Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Outstanding In The Field

Mushrooms are my friends. No, not the Haight Ashbury kind. I'm talking porcini, shitake, chanterelles, morels and their numerous cousins.

I just love eating mushrooms. So much so that I recently became a member of the Mycoligical Society of San Francisco. When I read that Outstanding in the Field was going to host a foraging dinner in the Santa Cruz mountains right after Thanksgiving, I jumped right in. I'd read about these gourmet dining events on farm settings for a while, either in Sunset Magazine or in the New York Times.

This is what the founders have to say about them on their website: "Since 1999 we have set the long table at farms or gardens, on mountain tops or in sea caves, on islands or at ranches. Occasionally the table is set indoors: a beautiful refurbished barn, a cool greenhouse or a stately museum."

In a nutshell: a hundred or so foodies get together on a farm and eat the produce from the farm prepared by respected chefs at long communal tables, mingling with perfect strangers who are supposedly kindred spirits. Our event took place between Pescadero and Ano Nuevo SR at Pie Ranch.

It started on an expanse of green grass around 3pm, halfway between the hen house and rows of November strawberries, with a glass of Tempranillo and Grenache Rose from the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. On a camping stove nearby, the chef was sauteeing thin slices of porcini to render them crisp. A pure delight. After rounding up all the guests, our hosts gave us a speech on the ranch and the spirit of the event and we headed up the mountain.

On the trail, we started discussing with others. After all we were newbies (unlike many old timers who complained at how popular the event was) and we didn't know who we'd sitting next to. We actually had a great conversation starter as we had our girls with us. There were only five children for 147 adults. We hooked up with a couple who admired the striped blue sweater our oldest daughter was wearing. "I wish they made the same one in grown up sizes!" she said. Too bad, we replied, it was knitted by my mother-in-law, an artist knitter in Paris.

The view from the top of the hill embraced the Pacific Ocean and white stretches of sand as the sun was setting on the horizon. We could clearly see the dilapidated lighthouse at Ano Nuevo SR, a most mysterious spot that's now called home by sea lions.

After everybody had reached the top, someone gave the signal to go back down. I was disappointed though because I had misunderstood that we'd go foraging for mushrooms. Sigh. No foraging. Back to ... the barn.

It was way too cold to dine under the stars so tables were set at the foot of the hill, under garlands of dried corn and ornamental squashes in the barn. When 150 guests sit at three long tables, you appreciate better the size of the event. Let's eat! The appetizer was a mushroom mussel soup that was too salty for my taste but good otherwise.

Across from us sat the sweater-admiring couple who had driven all the way from Los Angeles for that night. They were both screenwriters for Tinseltown and had worked on thrillers/fantasy films (like the erotic thriller I'm Watching You ) or more recently documentary movies. She was the liveliest person ever and he was super cool.

Next to them sat a lawyer whose daughter followed anthropology studies and with whom we exchanged thoughts on the recent death of Claude Levi-Strauss the great French anthropologist.

I even recommended them Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist, one of the few books that ever made me laugh out loud.

Another book recommendation came from my screenwriter neighbors and it was The Last of the Really Great Whangwoodles by Julie Andrews (yes, of Mary Poppins fame). They said my girls would love it later.

Meanwhile my girls were scampering outside with a new found friend called Melie under a pitch dark night, chasing each other between cooking stations. As I walked out to check on them, I marvelled at the real whipping cream effort, a culminating point of the fruit pies we would eat later.

I chose persimmon over huckleberry but that was a misguided choice after stealing in my husband's plate. Never mind, it was good nonetheless.

Good but not outstanding. This is actually my main point. The food was very creative (hail to sauteed stinging nettles in the saffron, fennel, prosecco soaked sable fish, bonny doon road stinging nettles, chanterelles & hedgehogs entree) - but it was not super impressive.

Some of it arrived lukewarm or cold and while large serving dishes foster family style dining, nobody exactly knew how small or large their individual helpings should be. It's too bad. I do like the idea of a dinner at a farm.

We've experienced a very pleasant summer evening tasting heirloom tomatoes at Capay Organic Farms two years ago. It was a lot less gourmet (grilled chicken, roasted potatoes, greens from the farm) but a lot more enjoyable.

