Episode One: Birds, Butterflies, and Salt
The Accidental Alchemist found herself fetched ashore upon a certain island again, fortunately not by shipwreck but instead by a rather painless plane flight from Miami. And while I failed to bend any local spirits to my will, I did bring some bananaquits around through the magic of Turbinado sugar.
I’m pretty sure that’s a new kid on the block — you can still see some “baby fuzz” sticking out from his grownup duds. Most of our BQ gang has moved down the hill from us, because the Ginger Thomas is not flowering very much at this point in the year and I think they’ve moved on to other nectar food sources. The concentration of hummingbirds has decreased as well, though the kingbirds are more active and vocal than usual. This is because it is snowing.
Well, that’s what some call it — “Crucian snow,” when a local species of small, white, faster-than-a-Wall-Street-banker-after-your-IRA butterflies (probably these guys) decides it’s time to get it on. There are masses of them and when they start dancing together in the air, it does look like a snow flurry. The problem is, they’re so fast they are almost impossible to catch in a photograph when you’re as clumsy as I am. This is as close as I got to capturing the blizzards that circled our house for days.
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though. The kingbirds LOVE these guys for dinner and it’s a real airshow when things get serious.
Like most other birds right now, the kingbirds have kids to feed and probably mortgages to pay, so they’re pretty determined to make as much of the butterfly buffet as possible. Much Discovery Channel drama resulted.
My own goals were a little less strenuous, as supermarkets do not regularly attempt to escape. It had occurred to me that we were surrounded by salt water, being on a Caribbean island and all, and that “local salt” seemed to be a gourmet item flogged to death in every cooking article I’d read in the last six years. Most “everyday” salt is mined, but a great deal (and most of the fancy-dan stuff) is made from seawater. Enter me, a gallon jug, and the Caribbean sea off Tamarind Reef. Twice, because I’d read of two methods to make seawater salt, and as a proper alchemist I had to try both.
The first method is the classic one used even today in the San Francisco Bay. Pool some water in a shallow area, let dry in sun and wind.
The second is a bit faster. Pool water in pot and boil the living hell out of it until you get salt.
As I am a bit OCD about ingredients, I made sure to wallow out on the reef until I could capture as clean a wave as I could. (The UUH bravely helped with one of these attempts). There’s a bit of seagrass and other debris that bobs around closer to the shore, and I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible.
With the first gallon, I boiled the water until there was about 1/2″-1/4″ of water left in the pot. The salt was precipitating out and crystallizing on the bottom even then. One glass baking pan and a towel later, out it went into the St. Croix sun. You can see how wet it remains, even after a day and a half out there in the wild.
The other gallon was used in a “Boil That Dust Speck” approach (kudos to anyone who gets that reference, minus a half-point if you’re a parent). As it was pretty muggy and there were Some Complaints about Using The Stove In The House, out the stainless-steel pot went onto the Weber.
I was surprised at how fast the process was. The salt was still a little damp when nearly all of the water had evaporated, so I spread it out on another platter and set it outside with its buddy.
When all was finally said and dried, I noticed a couple differences between the two techniques. The “evaporator pool” salt seemed clumpier and definitely more brilliant white in color — I wonder if a bleaching effect from the sun had something to do with it. The boiled-down and sun-finished salt was crumblier from the get-go. Both were intensely salty and have a tang to them that my “regular” salt doesn’t have. For both techniques, I estimate about a salt-shaker full from a gallon of seawater; I got a little more from the boil-down process. I used some of the salt from this experiment in the soap I made later on in the trip. But that adventure is part of Episode Two: Wrestling With Soap And The Shocking Discovery That My Spirit Animal Is A Fish. “Soon come,” as they say in St. Croix.