Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Olio nuovo californiano

On a visit to my uncle in Italy a few years ago he took me to his local frantoio, an olive oil press, where anyone who has a few buckets of olives from their own trees can drop them off. The owners of the frantoio, in this case a co-op of local farmers, then press the olives, produce the oil, and a few days later you return to pick up bottles filled with an amount of olive oil equivalent to the weight of olives you left. Before leaving that morning, I had a discussion that I often have with my relatives who can't understand why something so routine to them is so interesting to me. Don't you have frantoios in California, asked my 80-year old uncle, who has rarely stepped outside of his corner of Tuscany? At that point, I had to say no.
Now, I can tell him that we do have frantoios here in California and they are working much like they do in Italy. And, the olive oil is pretty darned good. A couple of weeks ago, some friends invited me to join them on McEvoy Ranch's annual harvest open house, a day when regular clients and guests make their way to the rolling hills along the Marin and Sonoma border where 18,000 olive trees of Italian origin cover about 80 acres. Just like at my uncle's local frantoio, on this day anyone is invited to bring their own olives to press. And, you pick up an equivalent amount of olive oil later on.
McEvoy, which was founded in 1991 by Nan McEvoy, conducts regular ranch tours, but the harvest open house has a bit more to offer: a chance to show off the season's luscious and deep green, freshly pressed oil. There's also opportunities to buy a tree from dozens laid out in the beautiful grounds and consult with Samantha Dorsey (see above) who patiently fields all kinds of questions about types of olives, curing them, and taking care of trees. Judging from the number of people happily carting away the leafy trees more frantoios will be springing up all over California. Check out the McEvoy shop at the San Francisco Ferry Building for more information on olive oils and tree planting. Or, make a note to visit McEvoy web site in March, when they start their public tour program for 2009.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Goldsworthy in the Presidio

I walk in in the Presidio almost every day but, somehow, I missed the new Andy Goldsworthy sculpture until a couple of weeks ago when a friend led me to the new clearing just past the Arguello Gate where the work -- called simply, the Spire -- now towers over everything around it. I was speechless for a few minutes. If you've seen the documentary, "Rivers and Tides," you know how Goldsworthy works: he draws inspiration from materals he finds around him. Twigs, leaves, stones and reeds are used to create art from nature. Here, he's made a piece from cypress trees that were planted in the Presidio more than 100 years ago. Apparently very quietly, Goldsworthy has been spending quite a bit of time in the forests and groves of the Presidio the last three years. Thanks to funds from an anonymous sponsor, he set about creating a new work, deciding to use 35 trees that were felled as part of the Presidio's reforestation project. During a two-week period this October, Presidio workers dug a 14-foot hole on the site Goldsworthy chose just above the Inspiration Point overlook. A 350-ton crane lowered in the trees, which are anchored in concrete. Eventually, as new young trees grow, 90-foot high Spire will disappear in the forest. All this is described in a wonderful exhibit on the Presidio's Main Parade Ground in Building 49, a restored officer's home from 1873 that has been turned into a temporary Goldsworthy museum. There's a history of the Presidio forest, background on Goldsworthy, the drawings he did for Spire, and even another, smaller spire that he created inside one of the house's cabinets. Admission is free. Meanwhile, the Spire is just beyond the Arguello Gate and the Presidio Golf Course's clubhouse. Walk a few hundred yards up the Bay Area Ridge Trail. If you park at the the Inspiration Point Overlook look west and you'll see it poking up above the hill.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pescadero Wanderings

I've driven around the San Mateo County coast for years, ever since I was a little kid and my parents would head south from our house in Pacifica to visit friends and family in Half Moon Bay, Pescadero and San Gregorio, where my father had an artichoke farm before I was born. There are lots of memories and nostalgia associated with a trip "down the coast" and it doesn't take much to get me interested in spending a day there. So, I couldn't resist an the invitation to visit what has become a must stop for northern California foodies -- Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero. With friends a couple of weeks ago, we set out on a stunning fall day, a bright sun shining on the glittering Pacific Ocean to the west. In the fields, pumpkins were still scattered about and late-season artichokes were sprouting.
It seems like nothing changes in small town Pescadero. Norm's Arcangeli General Store still bakes artichoke-studded sourdough bread each morning. We were there at 10 a.m when Don Benedetti was getting ready to take a batch out of the big ovens in the back of the store. Across the street, Duarte's was getting ready to open. The case of pies that used to take up room in the waiting area is now gone: if you want to come in and buy a pie you ask the hostess to get you one, Ron Duarte told us: they needed to get rid of the pie case to make more space for waiting customers. But everything else is the same: the funky bar from 1894 and, best of all, the menu, with cream of artichoke soup, cream of chile soup (or the favorite for many, half of one and half of the other), the warm bread and butter, and the ollalieberry pie, of course. This is one of the few U.S. restaurants named an "American Classic" by the James Beard Foundation.
Harley Farms Goat Dairy is just a few of blocks east of Duarte's. It was founded by an Englishwoman, Dee Harley, who settled in Pescadero and married into the Duarte family. Her husband, Tim, runs the tavern and restaurant with Ron. The two are the fourth generation of Duartes to operate the old roadhouse.
Dee took over a dilapidated 1910 ranch (photo above) once run by two brothers from Portugal a few years ago. Without any dairy experience, she got a few goats, thinking it was a convenient side family business while she stayed home to raise her son. Well, it's become much more than a side business. Today, Harley Farms has 200 American alpine goats and the milk that they produce is transformed into much-sought-after, award-winning cheese.
They do a terrific tour that's fun and informative. Who knew that goats could be so adorable? The goats are milked twice a day, 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., times when the tours aren't run. But it's so entertaining to watch that Harley set it up so that you can stop by and watch through a glass window. People stand along the road, we were told, at 5:30 p.m. sharp, to wait for the milking event. There's also a charming retail shop, open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the old ranch barn where you can buy several kinds of fresh goat cheese. There are "milk pipes" that run through the shop from the milking shed to the cheese-making room where 200 pounds of cheese (photo, above left) is made each day.
I loved the cheese topped with dried apricots and another mixed with herbs, which I spread on toasted Norm's artichoke bread the next day.
It was a day full of lots of adventures, but Harley was a highlight along with lunch at Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay. If you go, don't miss the to-die-for pizza with their homemade sausage and the delicious porcini pappardelle.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sebastopol 'shrooms

