Slowly comprehending my unbridled arrogance, hot tears stung my eyes.  Hiking alone for hours in California’s towering El Dorado National Forest, my gaze cast downwards onto the endless forest floor in front of me, I lost my way.  Rather than following a specific path or trail, I was meandering through an enormous length of woods looking for mushrooms; the highly prized morel mushroom, specifically.  Detaching from my mushroom eyes, I looked up and realized, with a gut-wrenching bolt of panic, I had absolutely no idea where I was.  And thanks to my helter-skelter approach to foraging, I had no idea from which direction I had come.

Complete fucking amateur.

And the day had begun so well.  I had taken explicit driving directions from my foraging guide the day prior.  We had spent the day together hiking through several forests, 6,500 feet up the mountain, a 20-mile drive from its base.  Not another soul in sight, I gratefully thought at the time.  While we didn’t score the motherload of fungi fantasies, my constant travel mate, a heavily patined carbon steel knife, cut through the stems of six large morels, enough for a good supper.  I was convinced that my highly focused, solo return the following day would yield far better results.  I was already anticipating loading the de-hydrator; its reassuring whirring noise and the dark, earthy aroma of mushroom filling the kitchen, while glass Mason jars fill the pantry.

I arose with the sun, enjoying a cup of tea, a stretch and an early toke on the balcony of my room, which overlooked the vast, now green vineyards lining the bosomy hills of the tiny town of Fairplay.  I loaded a compass and altitude gauge onto my phone and filled a water bottle.  Crackers, cheese, foraging knives and mesh bags went into a pack.  I stealthily slipped out the hotel’s front door, escaping the creepy hospitality of the property manager.  Driving the back roads of the conifer-covered central Sierra Nevada Mountains, I wound past the Bluebird Haven Iris Gardens, its hills ablaze in late Spring resplendence; past Glory Hole Road; past thousands of tiny, canary-yellow flowers blanketing an entire valley; past dozens of swallows playing in the early morning sunlight near an ornately arched bridge across a crystalline stream. 

 An hour later, my old German tank, its diesel-fired engine huffing and puffing, was slowly making its way up the dramatic Mormon Emigrant Trail.  Tucked into the El Dorado National Forest, this 170-mile trail was cleared in 30 days by The Mormon Battalion, who had spent the winter of 1847 in Northern California at the urging of their head chief, Brigham Young.  In an effort to return home to their church and families, they literally blazed their own trail, which was put to further use soon after by those seeking more earthly fortunes in California’s Gold Rush.

As soon as the altimeter read 6,000 feet, I drove slowly the well-paved, desolate road, canvassing forests for parcels of wood charred black from the Forestry’s controlled burns; ideal habitat for Morchella, the true morel mushroom.  ‘Stay in the burn’ was the morel mantra repeated many times by yesterday’s foraging guide.  While morels grow elsewhere, fungi lovers have long believed those that sprout near a fire’s one-year old char are more intensely flavored.  The theory is the delicious combination of dying trees, here the conifer, and the extermination by burning of forest floor creates a veritable feast of decayed organic matter for the conically shaped morel.

Hunting and fishing and foraging for food or artifacts provokes in me a greedy high akin to gambling; if I just get out there earlier and stay out a bit longer, try many different spots, stay in the game, in the zone, I’m bound to get lucky.  But I wasn’t feeling too lucky having gone astray for hours in the forest.  Numerous large animal tracks in the mud had me looking over my shoulder in every clearing through which I passed.  I envisioned sleeping in a pile of leaves, maybe even winning The Darwin Award, but I prayed, not posthumously.  After many hours and the third and final logging road hiked, I gratefully caught the glint of my old wagon in the bright afternoon light.

Morels are ugly, but quite distinct; one of the many reasons I wandered the forest in search of them.  I couldn’t possibly mistake the morel’s honeycomb design for any other liver-melting species of mushroom.  Even the toxic false morel’s appearance is obviously different.  But it’s the real morel’s nutty, dark flavors of earth and forest that compel me into the backwoods, and then to the stove. 

