Friday, 25 April 2014

Did Someone Say Cheese?

After we had spent some time in Indonesia, I realised that we quite enjoyed yogurt as a snack, cheese on almost everything and milk. All. The. Time. It was a very inopportune time to realise this as we had entered South East Asia and the land that is bereft of dairy products. I recall with much humour the time I was speaking with our friend Jackie from Hokulea, about my longing for tasty thick yogurt. Also admitting that in the previous 6 months I had thrown out not one, but two ‘easy-yo’ yogurt makers (a thermos style gadget that you input a yogurt-powder satchel and add water to make a multitude of yogurt products). These easy-yo makers are very popular with sailors and I repeatedly kicked myself due to my foolhardy cupboard cleaning that I entered into with such vigour prior to leaving port in Sydney. Lesson for anyone planning a trip on a pre-loved boat, leave stuff where it is on the boat for a while, as the previous owner found it useful and you might too! Of course, these easy-yo makers were not sold outside of Australia or NZ, we were fresh out of luck!

We came and went from ports in Wakatobi and South Sulawesi, where words like milk refer purely to premixed flavoured milks or baby formula. Things were starting to look grim and my quartermastering skills were being challenged by Hugh’s insatiable desire for soft cheese. Our relationship was hanging by a thread. But two months after leaving Darwin we landed in the Indonesian port of Labuan Bajo, a veritable ‘promise land’. A town that had some well settled German and Australian ex-pats and options for cheese! The choices were pale yellow Kraft VERY processed cheddar or mozzarella. We were in no position to debate the merits of the Kraft cheese, into the basket it went, along with the only UHT milk in town. Yes, thats right, I bought the town out of milk by purchasing 1 x UHT pack!

The Kraft cheese was ‘interesting’, it had been entitled ‘nuclear cheese’ by some German expats in Banda Neira, because no matter how you used it either grilled or in the oven, it didn’t change consistency and was impossible to burn. We arrived on the island of Bali and a detour to Denpasar paid off when we found Camembert and Brie shining on the fridge shelf of the French market chain ‘Carrefour’. Hugh got up close to the halo of the cheeses in the fridge and reached in with his arm and slid the whole lot into the basket. At $10 a packet, this cheese was akin to gold and was the equivalent of the price for dinner for the two of us for 3 days (per packet!). But cost aside, this would restore some harmony to the boat.

Daily yogurt, the curds are starting to separate
 from the whey at the base of the container
Onto Malaysia and, bless the British and their colonial legacy, cheese was available in various forms, though our favourite was Australian or New Zealand cheddar imported by the pallet load. In gay-abandon we topped up our dairy tanks and we could practically feel our bone density increasing.

Yogurt after one day of separating the curds from the
whey (through muslin cloth) and kept in the fridge
It was a chance encounter with our friends Glen and Julia aboard Honeymoon in Phuket that changed our boat life dramatically. They generously donated part of their yogurt culture to us. There was a 1 hour crash course, some words of good luck and a teary wave as we sailed out of port with the ‘daughter’ of their yogurt culture aboard EJ. They had had this yogurt plant for some years and kept it alive with lots of love and daily tending (yes, DAILY!) They had named theirs Yasser (Arafat) after Glen had been reading a book about middle eastern politics at the time the culture came into their lives. Glen laughed as he retold a story about one time when they were at home and they drive 4 hours to see his mother, for what they thought would be a lunch date. It turned into a longer affair and he had to call up his mate to go and tend to Yasser so it didn’t die while they were away for a few days. The call was filled with ‘what the yogurt culture?’ and ‘you want me to do what?’ from his mate. From then on they took Yasser on holidays too, he was their new child and became very well travelled!

The closest biological information to this culture I could find was of a regenerating kefir plant, that lives off the lactose in reconstituted full cream milk powder. So we called our culture Zahwa, after Mr Arafat’s daughter. The daily tending requirement was quite a commitment, but this could be our lucky dairy break and a solution to our onboard dairy deficiency! We had a boat daughter, she was one of the family now.

