Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Crystal Cove - Orange County

 This year my family decided to do Thanksgiving the weekend after the fact, and we met in Orange County to celebrate.  My parents were staying in a very nice place near Corona del Mar (view from balcony pictured above) and very close to Crystal Cove State Park.  Walking distance as a matter of fact.  Though I love the Bay Area, every time I go down south, I marvel at how much more comfortable the climate is and how nice (and easy to get to) the beaches are.  So here are pics from two hikes on a beautiful winter day in So Cal.
First I was amazed at how many native plants I saw along the bluffs over the ocean. This area has seen heavy development so it was good to see some familiar plants.  Like artemisia and toyon (lots of toyon), as well as sages and coyote brush.  My dad and I tried a few of the toyon berries, which are supposedly somewhat edible.  Usually they are described as astringent.  I think that is an excellent word.  Many are mealy as well.  I did find one bush right along Highway 1, however, that had sweeter berries.  It tasted citrusy, but can't imagine eating a whole lot.

Not all the familiar plants were a good thing, like this oxalis.  But it was nice to see they are trying to restore the area.
Some of the plants I wasn't familiar with.
 And then in historic Crystal Cove, a small beach village, they had a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Nothing like a walk on the beach in December with a Christmas tree to usher in the holidays.  A happy solstice, merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bay Area Foraging Successes?

So I've tried a couple of things I foraged or wrote about a while ago.  I left you all hanging with my last post, but I still haven't tried the laurel nuts.  I'm thinking I'll try and roast them this weekend.  I did however try the fruit.  Hmmm? How to describe it?  As you can see in this pic, it looks like a tiny round avocado.
 Pretty cool looking really.  The flesh was much firmer, so I'm not sure it was ripe.  I read you're supposed to wait till the fruit turns purple before eating.  Most of the fruit was purple, but maybe it wasn't long enough.  I think I've lost the opportunity to try again this year, but it was hard to motivate after tasting it.  What did it taste like?  I only tried tiny nibbles.  One was hard and didn't taste like much.  The other was like chewing on a fleshy bay leaf.  A really strong bay leaf.  Blech.  It took me a while to get the taste out of my mouth.  Here's hoping the nuts are tastier.
I have had some better success with some infusions, or teas.  I tried both a fresh and a dried rose hip tea, made from hips of Rosa californica. There didn't seem to be much difference between fresh and dried.  It tastes like vitamin C, if that makes sense.  Not bad, a little sweet.  I also tried adding a couple of hips to other teas.  The taste definitely powers through, but fortunately I like the taste.

I also tried an infusion of madrone (Arbutus menziesii) bark.  I really like this stuff.  I've had it a couple times now.  In Flavors of Home, Margit Roos-Collins describes the flavor as "a little like Chinese green tea mixed with the fragrance of bark or wood.  It's flavor is homey and a little musty, like the smell of a room full of books that has been closed up for a season by the ocean."  I don't know about that last part, but I do know I had forgotten how she described the flavor and after my first couple of sips, I thought to myself that it tasted like green tea.  But an earthy green tea.  It's very pleasant.  I've mixed it with rose hips and white sage.  So far I think I like it on its own.

And last, but not least, I tried madrone berries.  I don't know if I've never paid attention before, but I have seen tons of madrone berries this year, both in the East Bay and on a trip up north to Mendocino.  The hills along one section of 101 south of Ukiah was blazing red with all the berries.  I finally spotted a tree with low-hanging branches on the side of a small road, and picked some.  I don't think they were ripe.  They were kind of hard and astringent.  Ms. Roos-Collins did say in her book, that fruits vary in taste from tree to tree.  I'm supposed to hike on Thanksgiving, so I'll look for some more.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

East Bay Fall, Redwood Park

So reminded by Christine's post over at Idora Design, I decided to go for a hike yesterday to look for California bay, or laurel, fruits.  I had read about eating them in Flavors of Home and was quite curious.  I know there are a lot of laurel trees on the laurel trail in Berkeley's Tilden Park, a really beautiful section in fact, but I got a late start and it's not very convenient for me to get to from Oakland.  That and traffic on the 24 made me take a last minute turn towards Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland hills.  And I'm really glad I did.

I parked at the Skyline Gate Staging Area and then preceded to go left on the West Ridge trail.  The area near the gate has been worked on quite assiduously by habitat restoration volunteers and the efforts really show.  There were tons of different natives peaking up all along that first part of the trail, and several cages around some planted natives as well.  This is a different area of the park than where I volunteered.