The town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County is known for Gravensteins, the pretty yellow-green apples with red stripes. Even though many of the century-old apple orchards were uprooted in the last 25 years and replanted with vineyards you still come across plenty of old, gnarled Gravenstein trees when you're driving around the quiet roads here.
Besides apples and grapes a bounty of other fruit is grown around Sebastopol. It was, after all, the place where Luther Burbank operated his experimental farm and developed more than 800 new varieties of fruits and vegetables.
So, it's not surprising that Sebastopol became one of the leading producers of mushrooms a few years back when shitake, oyster, chanterelles and other exotic varieties started to pop up in supermarkets alongside the old standby white button mushrooms.
Sebastopol-based Gourmet Mushrooms produces more specialty organic mushrooms than any other company in the U.S. One of its most popular mushrooms is the delicate, earthy Velvet Pioppini, which has dark caps and an intense forest flavor. (Look for the Mycopia brand at Whole Foods and other fine markets). Gourmet is not open to the public but, just south of Sebastopol there's a small mushroom operation -- New Carpati Farm -- where you can visit, talk to the mushroom grower and pick your own funghi.
Steve Schwartz, the owner (photo above), named the company for the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe where his father was born. His company is a simple operation consisting of a small cave-like hut. Inside, shelves are lined with bricks made of oak saw dust, where he plants fungus spores. A wild assortment of fungi emerge, mostly varieties of shitake and oyster. Schwartz sells them at the Sebastopol farmer's market on Sundays but you can also call him (707-829-2978) and set up an appointment to visit the little hut. There, in the damp and quiet, you do as chefs sometimes do and pick your own mushrooms, the freshest you've tasted.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harvest time for chestnuts

Up on Skyline Boulevard above Palo Alto, hidden inside the MidPeninsula Open Space District, is a little-known orchard full of old chestnut trees. No one really knows their origin, but the most reliable story seems to be that the trees were planted by a Spaniard about 100 years ago, says Hans Josens, who with his wife, Donna, runs the orchard under an agreement with the district. The grove consists of about 120 trees, including what Johsens calls the "honey tree" where the largest of the green, golf-ball-sized nuts grows.
For only a few weeks in the fall, the orchard is open to the public as a u-pick operation. For certain ethnic groups, particularly Koreans, French and Italians, gathering chestnuts off the ground in the chill of the fall is a nostalgic event that usually culminates later in the evening with roasting the nuts over a fire. For those new to the whole process, the ranch provides gloves, buckets and tongs. For sale are roasting pans and special knives to pry open the pods. The orchard will be open Oct. 11-Nov. 23 this year. The price is $5.25 per pound. Call (408) 395-0337 (no Web site at press time).
The only other chestnut orchard that I could find in the region is in western Sonoma County -- at Green Valley Chestnut Ranch, which is only open two weekends this fall. The first was this weekend and the second will be Oct. 11-12.
The ranch, outside the town of Graton, covers several acres containing about 800 chestnut trees that grew from seeds from a Gold Rush-era tree planted by Italian immigrants in Nevada City. The variety is called Colossal, a type that produces large and sweet nuts.
A friend and I on a foodie jaunt of the area passed by Green Valley (a lovely drive from Graton) the other day and, although the ranch was closed, I took some photos (including the one above) of the lush, gorgeous groves of trees, sagging with the weight of the pods, the ground covered with the nuts ready for the taking. For more information, check out the ranch's Web site.
Before heading out to see the chestnut trees, we had a terrific lunch at a new restaurant, Eloise, in Sebastopol (reviewed recently in the San Francisco Chronicle), and, after seeing the ranch, stopped by another eatery that specializes in local ingredients, the lively pub, Ace-in-the-Hole, in Graton. Ace makes the first hard cider produced in the U.S. , much of it from local apples, including the beloved Gravenstein. The results are delicious.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Academy of Sciences in photos

Photos from a preview tour of the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Frank Almeda, an academy scientist, shows the biodegradable trays used for the two million plants on the undulating hills of the roof. "Claude," the albino alligator in the "swamp' tank in the main hall is expected to draw big crowds.

