A wine tasting at the end of the world
Antarctica is not known for its wine, but it does exist. Of the forty permanent research stations on the continent, the Dumont d’Urville station, the French base, is known to have the best chef and the deepest cellar. In 2019 I was posted to the Australian Antarctic Division at Casey Station on the eastern edge of the continent. Alcohol was a simple affair: you ordered it from a wholesaler, and it was delivered to you by a supply ship in the middle of the field season. The Australians also operated a small brewery there using water from glaciers thousands of years old. How cold Newcomb Bay Brewery’s beer was, how welcome and revered its brewmasters!
Australians have since banned homebrewing in Antarctica, citing, anemicly, the unique environment. Too many people, it seems, were having fun.
But it was a problem for Australians. My immediate concern was the Araon, the boat I now called home. My research revealed that the American ship, the Palmer – also ready to explore Thwaites – is a dry ship. If the same was true for South Korean ships, it was up to me to make the Araon a wet boat.
Life on board isn’t known for its spacious accommodations; you’ll end up knowing your shipmates too well. We had no internet, no phone service, no messaging apps, no FaceTime. Spiritually and practically, we found in Antarctica only what we carried, and like a bottle of fine wine, all changes emerged from within.
Life on board was organized around meals and scientific operations, the latter hampered by wind and unstable sea weather conditions from Amundsen to Thwaites, making it perhaps the most difficult place to explore in the world. Meals, however, were served with Swiss clockwork precision. Every day at 07:00, 11:00 and 17:00, the chefs prepare authentic South Korean cuisine in a well-stocked buffet style kitchen.
Having no experience in Korean food, I never really understood what to expect. The inventive chef and his heroic team rarely served the same thing twice, and I would bite into something expecting it to be hot and spicy only to find it cold and sweet. I went there with enthusiasm, come what may. Which meant that once, I accidentally ate an entire farm’s worth of chicken feet, much to my regret.
My first Friday in the dinner queue, I shared eye contact with an outgoing Korean in his mid-50s who was wearing large round glasses and casual clothes. Ernie had been to Antarctica several times, he explained, and knew that it sometimes took months for passengers from different countries to mingle. He was going to change that. At the buffet, he explained each item offered, its Korean name and how to eat it.
Later, Ernie also introduced me to “soju”, a clear mind, and “maekju”, beer, and how to pour one into the other makes “somaek”. He taught me several louder and louder toasts, though I quickly forgot the Korean words, my brain as clouded as the dark Amundsen sea outside. My favorite that I remember translated as “Empty cup!” followed by a vigorous slamming of said cups, and an immediate emptying of their contents.
Later, he taught me what it’s like to wake up with a terrible headache on a South Korean icebreaker ship bound for the worst place in the world. I wasn’t alone in my exhausted state and the next day the kitchen was serving what I think was “haejangguk” – a dish that reminded me of yakamein, a hangover soup from New Orleans.
The Araon, I learned the hard way, is not a dry ship.