It may be the fact that we had very high expectations about Outstanding in the Field. The tab was also pretty steep. People say their dinners on warm summer nights in the Napa Valley are heaven, but that late November night, I wanted to be more satisfied.

The only high note was discovering a selection of Bonny Doon wines along the meal. They truly live up to their reputation and brightened up our spirits.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Union Square Tree Lighting Ceremony

Each year we attend a tree lighting ceremony in San Francisco.

Last year, we attended the Pier 39 Tree Lighting Ceremony. This year we headed to Union Square as it was one conveniently taking place after Thanksgiving (Embarcadero Center and Pier 39 got an early start) and it seemed only fair to kick off the festive season after Turkey Day.

The ceremony started at 6.30pm on San Francisco's Union Square but as we arrived an hour early, we stopped at two places before mingling with the crowds.

First, we entered the Williams Sonoma store on Union Square, candy for the eye. These guys really know a thing or two when it comes to service. As we entered the store, we were greeted by hot apple cider cups that my girls downed with pleasure before asking for seconds and thirds.

Up two flights of stairs, trays of peppermint chocolate bark were awaiting eager hands and again, my girls scored pretty well on the scale of seconds and thirds.

Meanwhile, I picked a bottle of their Winter Forest dishwashing liquid. Not only does it smell like a balsam tree entered your house. It's also made with essential oils without chemicals, packaged in recyclable bottles and biodegradable. Hurray for Caldrea who developed this earth-friendly line for Williams Sonoma.

Next we headed towards the WestIn St Francis hotel to admire their legendary sugary gingerbread display. As you can see on the picture, it is a pretty impressive castle. All sugar, fondant, chocolate and gingerbread. Tons of it.

Alas, double and triple alas, we already saw it last year. And the year before. In fact it is the 2005 Gingerbread castle that gets "improved" each year. So says the text next to the castle. Do real spider webs count as improvement too?

Come on guys, there are outstanding pastry chefs in your kitchen and you lamely store your gingerbread castle in a basement to bring it out in the limelight once a year?!

I'm not asking for a fabulous castle each year and I'm all for recycling, but a different gingerbread creation would be nice. Just ask the savvy pastry apprentices at the nearby California Culinary Academy. They'll be more than happy to show off their newly-learned skills.

So we left the St Francis with our girls and out we were on Union Square with thousands of other people.

Three years ago, I remember distinctly a band playing, a speech from Mayor Gavin Newsom and a loud countdown to the lighting.

This year, we were almost caught by surprise as the countdown started weakly before the planned time and we caught up by number 7. Not nearly as fun as the one I remembered. The tree championed by Macy's was lit and people cheered.

As crowds poured out on neighboring Post and Geary streets, we decided to show our girls the Macy's SPCA dog and cat windows.

We had a crazy time going around the block and with people cutting through dense lines, it was pretty tough to see anything at all. However we managed to see a few pupies and kittens, ready for adoption in their temporarily posh surroundings.

Before calling it a day, we pushed the doors of the Hyatt hotel behind the Levi's store to see their snow village.

This is another tradition of ours. I always take my girls to see the snow village installed at the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero Center. This year, we decided we'd see the one at Union Square instead.

It is not nearly as nice (the Hyatt Regency displays more than 3,000 ceramic painted houses out of Len Connacher's private collection) but our girls were still awestruck in front of the miniature snowy scenes replete with gingerbread houses, gliding skaters, circling carousels and blinking street lights. A delight to their eyes.

Off starts the season.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Picking Chestnuts in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Thanksgiving will mark the end of the official chestnut season. While the apple season still sort of thrives in Apple Hill in Placerville, the chestnuts and the walnuts are pretty much done.

Before chestnuts stopped falling off trees, we organized a group outing to pick enough of them to feel like it's almost wintertime. Prickly little things they are. Get the gloves on!

Skyline Chestnuts is the only chestnut farm in the Bay Area and the only survivor to the late 19th, early 20th century blight that decimated most North American chestnut groves.

I found out about this farm on Yelp, but this year it was featured in so many publications (Sunset, 7x7 Magazine...) that it's a miracle there were still any chestnuts left for us.