Golden Gate Park is humming

The new California Academy of Sciences is opening with a weekend-long celebration on Saturday, Sept. 27, one of the most anticipated events in San Francisco in years, especially if you've been watching it being painstakingly rebuilt the least three years. On a preview tour this week with a group of reporters and other press people there was no doubt that the building was worth waiting for. We visited the planetarium, galleries, the aquarium and took the elevator to the roof. When the doors, we all gasped. There before us was 197,000 square feet of undulating hills, the "Living Roof" lined with native plants, all tightly packed in biodegradable trays to keep them from slipping off the slopes, which make up one of the largest roofs of its kind in the world. Renzo Piano, the noted Italian architect who designed the museum, was inspired by the dome-like Grand View Park from the nearby Sunset district hilltop, said museum staffer Frank Almeda. The large deck will be a popular spot for visitors. There isn't the view that's afforded by the deYoung Museum's twisting tower, but it's a peaceful spot where birds, inculding the park's resident hawks, are already flying about. Docents will be stationed on the roof to describe the plant life and Piano's design. Of course, the real destination is under the roof. The institution's mission is to answer two questions and the exhibits are designed with those in mind, said Gregg Ferrington, executive director. "It's to ask 'How did we get here?' and 'How are we going to find a way to stay?" The Academy of Sciences is home to the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum and a myriad of research programs. The new aquarium houses the world's largest coral reef -- a 25-foot high tank modeled after a reef in the Philippines -- with 500 species of fish. Several galleries highlight how animals have evolved and adapted to their environments. Some of the exhibits will be familiar to Steinhart visitors: the giant sea bass (see photo above) that weighs about 165 pounds, is now 30 years old. A four-story, glass-enclosed rainforest contains hundreds of plants, 40 birds and a tiny, red bromeliad frog. The vegetation is expected to grow into a dense canopy in the next three to four years. There's also the 87-foot long blue whale skeleton, the African Hall with its 1930s-era dioramas (now containing a live exhibit, South African penguins), and, of course, one of the academy's most famous inhabitants, Claude, the albino alligator, who lives in the "swamp" tank just inside the entrance hall.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dinner at the end of the road

The word is out about Drakes Beach Cafe. During the first months of its operation, locals who live in West Marin began making the trek to this remote, often foggy beach near the end of the Point Reyes peninsula, not to hike or enjoy the views, but for dinner. They began telling their friends and, simply through word-of-mouth, the cafe became a hit.
A young couple, Ben Angulo and his wife, Jane Kennedy (in the photo above), took over the National Park Service concession in late 2005 and transformed it into something quite different than the hot dog and hamburger shack that it once was. Angulo highlights local and organic food from nearby farms and cheese makers as much as possible. At lunch, he serves clam chowder and sandwiches. The hamburgers are made from Niman beef and the delicious crusty bread served along the chowder is baked in nearby Point Reyes Station by Brickmaiden Breads (there's still hot dogs on the menu, too). On Friday and Saturday evenings, the couple covers the nine tables in white tablecloths, decorates the place with fresh flowers and candles and serves a four-course fixed price meal.
Last Friday evening I had a lovely dinner there with friends. We had a first course of dungeness crab cakes, followed by a roast beet salad with marscapone cheese and toasted hazelnuts. The third course consisted of red peppers stuffed with eggplant, corn and mushrooms. And, the main course was a choice of a fish, Hawaiian Opa, with broccoli and sauteed leeks or an organic Berkshire pork chop with roasted peaches, fig chutney and baby arugula. The price for the meal was $47.
The cafe does not have a liquor license (park service rules) so customers bring their own wine. Dessert is extra and, in keeping with the local food theme, the night I was there it was a scoop of ice cream from Straus Dairy in West Marin.
My dinner came at the end of a day poking around West Marin's food purveyors (research for a San Francisco Chronicle article). In Point Reyes Station, I started with a knock-out cappuccino at Toby's espresso bar, a scone at Bovine Bakery, and then sampled some fresh cow's milk cheese at Cowgirl Creamery around the corner inside Tomales Bay Foods, the old hay barn that is Cowgirl's original plant (they've since expanded with a new plant in Petaluma).
I drove up Highway 1 a few miles along Tomales Bay toward Marshall, stopping at Tomales Bay Oysters (photo at left below) and Hog Island Oysters to watch the workers transfers oysters from the storage tanks to sacks for sale. I had a bowl of clam chowder at Nick's Cove (the "hot" spot in these parts, reopened in the last year by San Francisco restaurateur Pat Kuleto, after a gorgeous renovation of an old bayside eatery).
Before meeting friends for dinner at Drakes Beach Cafe, I drove out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse (six miles further out from the cafe), where I hadn't been since high school (which was a long time ago; I think the old beam was actually still in operation then, yikes!). If you're going to see the lighthouse, make sure you allow for enough time. The ranger at the visitors center there said the most common mistake made is by those who stop at the Point Reyes headquarters visitors center at Bear Valley or people who stop at the towns of Inverness or Point Reyes Station is to leave too late in the day. It's about a 45-minute drive to the lighthouse from the Bear Valley center and those two towns. Then, when you get to the lighthouse parking lot, it's a half-mile hike and a climb (308 stairs) to the lighthouse, which closes at 4:30 p.m.
It's also one of the foggiest and windiest places on the west coast so dress accordingly. It was 80 degrees and sunny in Point Reyes Station when I left at 2 p.m. It was another world at the lighthouse: cold, windy and so foggy that the fog horns were blaring and visitors couldn't see more than a few hundred feet into the distance. Still, it was fun.
From 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. the cast iron tower (photo at top on left) that houses the huge, old lens, built in France in 1867, is opened up and a ranger talks about the history of the place and the isolated lives of the lighthouse keepers who lived and worked in the harsh weather. A newspaper report at the time inferred that they often went mad. And, after just 20 minutes in the tower, with the wind howling and the fog horns wailing outside, I could see why.
And, they didn't even have the chance for a wonderful meal at the end of the day at the Drakes Beach Cafe.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Presidio: How Much Change?