Here there were a lot of honeysuckle and some snowberries.

There were California fuchsia doing their thing, and hazelnuts getting ready to do theirs.
And this has already done its thing.  Anybody know what this is?
The most impressive were the madrones.  All the tallest trees were fruiting.  I'd never seen, or at least never noticed, this before.  Really beautiful.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Acorn Gelato

So when I started this blog, I had thoughts of blogging about food fairly often.  Those posts have been few and far between, but here's one I had to blog about.  I went to my favorite local gelateria, Gelateria Naia, last night.  I usually get something with chocolate and so was trying to branch out. Their flavors were very different than the last few times I've been there.  Since they use a lot of local ingredients I guess it makes sense that they would have to be in season as well.  I sampled the prickly pear sorbetto, which was good, but a little sweet for my taste.  And then I saw the acorn gelato.  What could be better for a California fall?  The sample was good, very light, and I decided would pair well with chocolate.  Ah well, I did at least try to branch out.   So I ordered the acorn with dark chocolate a perfect combination.

I went to Italy this summer and have been a little disappointed with the different gelato places I've tried.  In Italy, the gelato was very light.  Here most gelato is much heavier.  It seems more like regular ice cream, but with more unique flavors.  The gelato at Naia is much lighter, but still incredibly flavorful.  Some of the flavors are a single-malt whiskey and an earl gray, along with other more basic flavors like stracciatella.  There are now several stores and places you can buy their gelato here in the Bay Area.  They'll also ship to several western states, though you kinda have to be there to receive it.

For another blog entry about Gelateria Naia from KQED, click here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Riparian Restoration Redwood Regional Park in Oakland aka Pulling French Broom

So I'm back. Two weddings in the last month.  But weekend before last I spent my Sunday morning up at the Redwood Regional Park here in Oakland volunteering.  The East Bay Regional Parks have ongoing volunteer projects for habitat restoration.   I was interested in doing something in the parks where I frequently hike here in the Oakland Hills.  I missed the one in the Huckleberry Botanic preserve, the second Saturday of every month, but had time for the riparian restoration project in Redwood Park the second Sunday of every month.

I've been wanting to do this for a while, but a week or two before I volunteered, I was hiking in the park and saw lots of colored flags marking native plants that had been planted along the stream that runs through the park.  I thought what better way to spend a Sunday morning than planting natives along a a beautiful creek.

Well I didn't quite get to do that.  Instead I and several other volunteers were up on a sunny slope cutting down French broom and then pulling the stumps out by the roots.  French broom is incredibly invasive here in the East Bay hills and crowds out or shades out natives.  I had no idea it got as tall as it does.  I was cutting down broom 10 feet tall.  I always assumed they were small shrubs, but they in fact get to the size of small trees.

Though not quite what I expected I had a good and rewarding time.  All of the volunteers were friendly and Pamela, who works for the park district and organizes this volunteer group, could not have been more helpful.  They showed me areas they had already cleared and all of the natives that were discovered hiding under there, or other areas they replanted with natives.   I myself uncovered/rescued 3 live oaks.  One might have been able to compete with the French broom at 12 feet high, the other two could not at chest high and 10 inches high.  I also found a tiny bay, 2 ribes and a sword fern.  Very cool.  I'm sure the seedbank of broom is quite high, but I'm sure there are also some other native seeds in their two that might now have a chance.

I didn't take any pictures, but here's a youtube video posted by a volunteer named John, who I was working beside for most of the morning.  In it you see the ingenious weed pullers that easily yank the broom out, rootball and all.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wild Berries in the Sierra Nevada

So two weekends ago I went to Yosemite and the Sierras.  This was my first trip to Yosemite where I completely avoided the valley floor.  It was wonderful.  It's such a beautiful park no matter where you go.
It's late summer coming onto fall and so there were quite a few berries scattered about on different bushes.  Some edible, some not, some undetermined.

The first berries we found were along a creek on some species of Ribes.  They had thorns on the stems so they would fall under the common name gooseberry I think.  Not sure which one specifically since our book just said there were various species of Ribes scattered throughout the Sierras.  It had small red berries.  Near the creek, they were a little mealy and not so sweet, but higher up they had a pleasant tartness balanced with a little sweetness.

In the same area we found twinberries.  Beautiful, plump glossy berries looking like conjoined twins.  My recent favorite book Flavors of Home describes them as officially edible, but not good to eat, at least here in California.  Further north in Oregon, they are supposedly prized and considered tasty, here in California no mention is made.  I now understand why.  I tried one, just to see, even after my friend said they weren't worth it.  It had a pretty foul taste.  So foul we had to go back and eat some more Ribes berries to get the taste out of our mouth.  Ah well.