Container for 'drying' the yogurt ball. Sealed from
absorbing odours in the fridge.
As time wore on, I got to know Zahwa. We would exchange ideas and she would tell me the best way to get a good yogurty outcome. Then came the revelation that if I strained the whey from the curds for longer, I could try my hand at cheese making! So I started to hang the cheese in a sealed jar in the fridge. Once a nice solid ball had developed (say 5 days of drying), it is ready to be put in brine (like a soft Danish fetta) or into marinated oil (like labneh) for some seriously tasty soft cheese. We finally had a solution to dairy on demand on the boat and I had a delicious snack in tzatziki (yogurt + cucumber dip), toppings for Mexican wraps (yogurt + lime makes a great faux sour cream) and yogurt for Indian Korma dishes. No yogurt based dish was too strange for circulation on the boat menu. Next challenge is to make cheddar cheese...though I might need a bigger boat with a special cheese room for that!

For those of you watching at home, you can replicate these creations with store bought greek yogurt, by hanging it in muslin cloth in the fridge and then putting it in salt water brine or marinated oil.

Fruits of labour - tzatziki dip, marinated labneh
and fetta cheese for a mezze plate style dinner
(tough boat life!) The many different faces of
the yogurt culture.
The yogurt and cheese at the various stages of production
The far right shows the labneh balls in marinated oil


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

2013 In Review

We thought that we would bring our 2013 stories to life for our diligent readership. So here is a short movie showing our trip north from Sydney to Darwin admiring the fabulous wildlife and rugged landscapes, through Indonesia where we were treated to an insight into the rituals and religious routines - not to mention the spectacular natural wonders of the country and jungles, busy urban Malaysia and the breathtaking Thai west coast. Just two Aussies having a go! We hope you like it.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014


Day 1: Discovery
Well our response to the realisation that we had a stowaway rat on board was not quite jovial. After our early morning domestic flight to Johor Bahru Malaysia, while I was suffering from a nasty and violent food poisoning episode, to come back to the boat at Danga Bay Marina and see the damage that had been done to the boat and our belongings was something that I could not stomach. I found the least affected area of the boat and curled up to wish the rest of the day away.

The enthusiasm shown by Russell the Rat to get into the boat

Aside from man, the rat is by far the most destructive creature on earth. They are truly omnivores, devouring almost anything they can get their little noses into—up to 10-15% of their body weight every day. But because rats have discerning palates, a single rat may ruin 10 times as much food as it eats. And what they don’t eat they chew: wood, PVC, plastic, paper and electric cable are but a few of the things rats like to use to sharpen their teeth. Boats provide a perfect rat home being dry, warm and generally having food to eat.

Day 2: This Is War
I was somewhat recovered and the boat blitz began, washing plates, cups, mugs, cutlery, bowls. We had been gone for 12 days and there was no telling how many days he had been living it up like a plump spoilt prince in our house.  Its like he actually sat down on the couch and watched tv with no pants on and drank all the beer. Later we moved onto the devastation. 

Our replacement shopping list 

I was enraged by the damage and the numerous shopping trips that would have to be made to replace the food that I had stocked for our upcoming long ocean passages. I would have been less angry had he actually eaten our numerous kilos of food that would now go and rot at the tip, but no, he just opened all the packaging, stuck his snout inside and moved onto the next packet. Gah! Does he have no consideration for the starving masses? So much waste. But in the context of spreading the Bubonic Plague, we diligently threw out packet after packet of food, also toothpaste, aluminium foil, herbs and swimmers ear medication (what that was all about we will never know!). Russell has some interesting tastes, but I think mostly he just had a blast rummaging through our long life food stores and making himself a comfy home in our rag box (not before chomping his way through our boat t-shirts and rubber hot water bottle).

He had been using the bilge as his passageway to every little hide-hole on the boat (for the uninitiated, the bilge is the underbelly of the boat and provides an nice protected underfloor network to every part of the boat).