San Francisco's Presidio, a vast military post-turned-national park dating from 1776, is the largest historic renovation project underway in the United States. In the area of the Main Post alone there are more than 100 buildings in different states of repair.
This summer, everyone seems focused not on renovation but on a possible new building, specifically, the Contemporary Art Museum proposed by Donald and Doris Fisher, The Gap founders. The Fishers would like to build a 100,000-square-foot museum (larger than San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art) on a prime corner of the post's Main Parade grounds, steps away from the stately Montgomery Street Barracks, built in the 1890s (photo above). It would house their collection of 1,000 pieces of major artwork. There's now a tennis court and 1960s-style building with a bowling alley on the site.
Should a modern glass-and-concrete structure go up in an historic setting such as this? Should the Presidio Trust board, the agency that oversees and manages the park, reject the proposal or direct the Fishers to one of three alternate sites?
To help people decide, The Presidio Trust is conducting free 90-minute walking tours of the Main Post on Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 27. Meet at the ground floor of the Officers' Club.
It's a good tour. The one I took on Wednesday was led off by a Presidio Trust archeologist who discussed recent findings around the Officers' Club -- where three-foot thick adobe walls were uncovered that may date back to the late 1700s.
From there, two Presidio Trust staff showed us around the Main Post, stopping at the Parade grounds, the 1930s-era Presidio Theatre, the site of the Contemporary Art Museum, the proposed Park Lodge (a plan also under discussion, but less controversial) and the recently renovated Funston Street homes (photo below) that date from the Civil War.
From the questions that rose from the 50-or-so people on my walk, there was no question that the art museum is a hot topic. Most reflected the views of the neighborhood groups who are opposed to the plan: they seemed disturbed by the Fishers' proposed location. The building would be too big, too modern and incompatible for the historic Main Parade.
Many seemed open to alternatives, such as Infantry Terrace, an area tucked in the forested glen just a few hundred yards east or at the Sports Basement site near Doyle Drive and the Crissy Field marsh. This is a discussion that's going to be in the news a lot this fall. Decide for yourself. For more, see the Presidio's Web site.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Poky Road to Mendo

I'm not an early riser but I've found that adding a little extra time into driving plans makes a weekend qetaway more pleasant. When you can stop along the way for a long lunch, a walk or a visit to a park or museum -- and not rushing to get somewhere -- it feels like a real vacation. The strategy is to get an early start on Saturdays and Sundays; on weekdays, hitting the road early could backfire. It might mean bumping into commuter traffic.
Last Saturday, an early start served me well. I'd told friends in Fort Bragg, Mendocino County, that I'd arrive a little before dinner time. The next morning, I left San Francisco at 8 a.m.
I wasn't sure what my plans were, except to stop at the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg for breakfast and then take Highway 128 through Boonville and slowly make my way to the coast.
I never made it to the bakery because when I got off Highway 101 in Healdsburg, a big sign pointed to the town's Saturday morning farmers' market. The market was in full swing, a jazz band playing and hefty slices of tangy, delicious carrot cake being passed around to shoppers to celebrate the market's 30th anniversary. The array of produce and fruit was astounding, all of it tempting. I bought some local juicy peaches, tomatoes and tiny, deep-red strawberries.
Back in the car, my small cooler now half full, I headed toward Cloverdale and the drive northwest. The Anderson Valley, one of my favorite places in California, was glorious on this mid-summer day. I loved milling around at Bates and Maillard Farmhouse Mercantile and getting a snack at the Mosswood Market. I wasn't in the mood for a lot of wine tasting but stopped at Husch (photo below) because I enjoy their sauvignon blanc and the friendly atmosphere of its cozy, flower-covered tasting room, on old grain shed.
When you're in the area, make a quick detour to the Philo Apple Farm, (photo at the very top, left) a popular place for its cooking school, but open to visitors who want drop in for cider, jam and other apple products. If no one is around the honor system applies: just sign your name, write your purchase on the log and put your money in the cigar box.
The drive to the coast, through the shady redwood groves, is always a thrill, particularly the first glimpse of the Pacific at Navarro. I stopped at Russian Gulch State Park (photo below) for a quick look (tell the ranger you aren't planning to stay long and they'll let you in without paying the $6 day use fee)

and then headed to Mendocino, where the annual Music Festival had the streets and sidewalks busy. If you get to town and are looking for some wonderful bread for a picnic stop by the bakery at the town's most heralded restaurant, Cafe Beaujolais. A tiny bakery at the back of the restaurant's pretty garden opens at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. most of the bread (and there is a large menu of varieties, including bagels) is sold out. You get to peek in and see the bread being pulled out of the brick hearth.
Finally, I wanted to take another look at the Point Cabrillo Light Station, where last year, while researching the book, I spent an hour. This time, I walked the gentle sloping half mile road from the parking lot to the light station and took my time in the museum, which has some fascinating photographs of the Native American tribes who lived in the area and the wreck of the Frolic, the opium-running ship that ran aground near the shore here -- factor in the founding of Mendocino. The light station was home to three hard-working lightkeeper families, who operated the large lens -- with hundreds of prisms -- with kerosene lamps. The entire station has been restored, including the families' homes that have been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn -- and the lens is back in operation, its light visible up to 15 miles from shore.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jammin' in Rough and Ready

Rough and Ready, the Gold Rush-era hamlet just outside of Grass Valley, is known for its rabble-rousing past. In 1850, its residents rebelled against taxes and other laws, deciding to secede from the United States. The “Republic of Rough and Ready” lasted only three months before townsfolk rejoined the Union. (Legend has it that the move that was prompted at least in part by the refusal of saloonkeepers in nearby Nevada City to sell liquor to the “foreigners”).
The tiny town today is known for Sunday morning jam sessions of the Fruit Jar Pickers, a loose-knit group of musicians who congregate in an old gas station at 10 a.m. The building -- you can't miss it with the bright blue banner proclaiming "Pickers Palace" -- is home to the local volunteer fire department and also doubles as a concert hall.
On a typical Sunday you might find 20 musicians on stage playing a wild assortment of homemade and professional instruments. When I was there recently (My article about it ran in the San Francisco Chronicle Aug. 10), musicians with elegant violins performed along one jamming on a funky handmade bass whose strings came from a weed whacker.

