How To Make Your Own Sea Salt

It’s not all fun and games here in paradise. I mean, mostly it is- but there are some exceptions. Here’s one.

There’s a very cool thing that happens here when we go through a drought. Just behind an amazingly beautiful beach called Salt Pond, there lies an actual dark and murky saline pond. No idea about the science of this, but probably you can look it up. Anyway, it’s on the South Side of the island and if you’ve ever been here to visit us (and if not, why not?) we’ve probably taken you there for a beach day or to hike up Ram’s Head, which is a breathtaking trail. So usually that’s what we get up to when we head that way- fun and sun and happiness. But, when there’s a drought and enough water evaporates out of the pond behind the beach, the salt crystalizes and all of the locals get giddy and start talking about going over there to “get salt”.  All natural, free, delicious sea salt. Who could resist? We, like many of our neighbors, grabbed a bucket and headed over.

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Salt Pond Beach- where we’d take you if you came to visit.

Here’s the thing: harvesting salt is way harder that you’d think. The pond is like a muddy pool with a hard white crust of salt forming at the edges. Also, because the water table is so low there’s a not-so-delicious sulfur smell going on. You have to carefully pick a spot where you can chip away the crystals (by hand, mostly) and not break through the salt and into the mud.

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Salt Pond Mine- just a short trail away from the beach.

By the way, this is all stuff we figured out after some disasters last year because no one ever tells you how to get salt. They just tell you it’s there. One of the things we learned is not to overfill your bucket. Hiking out with heavy buckets of salt flat-out sucks. All along the path back to the parking lot you can see where people have either started dumping their salt on purpose as a load lightening technique or else they dropped their bucket out of fatigue (hello, last year).

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Salt Down. Bummer.

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Salt Harvesting- not all it’s cracked up to be.

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Huge Crystals

Even if you make it home with your bucket of salt, the work is not over. This salt is not shaker ready. This year we did a combination of processes. We dried it in the sun (excellent way to encourage rain, by the way). We picked out the debris and rinsed it. We put it in a very low oven (last year, we burned it. Did you know you could burn salt? You can.) Then we crushed it with a mortar and pestle.

Then we put it back in the oven until it was bright white and very salt like. Now it’s in jars, ready for use. It actually worked out. We’ve got a stellar end product (not like last time). We probably have 4 or 5 quarts of St. John’s finest sea salt…but it wasn’t easy.

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If any of you reading this have any suggestions on how we could make this easier on ourselves next time (other than just going to the store), we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

Food Fairs and Chainsaws

You might think we spend all of our time here on St. John sunning ourselves on the beach and drowning in Painkillers. Sadly, not true. We do other stuff, too.

Last week was Carnival in St. Thomas and we decided to go check out the Food Fair. It’s a big deal. Government workers get the day off to go. No joke. And it’s just one day, so we jumped on the ferry last Wednesday to check it out and I’m so glad we did.

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Getting back and forth on the car ferry. It’s like our Geo Tracker is amphibious. Sort of.

Normally, I would be skeptical of such an event. I’ve been to things like this over and over, hoping for handmade peach ice-cream and Mrs. So-and-So’s Famous Fried Chicken- you know, like in all the books I read when I was a kid. Like, suddenly I’m going to just walk into the Charlotte’s Web State Fair. Not surprisingly, I’m almost always disappointed by generic funnel cakes, fried snickers bars and maybe some turkey legs from Costco sold by pseudo-professional vendors. (One notable exception is the Pony Swim in Chincoteague, VA where you can get stellar oyster fritters. Really. You should go.)

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Butter Conch Platter. So tasty. So much butter.

Anyway, the St. Thomas Food Fair was phenomenal. Packed with people. Tons of stands set up by church ladies, farmers, families, school groups and small vendors from throughout the Virgin Islands. It was very homespun and very solid. All the food was traditional and everything we had was fabulous. It definitely helped that people were very willing to advise us on which stand had the best whatever while standing in line. We got several excellent steers. It’s like a very frenzied, very caloric scavenger hunt where everyone was actually on the same team.

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Saltfish Pate

There were people selling johnnycakes, stew chicken, butter conch, whelks, and pates stuffed with shark, conch, saltfish, beef or veggies (pates here are like little fried hand pies with kind of a chewy crust. They are amazing.) There was a roti stand. There was tons of sweet stuff too, the usual suspects like coconut tarts and pineapple tarts but also stew cherries, gooseberry tarts, sugarcakes (which I think are pretty much just sugar), pumpkin fritters, and banana fritters. Of course there were Ital stands and tons of natural juices, drinks and tonics. There’s a guy in St. Croix who apparently sells kallaloo every Saturday in some square there, and he made the trip. It was delicious.  The whole thing was spectacular and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re ever in town for STT carnival.

