Sereia, our Mariner 36 ketch, was being overhauled while we prepared to cross the Pacific, so we were checking and patching up all the major systems. This meant that my husband, Peter, was doing a full rig check, spending long hours with his head stuffed in the engine compartment while muttering ominously about through-hulls. Me? I preserved some cheese.
Cheese, you may argue, isn't a part of any "major system" on a boat. But there you'd be wrong. I'd just flown back to Ecuador with 12 pounds of hard gourmet cheeses in my luggage, and they're critical to life on board in several ways. For instance, cheese is absolutely essential for:
Bribing Canadians: If there's anyone more enamored with cheese than I am, it's a cruising Canadian who's run out of it. I once had a Canadian sailor make me a new shear pin for my outboard simply because he was so overwhelmed with my gift of a particularly tasty Dutch Gouda. And just because he made the pin before I gave him the cheese means nothing: I'm convinced he could smell it on board our boat.
Making risotto: There are four critical components to a well-found vessel: the hull, the rig, the sails, and risotto. I once tried to call a Mayday off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, because we'd run out of butter. Peter had to talk me down, and we managed to jury-rig a replacement with olive oil. Of course, butter and Parmesan cheese are central to a good risotto, so be sure to have spares on hand in case of emergency.
Feeding fellow sailors: When you cruise, people always come over to your boat for snacks and drinks. Then they stay, and stay, and stay. You could try to interrupt that long-winded story about "the time a shark ate my mainsail and I had to create a spare using only my cat and an entire tube of 3M 5200," but everyone will ignore you. You might as well assume they'll be drinking in the cockpit all night, so put out a plate of cheese and crackers and go to bed.
Plugging small holes in the boat: Peter has been fretting lately that we're out of underwater epoxy. As it contains chemicals that some angry people use to make shoe bombs, we can't bring any from back home with us in our luggage when we fly. The solution, of course, is cheese. Any 6-year-old knows that cheese, when warmed in the hands, can be molded into a sticky ball. And, unlike epoxy, it can be reused for snacks at a later date.
So how do we store cheese on board for long periods? We don't have refrigeration on Sereia, so you might think that cheese would turn sort of wet and green after a few weeks in the tropics. But cheese, especially hard cheeses, originated as a way of preserving milk products in the absence of refrigeration. Even centuries ago, shepherds in France used to preserve cheese to eat at a later date when they'd be out in the fields for extended periods of time.
I'm not exactly clear on how those shepherds in France got hold of 120-volt AC to run their vacuum sealers, but they managed. At any rate, there are several items you'll need to preserve cheese on a boat with no refrigeration. Purchase some of your favorite hard cheeses, such as French Comte, Swiss Gruyere, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dutch Pradera, Spanish Roncal, or Pecorino Aficionado. You'll also need scissors and a sharp knife, a large quantity of cheesecloth (six yards worked for 12 pounds of cheese), a spray bottle of white vinegar, a vacuum sealer with plenty of bags, and a permanent-ink pen for labeling the contents of each bag.
Start by thoroughly cleaning the surface on which you'll be working. Cut cheese-about the amount that you'd use up in two to three days-into reasonably sized chunks. Count how many chunks you have. Now count how many inches of cheesecloth you have. Divide the latter by the former. That's how much cheesecloth you get for each chunk, so cut up your cheesecloth accordingly. Don't worry if you run out of cheesecloth; your onboard medical kit should be full of sterile gauze bandages, and these work marvelously as a substitute. Spritz each chunk of cheese lightly with white vinegar. This inhibits mold growth and won't affect the flavor. Wrap the cheese in cheesecloth and vacuum-seal it. Voila! You now have a full supply of cheese that can be kept unrefrigerated-even in the tropics-for up to a year. After a year, the cheese is still safe to eat, but it gets so strong that it borders on the hallucinogenic. Serve that at parties, and the stories will get even better.