During the two-hour session a crowd slowly gathered, about 100 people, some bringing their own chairs because the 50 or so metal folding chairs often fill up. There were a few newcomers, but most were veterans at the hall and they knew the routine: at the door, pick up the group’s red, three-ring binders filled with song sheets, grab a seat and sing with gusto, swaying and dancing. It’s free, including donuts and coffee, although donations are gladly accepted.
The Sunday morning sessions started eight years ago across the street at the old general store when a couple of musicians began informal jams. Nevada County is home to a large community of professional and amateur musicians and word soon spread. The number of musicians and audience members grew. They couldn't fit in the store any more. So, a few years ago, the move was made to the old fire house.
The group is lead by Everette Burkard, who plays a homemade steel guitar and leads the sing-alongs. Everette changes one wacky hat for another as he tells corny old jokes between songs. The selections are country, pop and gospel -- “songs your grandpa sang on the porch," he says. On the morning I was there, they included standards such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’.” It's a blast from the past. At noon, everyone left the fire house smiling.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nevada City bon temps

Saturday mornings in Nevada City these days center around the new weekly farmers' market on Union Street from 8 a.m. to noon (until the end of October), which brings in scores of locals for a block-long happening that has a festival atmosphere. There's usually a folk, bluegrass or jazz band playing, drawn from this area's large community of musicians. (When you're in the vicinity tune your radio to KVMR, 89.5 FM, the local community radio station with its fun, quirky programming, including the Tibetan Radio Hour, the Patchouli Haze and lots of world music).

Last Saturday, over the long Fourth of July weekend when hazy, smoke-filled skies from wildfires cast a bit of a pall over festivities, local produce vendors displayed a bounty of fruit and vegetables. Flour Garden, a local bakery, sold some delicious organic breads. After wandering and sampling a bit, I headed to my favorite breakfast spot in town, Ike's Quarter Cafe, up the hill a couple of blocks on Commercial Street. The shady patio, enclosed by a white picket fence, was full on this warm summer morning but a table soon freed up. Ike and Adrienne, the owners, are not from Louisiana but they were inspired by New Orleans to create a restaurant with creole and cajun influences while using naturally raised meats, organic eggs, grains, flour and vegetables. All breads are made in house and, whenever possible, the produce is local. The menu is almost overwhelming, with a large selection of frittatas, egg scrambles, potato boats, flapjacks and biscuits and gravy. There's also something called "gasserhousers" that were new to me: pieces of toast with eggs that are nestled inside two holes and topped with peppers, onions, sausages or a variety of other options. I settled on the roasted corn flaps, flapjacks with roasted corn inside with a side of bacon and got two nicely done pancakes oozing with corn. My traveling companion ordered cornmeal crusted oysters topped with a delicious mild green salsa sauce. The spirit of the place is friendly and fun. As it says on the menu "Laissez le bon temps rouler."
There seems to be no shortage of that attitude in Nevada City, which has a calendar full of events (Wednesday evening Summer Nights Festival of music is one) this summer and beyond.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bodega Bay in a Chowder Bowl

Up at Bodega Bay on a gorgeous clear day recently, I stumbled across the Spud Point Crab Co. on the road to Bodega Head and the Bodega Marine Laboratory, where I was headed to do research for an article (which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle June 22). There was a line out the door and I wasn't hungry yet, but when I saw the sign warning that crab cakes often sell out by noon I had to wait and order some -- they are one of my favorite foods. Tony and Carol Anello run the place, which is nothing fancy, just a couple of picnic tables outside. He's a crab fisherman and she's the cook. They live in the neat, one-story house next door and take only Wednesdays off. During crab season, the crab cakes and crab sandwiches are made with the catch that Tony hauls in each morning from the waters outside the bay. When I told them I was running out to the lab for hike and a tour (the lab is only open on Fridays 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.) but I didn't want to miss their crab cakes, they said they would set aside a couple for me to have later. I returned just before they closed at 5 p.m. and the scene had quieted. Tony and Carol dished up some of their delicious clam chowder and cooked up a couple of those superb crab cakes -- chunks of fresh crab with a light, crisp crust -- and told me the story of how Carol decided to turn her chowder -- which had always drawn raves from family and friends -- into a business. The Spud Point Crab Co. has only been open since 2004, but it has built a rabid following due to Carol's cooking. On a recent Wednesday morning, Carol woke to find a note on her front door: someone from the Midwest claimed to have driven all the way to Bodega Bay for a bowl of her chowder only to find the doors locked. "They said they would come back and I hope they do," Carol said.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Lazy days at Shasta