On an early November Sunday morning, 20 of us met up at Skyline Chestnuts. Some of our friends braved the chill away on the previous night at the Portola Redwoods State Park.

As for us, we simply got up, had breakfast and drove diwn 280 south, turned west on highway 84, then south on Skyline. After a very windy road (that had us slow down and stop more than once for our carsick junior crew), we finally reached Skyline and its glorious views on the Pacific Ocean.

The farm is really just a sign out on the road, then a gravelly dirt road uphill and an old trailer where the farmer stands with his cowboy hat on. We each picked up a plastic bucket, a pair of gloves and followed the trail.

There under the first trees stood a lonely old car that delighted our youngsters. There's nothing like a big rusty piece of junk to bring a smile to a child's face!

Just after a few hundred yards or so, I held up my first chestnut like a gold medal prize. It wasn't very big at all but it was edible, shiny, and brown. That's all I wanted.

Family by family, pair by pair, adult by adult, we then dispersed under the trees, refraining from yelling out the "good" spots because you never know what's next. The yellow and brown foliage crushed under our shoes as we ventured farther from the trail and its multicolored blanket grew thicker.

My youngest one was unfortunate in that chestnut thorns found her very early on. I got the tweezers out but even so, they were difficult to remove from her fingers and legs. Tiny, fragile, thin, chestnut thorns were treacherously invisible and my little girl cried and cried helplessly.

My oldest girl was more lucky and actually, could have been a hunter-gatherer sort of gal. Boy did she get good at spotting and carefully collecting chestnuts. It was like she was a semi-pro in the lightweight category.

Other kids were enjoying it too. The most selective of all our friend were the Italian clique who picked only the biggest ones, examining them from all angles as if they were truffles before allowing them a (much deserved) spot in their bucket.

An hour later, each family had gathered roughly five pounds, more chestnuts than they would probably eat all year.

Before paying, we also got from the farm a teddy-bear jar of honey harvested from beehives in the area. Next year if all goes well, the farmer will be able to sell "chestnut honey" - a type of honey made by bees who have feasted on groves of chestnut trees all year long.

It's a rare delicacy that I love and bring back each time I travel to the South of France. Its strong and woodsy smell is beyond paradise for me. The one I buy in Beziers is Miel du Rouergue by J. Delous and I get it at Coucourus the grocer. But enough digression, back to the Peninsula!

So we were done with the chestnuts and we all rendez-voued at Castle Rock State Park for a picnic lunch.

Castle Rock is easily one of my favorite parks in the Santa Cruz mountains. The big bouldering area is a huge playground for young and old and it's forested all the way. While we adults sat down and feasted on chicken liver and marsala pâté (recipe courtesy of Bon Appetit magazine), lentil salad, hummus, cheeses and almond and marmelade torte with lattice crust (again, thanks to Bon Appetit), the young ones set out to explore the big boulders behind us and were fearless in their endeavors.

Some of us parents watched them because two fairly steep drops appeared between two different rocks and we didn't want to replay Cliffhanger that day. You'd figure after all that food, we were loaded enough for an afternoon-long nap. No, the children weren't!

So a few of us put on our walking shoes and hiked towards Goat Rock. We did not go very far at all, perhaps a mile or so.

We stopped for a while on the wooden platform above the cliff at the waterfall, then walked some more and turned back.

Along the way, my little ones were literally obsessed with acorns so kept looking for deep brown shiny perfect acorns, while one of our friends was secretly collecting a few because he wanted to experiment making acorn flour at home. "You can't find it anywhere in the stores!" he explained.

True enough, acorn flour is not common which is surprising in California given how widely it was used by the Miwok Indians. However, if you have acorns in your back yard, here's how to make acorn flour.

Now if you please, I'll get back to my oven. For lack of a fireplace, I'm still roasting my chestnuts in the oven because I love the smell.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Elixir of Love and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Last Saturday, I had tickets for two different productions for families, one in San Francisco and one in San Carlos.

To me, the uncontested "crowd-pleaser" of the day was obvious. The Elixir of Love as an opera for families at the War Memorial Opera House HAD to be better than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by the San Carlos Children's Theatre at the Heather Elementary School of San Carlos. Hands down. Big budget versus hit-or-miss-school production.

