Morning reflections on Tomales Bay… (at Point Reyes National Seashore And Lighthouse)
Summer mornings, quiet and early and dripping with the gray fog of northern California, are ideal for working in the garden. Into an old linen housedress I slip, and accompanied only by a mug of Jasmine Pearl tea, enter into the small, green world of my making. Hoping to be ignored by chatty neighbors who often peek through strategically placed shrubbery, I fill our absurdist bird feeder, a wood and iron piece based on the 1920s design of the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, complete with a tiny outdoor pool. The efforts and architecture are seemingly appreciated by the greedy Blue Jays, their ferocity making even the cats cower. Ancient window panes, edged in chipped red and blue paint from a long-ago weekend project, are thrown open, the seed boxes now carpeted with unkempt rows of spicy micro-greens and tiny radishes.
Radicchio seeds, smuggled in from southern Italy and planted the week prior, are finally extending teeny shoots. Roma tomato plants are tied, bondage-style, to copper posts; their splayed, thickish branches coating my arms with a viridescent, resinous and stinky pollen, and making them itch in a most delightful way.
Armed with a pair of oversized Spanish kitchen shears, I wondrously examine a large raised bed, now spilling over with leaves the size of baby elephant ears and sprouting curlicue tendrils, which grasp desperately at an old bamboo trellis firmly situated in its midst. The plant is a volunteer, one of many in the garden; a rogue outgrowth of this lazyman’s compost pile, which is laden with squash and tomato remnants, and their seeds, from last year’s harvest. The squash plant was left to languish, but instead dug in its roots and flourished, announcing its feat with dozens of fat, bijou blossoms the color of a two-day old jack-o’-lantern. I snip a baker’s dozen of the gaudy flowers and their spindly stems, easily filling my harvest basket just as the mid-morning sun muscles through pewter skies, shooing the fog back towards the coast.
Rinsing the delicate flowers, two stunned ladybugs are liberated by the water and sent fluttering from the gossamer folds. Into a bowl of room temperature Sonoma sheep’s milk ricotta went several eggs, their yolks a Cadmium Yellow Deep hue. Tiny leaves from the overly-proliferate Globe basil bush were added, along with a generous handful of Sicilian pine nuts, the edges charred bark brown in hot cast iron. Flaky salt, coarsely ground black and white pepper, and a hit of allspice to fool the palate were gently folded into the mix. Using an antique quenelle spoon traded ages ago for a bottle of Dujac Burgundy with a too-savvy sous chef from a distant restaurant gig, I filled each flower with the rich goodness, twisting the ends tightly, sealing their fate. Each blossom was brushed with a bit of whipped egg and dusted with freshly grated crumb before being blasted in a roasting hot oven. An old Pieropan Soave was uncorked, the smoky, salty notes from the Garganega grape a wonderful companion to the stuffed squash blossoms. We stood at the stove, dirt from the garden still encrusted on our bare feet, and ate them straight from the pan.
Slowly curing the oven. It all started with a couple loads of ancient firebrick from the demolished ovens of Oakland’s once famed Columbo Bakery. Community baking days announced soon: pots of beans, haunches of ham, and long-risen loaves welcome. (at at home in Napa)
The steel gray skiff cut through white caps whipped to a froth from the steady blow off northern California’s Sierra Buttes, still snow-covered and gleaming in the bright morning sunlight at the lake’s opposite end. Surely my ill-considered bathing suit and sarong would stay packed this long weekend. With the mountains looming over us, we took cover from the wind’s chill on the far side of Sardine Lake; the rhythmic pounding from a glacial waterfall’s cascade the only sound.
Settled at 6,200 feet on the lake’s shore, the family-operated Sardine Lake Resort is cloistered under towering pines. Named for Sardine, the miner’s mule who tumbled into the lake in the early 1800s, the pristine waters are fed by springs and snowmelt, and surrounded by conifer-covered mountains.
The dozen log cabins and a small dining lodge remain mostly unchanged from their original construction in 1941. Propane tanks, pine cones and piles of plywood from long abandoned projects stud the scrubby grounds, while small boats, available for rent, bang against the creaky wooden dock. Vivid blue Stellar’s Jay, with their loud screams and punky Mohawk headdresses, terrorize the camp; old trout priests and fishnets handmade from sculpted pine boughs decorate the cabin’s doors.
It wasn’t even mid-morning, yet there were already seven trout, both Cutthroats and Browns, tied from a rope and floating in the water behind our small boat.
Cutthroat trout thrive in clear, cold freshwater lakes and streams, and are named for the distinctive red coloring on their lower jaws. The species’ scientific name is Salmo clarki in honor of William Clark, who, along with his partner Lewis, first described the fish in their journals. The pair was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to study the flora, fauna, and geography of the western United States following the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.
Freshwater Brown trout are seldom dull brown, instead often shimmery silver and intricately spotted. Opportunistic to their gills, they eat whenever food presents itself, gorging on other fish, birds, frogs, and insects near the water’s surface, including the carefully baited hook of the fly-fisherman.
Just shy of our daily limit of five fish each, we motored back to shore for a midday repast before returning to lure the remaining fish with worms ripped mercilessly in half and threaded onto tiny, naked hooks. More appetizing was our lunch: steaming bowls of leftover spaghettini dense with fiery red chili, green garlic, grated Parmesan and a lavish shaving of salty, cured tuna bottarga. A platter of leafy chicories followed, late-in-their-season bitter and laid with pork sliced thick from chops cooked the night prior. The inhabitants of several cabins, friends all, each claimed an evening to host dinner, with the previous night’s feast spilling over into the next day’s lunch. The small, well-equipped kitchen had cast iron skillets hanging from square-headed nails driven into the log walls, and mismatched plates and silverware, decent wine stems, and heavy tumblers lined the cupboard shelves.
Even forgoing noontime wine, our cheeks still blazed red from the constantly stoked cast iron stove. The cabin’s original chinked log construction house kitschy fish lamps, taxidermy, sagging mattresses, and plentiful towels, long laundered into sandpaper. Screen doors open onto small porches overlooking the lake, set with pendulous beds for morning reading, late afternoon dreaming, and bouts of evening drinking.
Unwashed and smelling of wood smoke, lake brine and fish, we gathered for our final meal together. Magnums of decades-old Stony Hill Chardonnay were uncorked while baguettes toasted for the freshly made rabbit rillettes, which we slathered with spicy French mustard and course sea salt. The trout was cleaned, butterflied and pierced onto pine skewers, whittled clean and sharp, before being grilled on mesquite coals. The fish’s flesh pulled easily away from its just-cooked, translucent skin. Topped with a spoonful of sauce made quickly from Sicilian capers, lemon, butter and a splash of the white wine, each mouthful was succulent, sweet and rich; flavors quite remarkable from a fish fed on snowmelt and bugs.