When you see some of its 370 miles of shoreline, there's no doubt why Lake Shasta is one of the most popular places for houseboating in the U.S. The lake was formed by four rivers -- the Sacramento, McCloud, Squaw and Pit -- whose waters are contained by Shasta Dam. The result is a lake -- the largest in California -- with hundreds of coves, shores of evergreen trees and 14,000-foot Mt. Shasta towering in the distance. On a recent trip up to the area I got the opportunity to view both some of the typical boats available and the most lavish of a new generation of houseboats which have opened up the upscale market to houseboat companies. Seven Crown Resorts is the largest of the companies at Shasta and one of the three largest houseboat firms in the U.S. with fleets also in the Sacramento Delta. Its boats offer some of the lowest rates with one, the Cascade, starting at $750 for a two-night rental. All the boats have air conditioning, a full kitchen, a gas barbecue, large ice chest, bathroom with shower and sundeck and deck chairs. They have always been -- and continue to be -- a popular choice for families and groups of friends who share the costs of a houseboat vacation, making it a good value. The more lavish boats included those from some other companies --, Shasta Marina Resort, Holiday Harbor and Silverthorn Resort. These are not the typical houseboats (prices can be up to $17,000 per week) that you may have rented in college or with your family. They have large flat-screen TVs, gleaming kitchens with full-size appliances and granite counter tops, hot tubs, and full bars on sundecks, plush carpeting in bedrooms and decor throughout that looks like it belongs in the pages of a glitzy interior design magazine. One of the oldest tourism groups in the state, the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, has a handy site with lots of information and links to the variety of houseboat vacation options.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Redding! Who Knew?

"It's the most expensive trailhead in the world," said Bob Warren, president of the Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau, as he showed me and a group of travel writers the city's Sundial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. Warren is all smiles today about the $23.2 million span that is the southern point of the Sacramento River Recreation Trail.

But he and others here admit there was some apprehension when the city fathers came up with the idea of asking world famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design a pedestrian span over the Sacramento River. It was a lot of money to spend on a bridge for a relatively small city (pop. 90,000). And, the design was daring, a walking surface of translucent glass with a 21-story pylon on the north bank of the river that supports the bridge. (Town lore has it that Calatrava was taken by the innocence of the Redding official who called his studio one day and happened to reach the busy architect, who was intrigued by the offer of a relatively obscure northern California town wanting him to design a bridge).

Take a walk today day or night on the Sundial Bridge and there's no doubt the success of the span, which has become not only an landmark for Redding but a hugely popular spot for locals. The bridge brings residents out in the evenings, giving them a place to go. Beyond that it's a piece of striking architecture that, some would say, shows what good design can do for a city. (It also has a function. Because of the exact north-south orientation of the span, the pylon is, in effect, the upright element of the sundial, making it the world's tallest). It's a shame that the adjacent riverside cafe closes in the at dusk because on a recent warm evening all that was needed was a light aperitif or a cup of coffee sipped on its patio and you could have mistaken Redding for a European city as you watched couples and families stroll the bridge.

It's the perfect starting point to a hike, bike or Segway ride on the Sacramento River Trail, which follows an old rail line along the river. There are about nine miles of trails today but more are being added all the time. When completed in a couple of years the trail system will reach all the way to Shasta Dam, 13 miles north. Some of the prettiest parts of the trail are from the Sundial Bridge a couple of miles to the Ribbon Bridge and returning on the other side of the river.

There's much more to recreation around Redding, however. A few miles east is Whiskeytown Lake, which is among the towering Klamath Mountains and includes snow-covered 6,199-foot Shasta-Bally. Part of the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, the lake has forest-covered shoreline, a sandy beach, many campsites, loads of picnic places, hiking trails and water-related activities, including free (yes, something free courtesy of Uncle Sam!) ranger-led kayak trips twice daily.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Surf's Up, Or Not

The heat wave that hit the Bay Area last week spared Santa Cruz. While most of the region was blistering hot (even in San Francisco temperatures shot up to 97 degrees) Santa Cruz was comfortable, in the low 90s with a cool ocean breeze.
But Thursday, the peak of the heat wave, wasn't a great day for surfers at the legendary Steamer Lane surfing spot off of West Cliff Drive. The waters were relatively calm and there were long waits between waves.
On the cliff above Steamer Lane, I poked around the red brick Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (above), the home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. This is a tiny one-room museum -- the first surfing museum in the world when it opened in 1986 -- but it's packed with fascinating stuff. Particularly interesting are the photographs of Hawaiian royalty who introduced the sport to mainlanders at Santa Cruz and the long wooden surfboards used in the early 1900s.
The big news in Santa Cruz these days is the renovation and re-opening of the Dream Inn, the multi-story hotel on West Cliff Drive overlooking Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Cowell Cove, where thousands of surfers learned the sport. Expect a much-needed stylish boutique hotel, operated by Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the dynamic San Francisco hotel company, to emerge in June, just in time for the peak season.

