Grain farm. (at McMinville, Oregon)
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.
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.
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…