Lo and behold, boy was I wrong. Forget the Elixir of Love! It's definitely not Gaetano Donizetti's best opera and my children found it boring (me too). My 5-year-old's big question during Act II? "Mom, is that real food on stage?"

My 3-year-old was fidgety at best, downright irritating the rest of the time. The sets were stupendous but the music did not grab our heart as I hoped it would.

It might have been better had we sat closer to the front (we were second row of the Dress Tier), granted. However the action wouldn't have been much faster.

How about offering Don Giovanni as an opera for families? Grand arias, great music, scary bad guy, saucy gals, lavish settings, ghost and devils. I'm sure it would work wonders.

But The Elixir of Love? Triple sigh.

However The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Now, that's the sort of performance I'd like to see more of: well written, fun, understated, well executed. We loved it.

I actually won two free tickets to the performance thanks to the website Theatre Bay Area last month. So glad I did. Written by Vera Morris, a playwright for Pioneer Drama Service, a Colorado-based plays and musicals publisher, this version of the legend of the Headless Horseman was both funny and witty.

As warned by the ushers at the door, the opening scene was scary. As the curtain opens up on the haunted graveyard of Sleepy Hollow, three specters with gleaming red eyes come on stage and seem to be on the lookout for something, moving in slow eerie steps. Set to dark and moody music, it was a chilling sight and it was no wonder some of the kids ducked into their parents' lap.

But once that scene was over and the three ghosts of the graveyard were introduced, the rest of the play was relatively light-hearted.

As the legend goes, Ichabod Crane is the new school master of Sleepy Hollow and competes with a cheeky fellow named "Brom Bones" for the heart of Katrina Van Tassel. One night after a party at the Van Tassels, Ichabod Crane is hunted down in the night by the headless horseman, a soldier who lost his head and is still looking for it.

In this production, Ichabod Crane was played by Miss Sarah Richards, a lean blond girl whose rendition of Ichabod Crane as a scaredy cat obsessed by food was enchanting.

Mr. Nadir Jang played a solid and mischievous Brom Bones and Ariana Mitha a facetious and confident Katrina Van Tassel. My personal favorite was Mr. Colston Rienhoff, a little boy doning a fluffy grey beard who played Farmer Stuyvesant. He was irresistible.

The story had all the right elements to please: super-natural powers in motion, love and mischief, humor and wit. To all who enjoy a good story, the last performances of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are November 21st, 22nd and 23rd.

I'll be back for the San Carlos Children's Theater performances. It's only 20 minutes from my house!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Boonville to Fort Bragg

Inclement weather can influence many a well crafted plan. Last weekend we visited Boonville (our third time in 2008) heart of the Anderson Valley, three hours north of San Francisco west of the Sonoma Valley.

The sole purpose of our visit was to stay at the Boonville Hotel, a remodeled 1900s establishment praised by Sunset Magazine and others. On our two previous camping trips in Anderson Valley, wine touring and the county fair and rodeo had kept us busy.

This time, our hiking endeavors were literally drowned by the weather. Rather than inflicting more boring wine tasting stops to our poor girls, we headed for the coast.

The road is windy for many stretches so we reached Fort Bragg - only 49 miles away - in roughly 1h20 minutes.

Our first stop was at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, a former nursery created in 1961 that displays wonderful heathers, roses and rhododendrons, as well as other plants. The biggest advantage of the gardens is that they sit directly on the Pacific Ocean, offering visitors an opportunity to combine a passion for horticulture, gentle strolling, bird watching and even whale spotting for binocular-holders.

Thanks to the mild and wet climate, the gardens offer all shades of green in non-blooming seasons like late fall. As we arrived under heavy clouds, we borrowed an umbrella at the front desk and hit the trail.

The gardens now offer a "follow Quincy the quail" kid route that takes you to the main spots of interest in the garden through clues and asks junior naturalists to exercise their senses at various landmarks.

When our girls learned that there was a fairy garden on the way, they doubled the pace until we got there. Right after the neatly-tended vegetable garden, make a left towards the Old Parrish Cemetery and keep going towards the dahlia garden.