I headed a couple of miles north of the Dream Inn, along cliff-hugging West Cliff Drive, to Natural Bridges State Park. The park (photo above) is always full of schoolchildren on field trips to learn about the migration of the 100,000 plus Monarch butterflies that spend the winter clustered on the eucalyptus trees here. I've never made it for butterfly season but the exhibits at the visitors center inspired me to mark my calendar for a visit sometime next November or December.
That's months away. Until then, there's lots of summer to enjoy.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Skyline-to-the-Sea Sunday

Castle Rock State Park is well-known to rock climbers and hikers who live in the Santa Clara Valley but, to most of us, it's one of a somewhat confusing string of parks and open space preserves with overwhelming hiking options along Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Last weekend, a friend and I headed up there on a sunny, warm Sunday morning. We walked the Saratoga Gap Trail, a lovely 5.2-mile loop (connect to the Ridge Trail on the return from the Castle Rock campground or it will be a 7-mile plus hike).
The ranger at the park entrance warned us it would be hot and it was, particularly on the hill-hugging exposed sections of the trail facing west, where there are some fine views of the Pacific ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Most times of the year, a cool breeze would blow from the west but, on this day, the air was still and the sun scorching. There's no water along the trail, (except at the campground which is about half way along the route and one-tenth of a mile off the trail) so bring at least two quarts per person if you get a day such as this, when the temperatures reached the mid 80s. However, much of the trail is in lovely cool shade of redwoods, firs, oaks and madrones. We came across several kinds of wildflowers, including a meadow of lupine. Sandstone rock formations, hollowed from the wind, were awesome. The walk was a good work out with some steep spots and a little bit of scrambling up and down some rocky paths.
Back at the Castle Rock park entrance, we got in the car and drove north on Skyline Boulevard made a left on Alpine Road and slowly drove the green hills and hairpin turns, past cattle ranches and farms until we reached Highway 84 heading toward San Gregorio, a route which has to be the prettiest springtime drive in San Mateo County. The weather was spectacular, even at the coast. We poked around the old San Gregorio Store but had just missed the afternoon's live music. Continuing north to Half Moon Bay we stopped at the Flying Fish Grill, where the halibut fish and chips and the fish tacos are quite good and the friendly service and bright tropical setting make a fun stop for a quick bite.
I kicked myself for forgetting my camera on such a gorgeous day, but above is my favorite photo of Half Moon Bay and environs: a crab fisherman at the Princeton harbor.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Old, Old Vines

You see it on wine labels: "Old Vines." The term typically implies an intense, robust wine, probably from a winery with a history as old as California. In Sonoma County's Alexander Valley the other day, I joined a tour at Sausal Winery, which makes wine from vines from the 1870s. Acres of vines radiate out from the tasting room but there's no mistaking which are the old ones: bare in the spring, they are thicker and more gnarled than Sausal's other vines. The winery is owned by the Demostene family, whose first crush under the Sausal name was in the fall of 1973. The winery is small, producing 10,000 cases a year. The Family Zinfandel is made from vines that average 50 years of age; Private Reserve Zinfandel is from vines that average 90 years of age. The grandaddy of them all is Century Vines Zinfandel, produced from those old vines, documented to be more than 130 years old. We were shown through the winery grounds by Mark Housar, vineyard manager at Alexander Valley Vineyards, a friendly competitor and Sausal neighbor. When vines get this old, Housar explained, they have a bigger trunk and better root system. They produce grapes with a greater concentration of flavor, which translates into a more intense wine. Housar led us on foot through Sausal's vineyards and a couple of miles further to Alexander Valley Vineyards, a lovely walk that took us past a restored 1868 former one-room schoolhouse that was also the original home of Cyrus Alexander, one of the pioneers of the area. You normally can't tromp through California vineyards like this. But a tour company, Zephyr Adventures, has come up with a unique way of seeing the Sonoma wine country: multi-day walking tours from vineyard to vineyard, led by a local winemaker or owner. At a couple of scenic spots along the route, tables will be set up where walkers will sample the finished product. It's designed to be a more intense and intimate winery experience than sipping in a tasting room. As Housar said as he wound up his talk on a hilltop overlooking acres of vineyards (while enjoying a picnic lunch of Alexander Valley wines and sandwiches from the locals' favorite deli, the Jimtown Store): for wine lovers, there isn't a better place to be.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spring has Sprung

Since spending a couple of days in Amador County last April to research Great Escapes: Northern California, I've been looking forward to another spring trip there. (It's also the Great Escape of the Month on my Web site). On a recent weekday morning, a friend and I drove up to Jackson, Sutter Creek, Amador City and the tiny burg of Volcano. Without traffic, this trip is easily accomplished as a day trip from San Francisco. Antique hunters already know this. The towns have some of the best antique shops in the state. It's possible to head out in the morning, stop at Water Street Antiques in Jackson or Miner's Pick in Amador City and be home by sundown with a 19th century dresser, Gold Rush-era bottle or rusty wrought iron plant stand at prices well below those in the Bay Area.
But our goal was Daffodil Hill, the pioneer settlement from 1887 just above Volcano where four generations of the McLaughlin family have planted thousands of daffodil bulbs. The slim green reeds and accompanying yellow and white blossoms emerge sometime between mid-March and mid-April, an event that is anticipated for weeks (to find out if the place is open, which means the daffodils are still blooming, call the Daffodil Hill telephone hotline at 209-296-7048). Entrance to the six-acre hillside, with postcard-perfect historic barn and outbuildings, is free. The family accepts donations, collected in old yellow tea kettles. The money goes toward the purchase of between 7,000 and 8,000 bulbs each year that are added to those already in the ground -- a total of 300 varieties and 500,000 blooms. When the flowers wilt and die, it's over for another year. Last winter was a cold one so the daffodil show isn't as spectacular as some years, one of the volunteers manning the entrance said. But for first-timers with nothing to compare it to, it was quite a sight (see photo above).
From there, it was a beautiful drive down the mountain along Shake Ridge Road to Sutter City, the Gold Rush town named the prettiest in the state in this month's Sunset magazine. Our aim was lunch at Andrae's Bakery and Cheese Shop in Amador City, where sandwiches made from freshly baked bread and a slice of the melt-in-your-mouth Basque cake are worth a long drive.
Our other aim was to get a good bottle of wine. We took the sandwiches and drove north to Plymouth, the gateway to Amador County's wine country of rolling hills that during the spring are a lush green. The area is called the Shenandoah Valley, a name pioneers gave because (in the California spring) it reminded them of Virginia's Blue Ridge Valley.
East on Shenandoah Road past several wineries and about seven miles from Plymouth is Sobon Estate, which was founded in 1856 by the Uhlinger family from Switzerland. After a quick tasting to find a good match for our turkey and ham sandwiches, we settled on Hillside Zinfandel, a good value at $10 a bottle.
Sobon is a terrific place to get a sense of Amador County history. The winery is a California Historical Landmark, having been in continuous operation since before the Civil War (it even kept going through Prohibition when it made limited amounts of wine for sacramental use, which was allowed). A barn-like museum contains displays, including casks, crushers, kitchen tools and old appliances (a butter press, lard press, sausage stuffer, cabbage cutter and butter mold, among them).
You'll never complain about doing laundry again after reading late 19th century instructions from a mother to a daughter describing the best way to do "the wash."
1. Build a fire in the backyard to heat a kettle of rainwater.
2. Set tub so smoke will not blow in your eyes if wind is present.
3. Shave a whole cake of lye soap in the boiling water.
4. Sort clothes in three piles -- one of whites, one of coloreds and one of rags and britches.
5. Stir flour in cold water until smooth, then thin down with boiling water to make starch.
6. Rub dirty spots on the board, then boil them. Rub colored clothes, but do not boil. Take white things out of kettle with broom handle, then rinse, blue and starch.
7. Hang clothes on line except tea towels, which should be spread on the grass. Hang old rags on the fence.
8. Pour rinse water in flower beds.
9. Scrub privy seat and floor with soapy water.
10. Turn tubs upside down. Put on a clean dress, comb hair. make a cup of tea to drink while you sit and rest a spell, and count your blessings.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Close but Far from the Crowds