On the last day, on our way home, we stopped for another short hike.  We walked through the woods, it was quite beautiful, but then we found some thimbleberries.  I had heard they were really good, but had never found them ripe.  They are really good.  They are kind of like a small fragile raspberry in the shape of a thimble (hence their name).  They have a very nice, but complex flavor.  Very good.
Then  further up we saw more gooseberries.  These had full on spikes to protect the berries themselves.  I kept thinking to myself that this plant, unlike most berry producers, did not want mammals (or at least me) disbursing its seeds.  I seemed to get impaled more than my friends, but it was worth it.  They were sweet and very juicy.  I thought to myself at the time that they would make a nice sorbet.  Evidently someone agreed.
I pulled a bunch off with some twigs I used as impromptu chopsticks and brought them home in a bag.  At home with a fork and a sharp knife they were much easier to open, and a small spoon easily scooped out the flesh.  Next time I'll just remember to bring gloves.
There were also quite a few hazelnut shrubs on that hike, but no hazelnuts were ready.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Birds in Tilden

So on a hike about 2 weeks ago with some friends, I saw two birds in an unexpected place.  I see these birds all the time, but I don't usually expect to see them in the trees.

The first was what we believe was a juvenile red-tailed hawk.  Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are very common not just here in California, but throughout North America, and their range extends to islands in the Caribbean and down through Central America.  They are quite variable in coloring and here in the West they have three forms, light, dark and intermediate.  The dark are completely dark brown, so it looks like that's what we've got below.  For more pics and more info, check out this post on 10000 Birds.
The second bird was a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), just sitting in a tree a mere 20 feet from the trail.  It wasn't a tree on the edge of a clearing, we were in the woods.  We thought maybe it was hiding from something, but really we had no idea.  This bird too is a juvenile.  It's head is grey instead of the characteristic red of the adults. Turkey vultures are the most widespread of the New World vultures from Southern Canada to the end of South America.
These are two birds I think of when I think of open space here in California.  I often see them on hikes or long car rides in less populated areas.  But it looks like people all over North America probably think the same.

And as an added bonus, here's a pic of a heron (I believe it's a great blue heron) that I saw while paddling down the Russian River in a canoe over Labor Day weekend. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wild Late Summer Harvest

Inspired by the book The Flavors of Home, which I wrote about in a previous post, I decided to try and find a few of the things that are available in August or September.

First I decided to look for some California hazelnuts which are ripe in July and August.  While hiking in Huckleberry a few weeks ago I was unsuccessful.  But this last week in Marin I was, though not very.  Although there were many hazelnut bushes along the trail, I found only two, count them, two California hazelnuts.  I ate one on the trail and saved the other to take some pictures.
The book warns that they are a favorite of squirrels and so hard to find.  It tasted kind of like a walnut to me.  I don't think I've ever had hazelnuts outside of chocolate though, so I'm no expert.  The green sheath below surrounds the nut when it's not yet ripe.  And then dries to brown as the nut ripens.  Be careful though.  There are a lot of tiny hairs on it that will stick in your fingers and hands.  Felt kind of like nettle.  Peeling the first one, I only got a couple, the second a handful of stinging hairs.  The first seemed drier.  I wonder if that made the difference.  Then you've got to crack the nut to get to the meat.
Next up was madrone bark.  This is the time of year when sheets of the bark starts to dry and curl on the tree and is easily removed.  It's used to make an infusion (i.e. tea).  I haven't tried it yet, but will definitely blog about it when I do.
And last up were rose hips of one of our native wild roses.  Much like the hazelnuts, I've seen lots of wild roses lately, but almost no hips.  That is until I stumbled upon a small group of bushes covered with hips.  They are very tiny in comparison to the domesticated varieties.  I'm not sure I took enough for more than a cup of tea, but when I have it I'll blog about that as well.
I was trying to dry them whole, but then decided to cut them in half and dry them in a low oven for about 30 min as per the book's suggestion.  Rose hips are high in vitamin C.  And rose hip oil is commonly used in parts of Latin America to minimize scarring and as an anti-aging cream.  I tried one on the trail.  It was pretty mealy.  Not so great.  The book does say that some bushes have better tasting hips than others and if you find mealy ones, to move on.  But those were the only hips I've seen in weeks.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Swanton Berry Farm and the joys of Highway 1

I might come back with another post or two about my trip to Europe, but for now I'll talk about my trip down the coast towards Santa Cruz this past weekend.  I have done this trip many times.  My best friend studied at UC Santa Cruz and I visited her there often at the time.  And once she moved up to the Bay Area proper we often made trips down the coast to Santa Cruz to visit.