The fairy garden is not a glitter-pastel-Disney fairy garden (as I half expected). It is an actual enclosure made of broken branches and twigs where children can pick up anything on the ground to build a fairy house.

The gardeners probably got the idea from one of the books they sell at the store, Fairy Houses...Everywhere by Barry and Tracy Kane. Whereas the book features top notch photographs of whimsical fairy houses, the ones that surrounded us definitely veered on the rustic DIY side. However, pixie dust was in the air and despite the lack of glitter around us, our girls got really involved in the building activity.

Half an hour later we ended up with a nice nook on a tree stump with bark roof, leaf fence and acorn furniture. Classy.

I love the idea of returning fairies where they belong to an all-natural environment rather than in rosy flowers jingling like crazy in PC-bimbo-style Tinkerbell. As if fairies needed an official web site... Nearing lunch time, our growling stomachs hurdled us back to the exit.

On the way, we met a charming dog-walking couple who recommended that we eat at Silver's on the wharf. The real name is actually Silver's at the Wharf and this has got to be one of the few coastal restaurants whose main view consists of giant pillars of a tall concrete bridge.

Granted, water runs underneath the bridge and it leads to the ocean. It'd be unfair to complain though. We had a bridge/ocean view table. Sipping an Amber Ale beer, my husband and I spent a lot of time detailing boats coming back from fishing expeditions, pointing out throngs of flying seagulls as signs of successful outings.

At one point, we even got treated to a seal swimming underneath our eyes and the children loved it. The food was not fancy but the fish tacos and fried cod plate worked wonders on hungry stomachs (they even came with real vegetables and perfectly edible rice).

As we got into the car, it started pouring cats and dogs. We decided to stop in Mendocino for a cup of tea/coffee.

Had it not been for a small sign on Highway 1, I would never have turned right to see the Point Cabrillo Light Station. What a lovely place and what a hidden gem! We parked by the visitor center and hiked the half mile to the light station buildings at a brisk pace. Rain - which had stopped minutes before- resumed and we opened the girls' umbrellas.

As we arrived next to a bunch of buildings, more rain forced us inside the Lighthouse Keeper's Museum. It is a darling little house that has been restored to its 1909 authenticity down to the gramophone, kids play kitchens and building blocks. We pretend played a lot, looked out occasionally and waited for dryer clouds.

As it kept raining and we still hadn't reached the inside of the lighthouse (few hundred yards away), we made a run for the house next door. It had lights and I assumed it was the docent lounge and shop.

What a surprise when we were gently shooed away because it's a B&B. A B&B in a state park? Yes, the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Inn is a unique Bed and Breakfast in that it finances the daily operations of the entire park.

With only 60,000 visitors a year, the lighthouse has nowhere near enough trafic to pay for the costs of repainting the buildings washed by salty waves, maintain the lighthouse lens or more lighthouse business. However, we're not going to sleep there anytime soon. It's off limits to children under 15. Ahem, that's pretty steep.

Before the sun set behind the golden horizon, we stopped in Mendocino for a cup of espresso, green tea and hot milk. Our dinner reservation in the dining room of the Boonville Hotel was not til 8.30pm so we enjoyed the last half hour of the local toy store, a magical place for tired children who want to play castles and fairies with the real plastic stuff.

Boonville, gateway to the north coast. Who would have known?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween in Burlingame: Ray Park

Craving a creepy tour at Disney's Haunted Mansion but not in Anaheim for Halloween? Not to worry, the Ray Park neighborhood in Burlingame can provide much needed spooky relief when it's pumpkin time around the country. Yes, trick-or-treating is serious business in Burlingame.

After a year in the Castro, another two years fighting crowds at Belvedere Street in San Francisco, we needed a change of scenery. As much as we enjoyed creative displays on the Victorian-lined Belvedere street, it was really busy.

Luckily, I have a friend who lives on Cabrillo Avenue right off The Avenue in Burlingame. Last year she invited us to come trick-or-treating with her. We loved it so much, we were back this year.

The scene? Wide tree-lined streets, big suburban homes (but not McMansions), green front lawns, lots of people having grown up on the block, some streets closed off to car trafic for safer trick-or-treating and a warm evening that makes you want to move in right away.