Fueled by rage and with our noses full of 9 curdled 1lt UHT milk containers that had been delicately nibbled enough to open their contents to the 33C heat that the boat suffers each day, we were on a mission to find some rat traps. We were keen to get traps rather than poison as we didn’t want to smell a rotting dead rat in the bilge somewhere where we could not reach it, why prolong the torture of having your house impinged upon? To the enjoyment of the hardware store worker at Johor, Hugh told the story of Russell and showed the photo of the eaten companionway door.  He gave us his ‘mouse traps’ that were fit for a cat and we headed back to the boat. With a maniacal fervor Hugh got busy practicing the traps on pencils, laughing with glee as the pencil would snap in two and spin across the boat. We were fairly confident that the traps would be up to the task.

I pulled out another draw to find Russell had made himself nicely at home in our clothes draw, his fecal evidence delicately placed everywhere.  Without a second thought I pulled out the draw below and there he was skittering away to the soundtrack of my screaming at Hugh ‘that’s where he is….ahhhh…wahhh …Russell, he is still heeeeeere…ahhhhhh.’ Hugh valiantly jumped forward and grabbed the fishing spear gun (I am not quite sure how that would have done anything except put holes in the sole of the boat, but the gesture was sweet). But now we knew that he was still amongst us. Hugh thought I was making things up in my food poisoning induced haze when I told him I heard scratching sounds while I was sleeping the day before, Russell was in the draw right below my pillow, sweet dreeeeams!

More cleaning and more discoveries inspired us to have no mercy on Russell. As it came time to turn in, we laid the traps with peanut butter in two strategic positions. Less than an hour after laying the trap, our principle target snapped! We jumped up to disappointingly find that Russell had tipped the trap, but was free. We reset the traps, but the night did not prove to be Russell’s last.

I had a fitful sleep filled with rat related visions, paranoid expectations of rat paws walking across my face and my sheer fear of the teeth gnashing mammal was causing my left eye to twitch.

Day 3 – Know Thy Enemy
Snap traps baited but not set, part of a
bigger plan!
So Russell had got the better of us last night, time to get educated. Youtube taught us some handy tips on rat catching, so we were back off to the hardware store to get more snap traps and one live trap. A cunning plan of baiting the snap traps but not setting them was discussed in minute detail, as if it were a covert operation by the SAS. We would bait the snap traps and bait the live trap with stinky cat food to try and train the rat where to eat so that we can fully set the booby trapped cabin should we be unlucky tonight. We laid the traps and tied them to fixed parts of the boat, we had read stories of other boat owners going searching for traps in inaccessible parts of the boat after a partially trapped rat dragged themselves to safety. This was not in our plans! 

We baited and laid the live trap on the galley floor as we had located his convenient entry point to the galley area from the bilge. We placed it adjacent the kickboard as we read that they were mostly blind and travelled along walls to orient themselves. This was no time for a fair fight, Russell had had his fun and it was time to give it up. This was war.

Day 4 – The Day of Reckoning
We awoke to a big brown Russell looking very unimpressed and trapped in the live rat trap.  I let out the biggest most obtuse cackle at seeing Russell with no escape. But I could not help but feel sad because he was just doing what he was made to do. 

Unfortunately we were incompatible together what with the damage caused, the food ruined and the sleep lost, this guy was not long for this earth.  We tried to interrogate him through the cage with question about ‘who sent him, how long he had been here and where were the others’, but he wasn’t going to give up the information.  This was not yielding any results, so Hugh quickly sent Russell to Davy Jones Locker and that was that. Now we just have to see if there are other family members that we can coax out, tonight would be the night.

Day 5 – When to Claim Victory
Is it over or are they preparing to launch a counter offensive? A vigilant check of the boat to see if there was more evidence of rats came up clear and it appeared that Russell was operating solo. No girlfriend or little ratlings were in sight (or smell). We were safe…for now.

Its nice to look back on things with perspective. I hate rats, I hate them in my house, my bed and my food. However, this is probably the least offensive location to find one rummaging through your underwear draw. We were not at sea, at the start of our 20-day blue water passage to find all our long life food spoilt. I don’t know how Hugh and I would have played the ‘scissors-paper-rock’ scenario to decide who had to eat paper first. We lost some critical items like milk, pasta, tea, 7kgs of rice and most importantly for Hugh, the coffee. A lack of caffeine might indeed be something that would send him overboard and swimming for shore. So back to the shop we go for the replacement food run(s) and the trap will be set every day for as long as we remember this traumatic experience.