There's a little place, a shack, really, on the Municipal Pier in Monterey that's a world away from the throngs, the souvenir shops and greasy food at Fisherman's Wharf. It's a cute wooden building painted yellow with a bright red trim and it's got a cute name: Loulou's Griddle in the Middle. The first I time I stumbled across it, Loulou's reminded me of the Eagle Cafe, an old sailors' diner that was transported to touristy Pier 39 -- San Francisco's biggest attraction -- some years ago. Unfortunately, today the Eagle is part of a restaurant chain. But Loulou's is the real thing. It's on a working pier across the small harbor from the wharf. A few weeks ago I returned and found its lively cook and owner, Allecia Garrett, manning the stoves. There are only a few booths and a long counter. The service is a bit absent-minded but the food is good, the portions big (local Monterey bay fish, sand dabs and squid, are specialties) and the atmosphere fun. It serves up breakfast and lunch, with no set closing time, just sometime after the lunch business clears, usually between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Getting Traction in Yosemite

Everyone's heard about the wonders of Yosemite in the winter. There's the quiet, the lack of crowds, the beauty of snow-covered Half Dome and El Capitan and the lower prices. But, try as we might, it takes years for a lot of us to actually get there. It's a season that is so different from the congested madness of summer that you will never want to return between June and September. On a recent visit, the lobby of Yosemite's grand hotel, the Ahwahnee, was bustling but not crowded. The comfy sofas in front of the huge crackling fire were empty (and, since this is the only area in the hotel with WiFi, it's a cozy spot to catch up on email). I found the same pleasant atmosphere at the Yosemite Lodge, where rates fall to as low as $89 per night in winter, and there's no fighting for a weekend reservation or to get the attention of a front desk clerk.
There was a mild snowfall and gray skies for a day, perfect timing since the Ahwahnee's Chef's Holidays cooking programs were taking place. This annual January event was started years ago to draw visitors in the off season. Many well-known chefs from San Francisco and other cities, in a delightfully relaxed mood (no Gorden Ramseys here), give hour-long cooking demonstrations twice a day in the Ahwahnee's lovely Great Lounge, all complimentary to visitors. Snow fell on the meadow outside the Lounge's large windows as we sampled cheese from Cowgirl Creamery and a homey vegetable gratin from chefs at Boulette's Larder in San Francisco.
The next morning was spectacular. Skies were a clear blue, the temperature in the low 40s and several inches of powdery snow had accumulated on the ground and in the trees. At the Yosemite Sports Shop I bought "traction devices," those crampon-like doo-hickeys to strap on the bottom of hiking boots. I only recently learned about these things. They are easy to put on all kinds of shoes and seem to prevent slipping on ice. Highly recommended. I took a long walk along the valley's trails, seeing only a few people, all of whom seemed as hushed as I was by the spectacular sight: Yosemite Valley on a brilliant morning after a mid-winter snowfall.

Friday, February 29, 2008

About Laura Del Rosso

Laura Del Rosso is a journalist who specializes in travel industry trends and business issues of hotels, destinations, cruise lines, travel technology companies, meeting planners, travel agencies and tour operators.

She was San Francisco-based bureau chief for Travel Weekly, a leading travel industry newsmagazine, for 16 years, and has been a full-time freelance journalist since 2003.

Laura is contributing editor for Travel Weekly and writes regularly for Travel Professional, a bimonthly magazine for the travel industry.

Her first book, Great Escapes: Northern California, about day trips and weekend getaways within a four-hour drive of the San Francisco Bay Area, was published in May 2008 by Countryman Press/Norton. It is available from booksellers, including

To purchase a signed copy direct from Laura, email her at