An hour or so before twilight, around 4.30pm, little trick-or-treaters start knocking on doors with their parents in tow. Fairy flowers and plush animals were the first ones to come to my friend's door.

Our children were watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" when the trick-or-treaters knocked. They jumped off the couch, opened the door and started giving away handfuls of candy. "Trick or treat!" we heard, followed by "Happy Halloween!"

"Hold on guys, otherwise grandma won't have any left for the evening," my friend reminded them. The parents returned most of the treats. Soon it would be our turn to knock on doors.

My friend's son was dressed as Cody the Penguin (from the movie Surf's Up) and my girls were Madeline and a pink cowgirl riding her horse. All three had been awaiting this for weeks, changing ideas about their outfits, attending school parades and punpkin carving parties. Halloween was THE night to go out and have fun. Carefully at home we had packed a wicker basket and a flashlight each.

Just after 5pm, we finally went out, walking along Cabrillo towards Adeline. Jumping in anticipation, the children rushed to the neighbor's door.

My friend was carrying a hot pizza and a bottle of wine in her hands. "What for?" I asked. "There's a block party around the corner," she said. Indeed, several adults holding plastic cups filled with wine walked past us. We were on the right track!

After a lovely house with scary sounds, giant clear plastic bubble with purple castle inside and coffin with its vampire, we got to the corner of Adeline and Cabrillo. The crossing was busy. Lots of princesses, Dorothys, Star Wars storm troopers, Draculas and witches were hustling up and down the street.

Towards Ray Park, the house featured howling ghouls sliding on ropes, upside down TV screens showing scary movies, a giant hologram in the window and a nice collection of coffins and monsters in the yard.

Across the street was a front lawn planted with lit ghosts and half skeletons seemingly crawling out of the ground. Not as scary as the howling ghouls, but the lights were very festive in the night.

We made a left to go down Adeline and a right towards Ray Park on Cortez. A few doors down is one of the nicest houses I've ever seen.

With a huge wrap-around porch, the house is so popular that there are signs indicating the "trick-or-treating" way. To the right!

Walk around the porch and you'll discover scary monsters eating brain around a table, or giant spiders waiting by. The back yard has jumping hairy spiders and tombstones in the best graveyard tradition. If I remember well, there's even a ghost up in the tree. Keep walking and you might hit dozens of smaller spiders hanging from nylon threads.

The real reward comes at the end with a cheerful bunch offering you a drink. Yay! These guys are great.

We had seen the highlight of the evening. Nonetheless, trick-or-treating was not over and we went up Adeline towards Drake Avenue. A short glance convinced me that the houses along Ray Park were really the nicest houses in the neighborhood.

Wherever we saw some lights up by the door, our children ran to knock on the door, taking turns at knocking (more or less).

We heard "Here you go! Here you go! Oh, a little Madeline. You're so cute! Take two!" Without fail, the little Madeline came back with more candy than her eldders and lugged behind a basket that was so heavy that it was leaking a trail of candy behind her. The two older ones noticed and picked up some on the way.

Our last stop was at the corner of The Avenue and Bernal, the house with the alien on the front porch.

At 7pm, our children had collected enough candy to last through Easter. On the way back home, we crossed paths with the second round of trick-or-treaters, teenagers who are too cool for Halloween but can't help knocking on doors dressed as Hannah Montana cameos or sporting oversize jeans. Ray Park, we'll be back!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

California Academy of Sciences: The Green, The Odd and The Beautiful

Almost a month after it opened, the California Academy of Sciences continues to keep the buzz alive around the world. From Vanity Fair to Sunset Magazine, from BBC News to the New York Times, there aren't enough words to praise the green example set by the building and its designers.

Rarely has a venerable scientific institution been this much fun and worthy of travel articles. When I visited the building a month ago to research an article for, I discovered the aquarium in all its silver blue waves and musical glory.

Picture this: 2,000 fish, 350 species and coral reefs modelled after actual dive sites in the Philippines. The giant waves lining the walls with smaller tanks heightened the experience of aquatic life thriving within. Only the surrounding lounge music seemed slightly off, if somewhat distracting.

