About three years ago, shortly after the Louis Benoists had bought the 98-foot ketch Morning Star, her crew of paid hands mutinied while sailing the west coast of Mexico and left the new owners anchored off a strange little town full of men on horseback, donkeys carrying loads of wood, colonial arches and the sound of church bells. The town was Puerto Vallarta. This nostalgic survival of Hispanic culture climbs the palm-jungly hills edging the Pacific at a point some 500 miles north of Acapulco. "That landfall was the luckiest thing that ever happened to us," Louis Benoist says. "We found a hotel on the waterfront and liked it so much that I bought it next morning." The Hotel Oceano is now a small paradise with ravishing food; Mexicana Airlines flies into a local airfield; and the Benoists own not one but two apartados in an old palace on the hill.
The incident—and the quick decision which proved so right—is typical of the man whose many friends deeply admire his combination of taste and business acumen. President of the Lawrence Warehouse Company of San Francisco and owner of Almadén, one of the more celebrated California vineyards, Benoist is a descendant of French aristocrats, from whom he presumably inherited his talent for the enjoyment of living. (His ancestor who emigrated to Canada, the Chevalier Benoist, was court painter to Louis XIV.) He and his accomplished wife Katharine have for years enjoyed the reputation of being superb hosts. In different parts of California they maintain five houses, in each of which they offer friends a different type of cuisine. Their plan of life is unique: a flying circuit, according to season, touching these residences in turn, occasionally varied by a trip east or to Mexico in their private plane.
When the Morning Star is in southern waters and a cruise is planned, the Benoists often fly with their guests to Mazatlàn, board the boat there and then sail leisurely along the Mexican coast to Puerto Vallarta and other ports of call. Thus they manage to arrive at the boat with a number of precooked delicacies transported from a home kitchen. For the rest, Louis has evolved a shipboard menu which is simplified but nevertheless affords a great variety of dishes that are fresh-tasting and delicious.
Like most cruising yachts of large size, the Morning Star has a stove with an oven, an electric refrigerator and a freezer locker. "Nevertheless, space is limited and keeping qualities have to be emphasized," says Benoist, "as well as maximum use of fresh items which can be picked up in various seaports. I have found that in order to maintain one's waistline equilibrium a good deal of attention must be paid to the fare, and we have tried to keep on the protein side.
"Breakfast is very light and limited to fruit—mainly grapefruit, which is most practical on board—and English muffins or French bread, which store exceptionally well in the icebox; also eggs, which keep well. As to luncheon, we stick mostly to sea food salads or chicken or squab, which can be brought aboard already prepared and will last several days." If the crayfish of the rivers or the sea shrimp or the long-tentacled Mexican lobsters are in the market at Mazatlàn, they are bought there to be cooked on board and provide marvelous luncheon fare. Dessert is usually a bowl of raw fruit served with a Monterey Jack cheese.
Dinner often starts with a canned soup, hot or jellied, or perhaps California celery hearts or jumbo white asparagus—these, too, out of a can—drained, rinsed and dressed with a fresh-made vinaigrette sauce. The main dish has usually been caught on the jig lines that day, for these waters abound in edible fish and the Morning Star's Filipino chef, Casiano Noriega Padus, better known as Mike, knows many delightful ways of preparing them (see recipe below). But also on hand are the makings of beef and kidney pie, chicken curry, broiled spareribs, etc. One rough weather specialty is a good beef stew out of a tin; other staples for emergencies include canned shad roe and canned bacon. A favorite dessert, which Louis Benoist describes as a cinch to make, is a fruit ice. His formula: "Just take the juice of fresh orange, lemon or lime, add water and sugar, and put it in the freezer until half frozen. Then stir in the beaten white of one egg and complete the freezing. Serve with a little Cointreau and kirsch."
RED SNAPPER SEVEN SEAS
As prepared by Mike, chef on the Morning Star, for a 10-pound fish. The recipe is used also for dolphin.
1 10-pound red snapper
1 head celery, chopped medium fine
4 small, strong white onions, coarsely chopped
1 lemon, sliced thin
1 piece fresh ginger root, size of an egg, sliced thin
3 slices bacon
½ cup tomato juice
1 cup red wine salt and pepper
Clean the fish, but do not remove head and tail. Place in a buttered baking pan and cover with the chopped vegetables and the ginger. Lay the slices of lemon along the back. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; then place bacon slices diagonally over the fish. Pour over it 2 tablespoons tomato juice and 1 tablespoon red wine. Place in preheated 450° oven. After 15 minutes turn oven down to 350° and add remainder of tomato juice and wine. Cook for another half hour, basting very frequently. Serve with tartare sauce and cucumbers.
With their boat anchored off Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Benoist and guest Clarence S. Postley (left) enjoy a meal in the sunshine on deck. Dish in foreground is red snapper Seven Seas.