BREAD ON THE WATER

words ANNIE MAHLE  |  photography DOUGLAS MERRIAM

J. & E. Riggin under full sail.
Chef Annie Mahle in the galley with Assistant Cook Mark “Chives” Godfrey.
Pemaquid oysters, local from Damariscotta. Bread is a stirato from Mahle’s cookbook Sugar & Salt: A Year at Home and at Sea—The Orange Book, accompanied by a green
olive tapenade from At Home, At Sea: Recipes from a Maine Windjammer. Photo: Susan Portnoy

As I stand in the yawl boat, holding the tiller and guiding the Riggin, Jon, my husband and the captain, steers the vessel through a short tack. The majestic mainsail, the quarterdeck and the curvy black transom of our 120-foot schooner are my vantage point. The mainsail comes across the stern and passes over my husband’s head. As the boat slows down to go through her turn, a waft of woodsmoke drifts toward me woodsmoke and bread baking. It’s clear from the caramelized smell of the bread that it’s almost ready to be turned. Time to get out of the yawl boat, the Riggin’s push boat and auxiliary engine, and back down into the galley within the next three minutes or the bread will have what is called the “touch of the woodstove,” which those who cook on a woodstove call “flavor.” She comes through this tack just fine and we have enough seaway to build up momentum for the next turn, so my husband waves me up.

My restaurant kitchen is outside, often tilts and has no electricity. My stove is a wood-burning model from the ’30s and the level of heat varies with the wind and the weather. When cooking on a woodstove, perfection is even more elusive than in a normal kitchen. In addition, my kitchen is an open one where our guests are always welcome. The level of equanimity this environment requires first came with an effort of will and then with more ease and authenticity. I’m the leader. I’m the model. I’m the tone-setter.

My job (and my joy) is to be real and to have fun. Our guests are on vacation and not a one of them deserve to have an uncomfortable, awkward or angry moment. Which means that with all of these variables, my primary task is to roll with it and find solutions. All day long.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when baking bread. Bread to me is a microcosm of life. It’s alive, pliable, ever-changing, adaptable and needs constant noticing and adjusting to have the final product emerge just the way you like it. Baking bread on a boat is the ultimate in being present, going with the flow and being aware of your surroundings.

My days on our Maine windjammer, the schooner J. & E. Riggin, begin at 4:30am when the rest of the boat is sleeping. The quiet buzz of the alarm ushers in the new day when dressing warmly with a sweater is required regardless if it’s June or August. The descent into the pitch-dark galley is by feel and memory—five steps down, two to the right, reach for the light pull, step up to the stove—the alkali smell of cold coals from yesterday’s fire greets me. Building the fire and striking the match to paper and kindling mirrors the emerging glow of the sun on the horizon. It will be another hour before the water is boiling and the coffee can be poured, so I take this time to knit, stretch, journal, meditate or plan the day, depending on what I feel.

My assistant cook won’t be up for another 45 minutes, so the time is all mine and the only time of the day where I’m not needed by someone. The rest of the day will be filled with conversations with guests, crew and our girls, who were raised on the boat, while we produce three scrumptious and beautiful meals for our 24 guests each day. They will spend either four or six days sailing with us while we share with them our lifestyle, our family and one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Maine coast.

Some days we’ll wind our way to here or there and some days we’ll run out of bay as we romp across the ocean. We are in charge of none of it except for how we respond to what is given us in terms of weather and wind. My husband always says, “I know exactly where we are, I just don’t always know where we are going.” Could there be a more present moment than that?

mainewindjammer.com

 

Previous StoryNext Story