The small tank on the picture got my attention because human feet are not staples of aquariums but then this is a novel way to introduce the life of fungi underwater.

Climbing up three flights of stairs, the highlight of the building is its green living roof with seven hills, thousands of photovoltaic cells and coconut husk trays to root down native species, the latter aiming at capturing rainwater to irrigate the roof, the rest being drained outside for ground re-absorption.

This spectacular and organic design was created by the Italian architect Renzo Piano who got inspired by the view of Grand View Park in the distance.

However the contents of the exhibits beneath are equally fascinating. In true scientific tradition, they are mostly thought-provoking with public education in mind. Right under an 87-foot long blue whale skeleton, the exhibit on climate change in California is frightening at best, terrorizing for green eco-conscious minds like me.

As our presentator said, "What you chose for breakfast, lunch and dinner actually makes a difference [on climate change.]" Since then, I've actually reduced my meat consumption ...

It's a thorough multi-level analysis of climate change in the sierras and its ski resorts with impact studies on natural habitats and the fauna. For curious minds, the exhibit also clarifies the mystery of fog formation on the bay, something tourists couldn't live without.

To brighten up spirits, the giant Amazonian bubble is next door thriving with lifeforms of all sizes both above and under water.

Chris Andrews, Chief of Programs at the Academy, led us through the exhibit explaining how the noise level inside the rainforest depends on the time of the day. Obviously we were at bird-chirping max with 40 specimens of birds flying around.

The exit of the rainforest bubble includes a double-cubicle with heavy rubber curtains aimed at keeping Amazonian life indoors. "Don't let butterflies fly out on your shoulders," we were told.

At the opposite end of the hall, the Islands of Evolution panels nail down Darwinist revisionists' theories with factual evidence around various animals and birds from the Galapagos Islands, and how some species have adapted to evolving habitats.

Towering above bird beaks of various shapes is the Planetarium, a hi-tech facilitity offering live space feed from NASA satellites.

The current show on the quest for life in space, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, is definitely more thrilling than Disney's Soarin' Over California ride.

As you sit comfortably in your plush seat, the screen shows you an uber-realistic view of the building around you through the walls. Then the camera takes off to fly above the Golden Gate Park, the Bay Area coast and then off to space. For a few seconds I actually hung on to my seat. However as the step-by-step quest for life in close and more remote planets or systems unfolded, I entirely dove into the narrative. It's better than science fiction.

Last stop in my tour was the kids space or Young Explorers Cove. It was closed that day but I got in thanks to a member of staff who had the key.

It's a cute little space but slightly hidden from plain view and I don't know how it fares with hundreds of kids mercilessly playing with the toys each day. I found the schooner miniature replica disapppointing as I envisioned an ambitious half-size boat like the one at Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. But hey, it's a good option for preschoolers nonetheless.

Can't wait for Friday. This Friday, the California Academy of Sciences unveils Maya Lin's "Where the Land Meets the Sea", a monumental installation depicting the Bay Area below and above sea level.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Harvest Festival at Ardenwood Historic Farm

"I'm going back for more!" said Inga as she disappeared in the maize field. Minutes later she was back with armfuls of Indian corn. Not she needed them. Her husband and boy team had already done a pretty good job at filling their burlap sacks. But it's so much fun!

Each year, Ardenwood Historic Farm throws a unique Harvest Festival. I attended last year and enjoyed so much that I returned this year.

As you enter the farm yard, fiddler Ray Frank and guitarist Dan Engle tap the rhythm while playing hoedown music and hot cookie scents already fill the air. Currently part of the East Bay Regional Parks system, Ardenwood used to be a wealthy estate going back to the early days of American California.

Purchased by George Washington Patterson in 1856 for farming purposes, the place was baptized Ardenwood after the mythical "Forest of Arden" in Shakespeare's play As You Like It. It is now an 1890s functioning farm on 205 acres of land shouldering the Silicon Valley. It has everything a Victorian farm should have: a walnut orchard, a farm yard, farm animals, a blacksmith shop, a grain-milling operation and finely combed gardens around a beautiful Gingerbread Victorian house.

