Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pearls and Poisson Cru

Green with envy. I've never thought much about the genesis of that particular saying, but the woman across from me has pinned me to chair with a look of such naked envy that her eyes have changed colors. I am sitting in a house on the ocean on an island, some 2500 miles from home. I've never been the focus of this particular brand of glittering snarl, and it's unsettling.

It had been a strange few months. My 19-year old's freshman year at university, where he attempted a major in computer science, ended with an, er, prompting by the university that he take a semester off and, um, reconsider his career aspirations.  Other parents might have brought him home and had him work in the yard or at McDonalds. I decided he needed a gap semester to explore the world. So in six weeks, I planned and booked his three-month trip to France, Italy, Egypt, and Africa. The boy had never been outside North America, but I handed over the Eurail pass, plane tickets, and credit card, and wished him bon voyage. Because I believe in the power of travel to transform everyone. Because I love him and wanted him to realize that some things are so much bigger than ourselves. Because I thought it might help him find himself. Because I am crazy.

Meanwhile, the other boy's experiment with big city community college had crashed and burned. I rented him a cottage sight unseen in some small mountain town in the Sierras and encouarged him to find his inner rock climber, kayaker, snowboarder.Because I believe the outdoors should be everyone's church. Because I love him and wanted him to realize that some things are so much bigger than ourselves. Because I thought it might help him find himself. Because I am crazy.

Z and I settled into a big murder case, contemplated the weeks and months ahead, and dug in like tortoises in the dirt under a heat lamp. When something happened. A plea deal. Suddenly the contemplated weeks in a windowless courtroom emerged like a phoneix from under the ominous black XXXXs on the calendar. And in our giddiness, in our foolishness, in our utter disregard for convention and pragmatism, suddenly we were on our way.


Look, I'm not immune to spontanaiety. I eat some spontaneous meals. I take some spontaneous days off. I've even been known to have a spontaneous baby or two.

But travel?? I have our trips planned and mostly booked through 2013. There is not a hotel, lodge, or tent that will flash NO VACANCY on my watch because I didn't plan enough ahead of time. I even book restaurants six months in advance. But again, it had been a strange few months. So after some giggly pillow talk the night before, and dreams of overwater bungalows and turquoise lagoons, it was with steady hands that the next morning I cashed in miles and booked hotels
and found ourselves a few days later in TAHITI.

I am waist-deep in water a color that I don't own, but I'm quite sure looks great on me. It's less turquoise than it is glacier blue, and it goes on forever. At my ankles are swarming sharks and sucking stingrays.

We have landed in Moorea, and I am not a tour person by nature. Moreover, the thought of leaving my overwater bungalow or its underwater charms is not appealing, but somehow, we find ourselves on a motu where there are chickens. Our dredlocked guide has chosen a lovely blonde in a black bikini to help him explain how to make poisson cru. I have been eating it for days, and am interested in the process, as are suddenly, all of the men in the vicinity. The end result is fantastic.

After our arrival to Le Taha'a from Moorea, I am even more resistant to a second tour, despite having enjoyed the first. But having been in Hawaii for some time, I'm not immune to the charms of black pearls. I am, in fact,  enamored by them. And as soon as you board the flight to Tahiti, you will be bombarded by pearl history, mythology, and offers to visit their farms, and of course, own them.

We are seduced, for a second time, to leave our resort and venture onto the island of Taha'a, the Vanilla Isle. After an almost hour drive through the lush canopies, we arrive at THE pearl farm. We follow the unprepossesing French owner and her boxers across the water to a very small and rather depressing wood shack, the anti-overwater-bungalow, where three men share responsibility for gathering, opening, inspecting, and then either fertilizing or murdering, and then re-planting oysters.

Heretofore, "cultured" pearls had, in my mind, involved a tony shop where elegant people sipped champagne and polished the pearls in a grown-up version of a rock tumbler. Wrong. It turns out that young oysters are implanted with a "seed" pearl,  made from a small piece of the Mississippi pig toe clam shell that has been cut and ground in a sphere around which the cultured pearl will grow. If the initial output is deemed sufficient, larger and larger "seeds" are implanted, causing larger and larger cultured pearls. A 13 mm black pearl is the baby of a 9+ year old oyster. And if the first or second cultured pearl is not round enough or beautiful enough? One of the men in the shack slices through the muscle, the lifeblood, of our oyster, and relegates him to the pile designated for some wine, garlic and butter later that day.

Back in the home of the lovely French pearl farmess, there is a young blonde woman sitting before trays of black pearls. She is holding up one at a time in front of her ears, her earnest husband commenting appreciatively about each one. She sets aside the ones that interest her, comparing and contrasting. Z and I are seated across from her and are shown the demo boxes, have the grading process explained to us, and then, a strand of identical, gumball sized, revolver- grey perfect spheres is set in front of us. The woman across from me stops chattering and stares. I'm afraid to pick it up. Another strand of 35 pearls, this time glowing lavender, goldust, and sapphire appears. It is put around my neck. I am nearly speechless, but manage to say to Z, "what do you think"? With the response,
"I think you should get it", across the table, a hard, cold wind blows.

I make it out of the house clutching my bag, a little afraid of being tackled from behind. Back at our bungalow, in the light of a Tahitian sun, I examine each jewel, each artificat of an oyster life, each unique to the little oyster birthmother and birthfather and the combination of nature and nurture that have produced them. There is, in each one, a thousand stories, containing all the colors of island wind and ocean and hardscrabble life in paradise. The blacks are less black than they are Beretta-grey, but then there are the peacocks, which glow fishpond green, and then some that channel sunset golds in dusky lava fields.  I have never seen anything so beautiful.

And from this extraordinary place comes too the most extraordinary of dishes. Poisson cru. More rich than Hawaiian poke and more refined that South American ceviche, it is completely Tahitian. Here is my version:

Put a combination of good, fresh local fish, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, into a large bowl. I like ahi and marlin.Pour saltwater over the fish, enough to cover it.  I like to use ocean water, but for land dwellers, use bottled water mixed with a heavy amount of sea salt. Stir for a few minutes, then drain.

Thinly slice onion, tomatoes, and cucumbers and add to the fish. Add thinly sliced serrano pepper to taste (optional and not traditional. This is my addition). Juice several limes to taste and add to the fish, together with the zest of a lime or two.

Using a fresh coconut or two, wring the water out of it using cheesecloth and add it to the fish, together with the shredded coconut. In the alternative, use canned coconut milk (unsweetened!) and unsweetened shredded coconut. Mix well and serve. Naked. In pearls.