dry goods in sealed containers and place bay leaves in the ones that have grains, flours and rice to prevent invasion by weevils. If you buy flour in the South Pacific islands, weevil infestation is not uncommon, and almost to be expected. If you spot or suspect weevils in y, you can pop the package into the microwave to kill them. They don’t have much taste, you can’t see them in cooked items, and I understand they are good source of protein. :-p
Speaking of bread, a few years ago the ship’s bread machine died and we were planning a month in a remote area, so we went to the local bakery and bought about six loaves worth of unbaked bread dough. We’d heard that you could freeze it in plastic bags and then thaw and bake it when you wanted a fresh loaf. Well, it seems that the bakery used yeast that was on steroids. We popped the plastic bags of dough in the freezer and within an hour later it had risen to the point that it had opened the (quite heavy) freezer door and started spreading through the galley. We had to round it up and pound it down twice before it cooled off enough neutralize the yeast and the dough would freeze without tripling in size.
Generally we will buy the gourmet and/or hard to get items, as well as quality wines in quantity from shops in the more civilized areas, and just fill in with staples and fresh items from the local stores. That said, there are some great shops in the islands, like She’s Apples in Nadi (Fiji) and Hannah’s Café in Port Vila (Vanuatu), and a variety of gourmet food shops in Noumea (New Caledonia), but be warned that island prices for gourmet items are usually in the stratosphere.
Part of the fun of cruising is learning to use the local ingredients, particularly in places like Mexico and the South Pacific Islands. The locals are more than happy to show you how to make a few of the local dishes that you may take a liking to.
When you are cruising in Mexico or the South Pacific, a must to experience is shopping in the colorful “open air” markets, many of which are now covered. There is nothing that can quite match the sensory overload of the Mercado Municipal in Zihuatanejo (Mexico), or the central market in downtown Suva (Fiji). The fresh meat sections are definitely not for those with a weak stomach (not that blue water sailing is either), unless you are keen on checking out the offerings of pigs heads, chicken’s feet and beef tongue, but the fresh fruit, vegetable and seafood sections are simply incredible. In Suva, due to the strong Indian influence, there is an absolute plethora of curry powders available, and one whole floor of the market is dedicated to the seemingly endless varieties of dried kava root, which is ground and infused to make the local grog. My all time favorites were the fresh tamales sold by little old ladies out of big pots in most of the Mexican mercados. I would take a bunch of zip-lock bags and pack three or four in each and fill up my knapsack. They kept well in the freezer, and could easily be re-heated in the rice-steamer for a cheap and easy lunch. The fresh tortillas hot off the assembly line at the local tortillaria are simply divine. I suggest you always buy extra, because not all will make it home!
When we visited remote areas, the locals offered us items ranging from bananas and coconuts, to lobster, fresh water prawns and coconut crabs, either as a gift or to barter for items that they might need. Before you go into a remote area, I recommend you find out what the locals might need, so you have the correct “currency” of items to barter. Generally speaking, items like D cell flashlight batteries, fish hooks, tobacco, matches, t-shirts, ball caps, pens/paper, magazines, etc. are a good start. Sometimes you will find out from other cruisers on the regular cruising nets what items are in short supply in a particular area where you are headed.
I am a big fan of precooking meals before a passage. I would rather spend an entire afternoon in the galley making a week’s worth of dinners in the calm of the marina, than an hour a day in the galley under way, possibly in a rollicking seaway. Since we make most of our passages short-handed these days, we find that it makes life so much easier and we can relax and enjoy the sailing more. I usually try to put four or five re-heatable meals in the freezer before we set sail. I freeze them as flat as possible and then put them in zip-lock bags so they stack well in the freezer. Don’t forget to mark them for identification. If I have invited crew, they are often happy to bring along one or two frozen meals each such as lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, or some sort of stew.
My best advice with respect to cooking at sea is K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid!). Before you toss off the lines, get into the galley, do lots of cooking and thinking. Take time to organize the galley so that the food items and utensils you use most often are within easy reach. Plan your meals in advance. I like to use recipes that can be cooked in one pot or pan and that use no more than eight ingredients. There are a variety of cook books available that follow this theme. I also have a CD-ROM with a program called “10,000 Recipes” that was floating around a few years ago. You can search the program for a recipe by the name of the dish or a particular ingredient and then choose one that best suits your cooking conditions, ingredients and palette. A pressure cooker is great for shortening cooking times, saving galley time and LPG. I find that it’s easier to double a recipe and have leftovers the next day than it is to cook twice. We keep a set of wide and fairly deep plastic bowls for serving meals when you are in a seaway and are eating off the “lap table.” Once you are under way, try to avoid spicy and fatty dishes, at least for the first few days, especially if the seas are rough or if any of the crew are afflicted by mal du mer.
Most of my favorite meals involve fresh fish, when we can catch it. The options are endless, but one of my favorites, after we’ve made sushi or poisson cru and had a fresh fish meal, is to thinly slice the fillets, marinate them for two days in soy sauce and lemon pepper in a sealed container in the fridge, and then dry the strips on foil lined pans in the sun. Fish jerky is a tasty, low fat snack, and will keep for weeks in the fridge, if it lasts that long!
Happy sailing and bon apetit!