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Chowing down on some seafood kallaloo.

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Lots of high tech signage.

On the way back to the car ferry, we stopped at Home Depot. Because it is a complete sacrilege to go to STT from STJ without going to Home Depot. Also, our internet, which used to be excellent, has been acting shady and we were told we needed to cut back some “bush” (trees), to give our antenna a straight shot to the tower. We were advised we’d need something called a pole saw for this…so we picked one up. Yeah, it turns out that a pole saw is quite literally a chainsaw on a 9′ pole. Did not see that coming. Anyway, now we have a pole saw. A really cheap one. It’s bananas.

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Thought wearing all my clothes at once would count as protective gear.

The chainsaw end is heavier than than you’d think and the pole is pretty flimsy so it just bounces all over the place. You’re supposed to secure it to yourself (according to the directions) with this super shoddy shoulder harness. Once I made it onto our very steep hill, that strap seemed like way more of a commitment than I wanted to make to a chainsaw so I took it off. It was so heavy and so unwieldy I ended up just kind of flailing around wildly in a sea of “catch and keep” which is an almost impenetrable thicket of thorns and prickers. I comforted myself by screaming “Help Me” and “I am not a landscaper” at regular intervals. You know, to relieve the tension. Complete miracle no one was injured.

But at least the internet is moderately better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racing Out Of Egypt. Sort Of.

Happy Passover and happy Easter! This year we decided (kind of at the last minute) to have a Passover seder on one of the actual days we were supposed to have it. We’ve been known to shuffle holidays around to fit our very busy schedules because it’s usually just two of us…and is the specific date for Thanksgiving or my birthday really written in stone? No. But this year Jennifer actually remembered it was Passover at the right time and we decided immediately to seder it up. As a total non-Jew, Passover is one of my favorite holidays. I highly recommend it. I’m not going get into the whole history and significance of the holiday. Probably you know. Or you can google it. What it is for me is The World’s Greatest Dinner Party.  There’s reading, there’s ritual, there are all of these symbolic dishes and there are a mandatory, a required, four glasses of wine. It’s a great time.

The deal is though, there’s some stuff you have to get ahead of time- like matzo. Matzo is an absolute requirement. Gotta have it. This is usually not a big deal because you can buy matzo anywhere this time of year. Salted, un-salted, whole wheat, Organic, Streit’s, Manischewitz, whatever. Except on St. John. There’s no matzo on St. John. We checked. Every store.

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Frances on the prowl for matzo.

We could almost definitely have gotten some on St. Thomas (it’s just a ferry ride away, but still kind of an ordeal-I mean, you can do it, but not at the end of the day for just one thing). So, we did what we always do: we gave up on a timely seder. We figured we’d just pick up some matzo the next time we’re shopping in St. Thomas and do a seder then. As a consolation prize, we decided to watch The Ten Commandments with Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner on our new little projector. I don’t think I ever really watched it before. It’s amazing. I LOVED IT. So weird, so wonderful. Anyway, it tells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and it was a reminder that matzo is supposed to be the kind of bread that you can make when you’re a slave with nothing and you are running for your life. So, honestly, how complicated could it be?

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The Ten Commandments. Solid.

 

We had no idea so we looked on the interweb and found out. Turns out matzo is very easy to make. Flour, water, salt, and maybe some olive oil. The big deal is that you can’t have any leavening, and if you are really strict about it you have to have it all baked and finished within 18 minutes of the water hitting the flour. The idea is that there is no possible way of getting any accidental leavening if you’re moving that fast. There was absolutely no reason for us to follow that rule (because nothing about what we were doing was anywhere near Kosher), but we tried it anyway.

We measured everything out in advance (but kept it all separate), hauled out our pasta roller (because we’re not actually fleeing Egypt), and cranked up the oven.

Then we set the timer for 18 minutes and started mixing. And rolling. And congratulating ourselves on how much time we had.

And then it fell apart. Somehow we went from a carefully executed, nearly professional set-up to a ridiculous episode of I Love Lucy. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with the fact that we only have one little cookie sheet.

And the whole time we’re yelling, “We have to go now! Pharoah is coming!”  It was a little intense. We successfully completed the first batch within the time limit, but on the second batch we got beat at the buzzer. We went ahead and baked off the last two batches we’d rolled out, so all in all the whole process probably took 30 minutes.

It was totally worth it. The matzo worked out.

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Homemade matzo!

It was thinner than normal commercial matzo because I think we rolled it a little too thin, but it was definitely matzo. It did the trick for seder and a little extra for snacking. And I have a feeling we’re going to do this every year now, even if we have regular matzo available. I mean, I know we can get faster…