The land was rinsed from the half-dozen black morels, and they were sliced lengthwise.  Into a hot pan went a generous corner from a block of salted Norman butter, and the chopped stalks of red Tropea onions, liberated days earlier from the garden, fried quickly.  The mushroom slivers were fanned over the onions, along with a healthful splash of Bartoli Marsala.  Several eggs, fancy in their blue/green shells, were whipped with heavy cream, salt and a course grind of black pepper.  Over a low, flickering flame, the eggs were married to the mushrooms, shirred with a whisk until just barely cooked, and finished with a spoon of fresh ricotta.  As I poured glasses of fawn-colored Gagnard Chassagne, I recalled a warning I read in one of the mycology books lining my desk; eating morels while drinking alcohol may produce symptoms of great intoxication. 

Morels:  California’s other cash crop.


Late springtime in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. (at Happy Valley, El Dorado County, California)


Cooling my heels with a sunset picnic in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range before an early morning hunt for morel and porcini mushrooms.


I usually order a double, because they always pour it short.  

It’s a cocktail after all, not a fucking espresso.  

I only find this elixir infrequently, often in Italian joints with a well-stocked bar.  A quick scan of the bottles on the back bar and I’m able to immediately identify its vesssel; over-sized at one-liter, with a red cap, and an ornately scripted, cream-colored label with an Italian crest and the words ‘Antica Formula dal 1786.’  It looks like an ancient remedy or potion and indeed, this sweet vermouth has its roots in treatment.  Sweet vermouth is crafted from a red base wine fortified with a proprietary blend of roots, barks, flowers, seeds, spices, herbs, and sweetened with spirits and sugar.  It was initially offered as a medicinal drink to treat stomach disorders and parasites, first by the Chinese in 1000 BC, and then by the Indians and the Greeks.

The Antico Formula sweet vermouth was created in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turino, Italy.  The father of vermouth, he infused more than 30 various ingredients, secret to this day, into red base wine before adding spirits.  Carpano thought it more dignified a drink than wine for a woman, but at 16.5% alcohol, this is not your grandmother’s spritzer.   His special hootch was in such demand that he served up this delightful aperitif 24-hours a day in his local cafe.

Vermouth is actually the French pronunciation of Wermut, the German word for wormwood, an herbaceous plant used in the making of both vermouth and absinthe.  Fully understanding what comprises a good drink, the Brits developed a taste for it in mid-1700s, referring to it as vermouth, which stuck.  Not to be outdone, Frenchman Joseph Noilly produced the first pale, dry vermouth with infused white wine in the early 1800s.

On the rocks with a juicy slice of orange, it’s spicy, dark and sweet, with a back note of bitterness.  It coats the palate, making me salivate for the second half of the drink, and then of course, for dinner, with wine.  

It is an aperitif, after all.


Sturgeon smoked by a talented and generous friend, the fish’s aromas of charred wood and ocean tang instantly permeates the kitchen. Cut chunky and laid atop darkly toasted rye bread smothered with a thick layer of crème fraîche from a small dairy on the California coast. Supporting cast includes fried, fat Sicilian salt-dried capers and red onions from the garden, pickled to sweet perfection with a beloved Judy Rodgers/Zuni Cafe recipe.
It is a transportive, deconstructed tuna fish sandwich. With first bite, I’m immediately crusted in salt and sand on a sheltered beach on Cape Cod in August, playing in the shell-strewn pools revealed by the low tide. My mother lures me off the white sand flats with a tuna fish salad sandwich on Pumpernickel, my father’s favorite bread. It is made thick with mayonnaise, spicy red onion, celery chopped so thin it’s translucent, and sweet jarred piccalilly, an exotic find for my Midwestern mother. Once again, I am a blissed out 8-year old in an scrappy, one-piece navy bathing suit with red piping on the straps…


Early Portuguese ceramic tiles with hanging game at Rotisserie Georgette; flawless roasted bird with herbs de Provence and not-too-crispy, crispy frites. (at Rotisserie Georgette)


A marble relief keeping watch over a home in Milan…


The drama of it all… At London’s Royal Opera House. (at Royal Opera House - Conservatory Bar)


A quiet night in… Just me and an old Inama Soave, hazelnut biscotti and a Woody Allen movie marathon… (at Jam Factory)


It was the bread. 