Our regular route is across the 92 to Half Moon Bay and then south.  There is a lot to do on this little stretch of coast, and lots of cool beaches right on the side of the highway to stop and hang out at.  But what prompted this trip was my desire to go pick berries at Swanton Berry Farm.
This is an organic farm that uses unionized labor.  How much better could you feel about where your food comes from?  Well even better if you pick the food yourself.  They have a U-pick service for some of their crops depending on the season.  Right now they have strawberries and blackberries.  I think they are known locally for the olallieberries, but I missed the season.  Next time.  Later in the year they also have kiwis to pick.  Yum.  My best friend couldn't come, but it was easy finding volunteers.
I have to say the strawberries were some of the best I've ever had.  The blackberries were good, but not supersweet. I think they need a little more time to ripen.  They were great with a little vanilla yogurt though.  The strawberries I didn't want to dilute at all, so they all got eaten fresh.
If you do decide to cruise down this stretch of Highway 1, I suggest you also stop in Pescadero at the Arcangeli Grocery Co. to try the artichoke garlic herb bread.  This stuff is amazing.  I always get one loaf to eat on the drive and at least one to take home.  There's also the Bonny Doon vineyard for some winetasting and the giant haybale maze at Arata Pumpkin Farm.  And of course don't forget to stop at one of the many beaches to eat your bread, berries, and drink your wine.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Alpine wildflowers part 2

 So we saw way too many wildflowers on our hike in the Bernese Oberland to put them all in one post.  So here are a few more.  I thought this one might be some sort of rhododendron and it was.  Rhododendron hirsutum.
This little ball of yellow is called Anke bauli in the local Swiss German dialect, which literally translates as little butterball.  Its Latin name is Trollius europaeus.
This one had a very unique flower and according to the flora at the hut was Silene vulgaris.  According to wikipedia parts of the plant are edible, but I'm not sure I'd rely on wikipedia to know what's edible and what's not.
And everyone needs a sneed.  This weird Dr. Seuss looking thing is an Anemone alpina after it was done flowering.
 The first of the photos below is, I believe, Phyteuma orbiculare.  And the second is Rhinanthus minor.  Both very unusual flowers.  The phyteuma's common name in English is Rampion but in Italian is Raponzolo and may be where Rapunzel got her name in the story.  While Rhinanthus minor is hemi-parasitic (i.e. getting some of its nutrients from neighboring plants) like our Indian paintbrush.
The last three flowers I tracked down with the help of this website about Alpenblume, or Alpine flowers.  It's searchable by color, month and size of blooms.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wildflowers and hiking in the Swiss Alps

So one of the reasons I haven't been blogging lately is that I was in Europe for 2 1/2 weeks.  I went for a friend's wedding and to visit several other friends, so I had a wonderfully busy time.  One of the many highlights was a 2 day hike in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland.  We parked in Lauterbrunnen and then took a gondol up part of the mountain and then were on our way.
While keeping one eye on the incredibly beautiful views of mountains, valleys and glaciers, I also kept one eye down on the ground to look at all the wildflowers.  And there were a lot.  A beautiful variety of flowers, some familiar, but mostly new to me.
One of the familiar flowers was yarrow.  Quite a bit of it along the trail.  And this one reminded me of elegant clarkia at first, until I realized it was fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium).
I saw what I was sure was delicate rose foliage and a rosehip a little ways off the trail.  I asked my friend's uncle, our unofficial guide, who hikes often in the Bernese Oberland and grew up nearby if it could be a wild rose.  He said, no we were too high up for wild roses.  But then a little further up the trail we saw this.  I had in fact seen a wild rose.
Another pleasant surprise was this lily.  According to a book I found out at the hut we stayed at that night it was Lilium martagon, or Turk's cap lily.  Really beautiful and unexpected.
Here's some type of ranunculus.  My best guess is Ranunculus thora, but I'm not sure.
And a truly wonderful suprise was this little orchid.  It's definitely in the genus Dactylorhiza, but I'm not sure of the species.  It might be traunsteineri, but just as possible are incarnata, maculata, or fuchsii.  I'll try and do a little more digging.
More to come.