Dark, dense, nutty loaves studded with roasted seeds buried into thick, crisp crusts lured me to Copenhagen, a northern European city located directly on the Baltic Sea.  Known as “port of the merchants,” this small city, with a population of just over a million souls, is a gourmand’s dream, boasting 13 Michelin-starred restaurants.  Further, Copenhagen is one of the most environmentally friendly cities on the planet, with 45% of all food consumed being organic and sourced from a farmer’s field or forest, or hauled out of the surrounding waters.

The city’s steel gray skies, streaked with painterly brushes of white, reflect in the harbor’s dark waters.  Anchored schooners, a constant reminder of this Nordic city’s seafaring history, line the canals, barely moving in the still chill.  Church spires and rooftops exhibit the pleasingly symmetrical 16th century Dutch Renaissance architecture.

But it wasn’t the buildings I came to behold; it was the bread.  I was here to pick the brains of several master bakers; to inquire about ovens, grain mills, flours, and techniques.  And of course, to taste their wares, preferably slathered with their famed butter.  I had come to be baptized in Danish bread-making traditions.

Historically, wheat was not widely available in the cold European north, fancying instead more temperate climes.  Rye, however, has always been easily cultivated and relatively inexpensive.  Rugbrød, rye bread in Danish, is a staple of the table; nutritional, low in fat and a great source of fiber.  The dough is given an extended fermentation, allowing the hard rye berries to soften.  Barley malt is sometimes included in the recipe, but most often the high quality breads consist of only flour and water, the yeasts occurring naturally on the freshly milled husks.

A fine loaf of bread is as much science as art.  The tall lanky Danish men with whom I met are passionate, opinionated bakers committed to producing only natural breads.  Industrial bread making techniques including the use of yeasts, sugars, and commercial syrups were not part of our discussion, and indeed, inherently eschewed.   Lars, a well-humored man with a scruffy beard who was reminiscent of an old Flemish portrait, works with a large, highly regarded food organization.  He experiments with different strains of grains, adding various roasted and sprouting seeds to his earthy breads.  Brun, a serious man with a wiry athletic build, is re-starting his once heady culinary career.  He owns a welcoming bakery in a train station, sourcing Danish grains directly from the farmer and mills them in a handsome wood and ceramic machine in the front of his shop.

Baker’s hours are not banker’s hours.  My appointments were early in the morning and the discussions lasted late into the afternoon.  I emerged from the bakeries into Copenhagen’s late winter chill, tinged with whole grain flour and overly heated from the constantly stoked ovens.  Arms laden with bags of bread, I learned the hard way not to jaywalk here.  Mowed down by an executive on a bicycle in a finely cut suit and brimmed fedora, his scarf flying in the breeze, my humiliation was made complete as he loudly berated me in Danish.  In this crazy-bike-loving city, 40% of its citizens cycle to work or school on the city’s extensive bike paths.  What could I possibly do to mollify the angry hitman on the bike?  I proffered him a loaf of my crusty, still-warm bread…

 


A lunch of fish, chips and a pint in a dark and welcoming ancient pub with burning fireplaces and wood paneling in the center of London… (at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese)


Springtime in London. (at St Paul’s Cathedral)


Pyramids of small-batch, raw milk cheeses at London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy… (at Borough Market)


A late winter sky over Saint Petri in Copenhagen… (at Skt. Petri)


Tomato and mozzarella… (at Osteria di Brera)


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