The Harvest Festival is one of many historical events that draws lines of locals and non-locals to the gates of this Fremont park. Besides the get-a-burlap-sack-and-pick-corn-off-the-plant activity (a favorite, for sure), families with children love David Maloney's goofy magic show or the old lady teaching children how to spin and shear wool with special metallic combs. Note that all people picking corn are asked to donate half of their harvest to Ardenwood for their school programs, which I find is pretty neat.

Some of the corn (the Indian corn) is ground into flour, as well as the wheat grown on the property. I went away with two sacks of corn meal, as well as one plastic teddy bear filled with honey harvested from beehives on the farm. In truth, it doesn't get much more farm-to-table than this.

Other children activities are available such as the immensely popular hand-cranked ice-cream operation next to the musicians, or the tables for making corn husk dolls behind the outdoors kitchen.

Speaking of, my oldest loved the hot crispy oatmeal cookies coming right out of the wood-fired oven and kept coming back for more.

If you need more reasons to go to Ardenwood, there's a train that takes you for rides. There's a wooden press to make fresh apple cider. There are quilters threading needles on intricate quilts in the farm yard.

The next special events at Ardenwood will be particularly close to my heart: the Christmas at Ardenwood on December 6 & 7, and the Evening at the Patterson House on December 12. Which to pick? Hmmm...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Petaluma's Great Peter Pumpkin Patch

Peter Peter pumpkin eater,

Had a wife but couldn't keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell,

And there he kept her very well.

So goes the nursery rhyme. Nobody in a pumpkin shell at the Petaluma Great Peter Pumpkin Patch but it's a great place to carve out a fun day between pumpkin fields and hay stacks.

The place is named after Larry Peter, owner of the Spring Hill Jersey Cheese company and founder of the pumpkin patch. We did not exactly plan on being there on the first weekend of October, but the timing was good nevertheless.

After we had lunch at Nick's Cove above Point Reyes in Marshall, we headed back home on Petaluma's back roads. I couldn't believe how many "Organic Pumpkins" or "Pumpkin Patch" signs lined the roads. However when I read Peter Pumpkin Patch, I vaguely remembered going there last year (the photo is from last year) and having fun. "Turn right," I told my husband.

Several hills later, there we were. A big parking lot on a hill, square tents above Spring Hill Cheese displays, mounts of various pumpkins ready to buy, a dirt field, tractors for hay rides, a hay maze and of course, a big field orange with plump roundish pumpkins.

The Great Peter Pumpkin Patch is a traditional pumpkin patch with a focus on farming. No haunted houses, no jumpy houses, no latex ghouls.

Farming you say? "I'm going to dig up potatoes!" shouted my 5-year-old, running for a pitch fork. The girl has a memory for anything hands-on. And so she ran. Went straight to the dirt field. She pitch-forked three glorious potatoes and that was it because we couldn't find too many others. The family next to us also looked pretty much empty-handed with their three pitch forks and plastic bags. Dear Mr. Peter, I hope the potato situation improves until Halloween because right now, it's potato-hide-and-seek.

Pumpkins, on the other hand, you could count by the hundreds. All on the vines, if you please. So little ones don't think they all grow in cardboard boxes. Some funny-shaped, some dirty, some split open and lots just ripe and ribbed and bright orange just like the good Jack'O Lantern carving variety (or is the Trick-or-Treat variety?).

We brought on the wheel barrow, picked a pumpkin off the vine and walked back to the square tents. While the girls were getting "lost" in the hay maze, I picked pumpkins to decorate the house.

I'll take two munchkins and maybe two others. Boo Pumpkins? Thank you no. Oh I like that green squash. Right in the wheel barrow. And a few Sugar Pumpkins for good measure.

$24 later we were out of there, happy and for our girls, tired. Too bad we didn't have time to milk the cows and go for hay rides. Carving time was about to begin.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Geoff Kaufman abord the Balclutha

How often do you attend a concert at San Francisco's only national park? Yes, there is a national park in San Francisco and it's not the Golden Gate Bridge. It's not Chinatown either. Don't you know? It's the historic ships at Hyde Street Pier.

San Francisco night lights viewed from the Hyde Street Pier with a chilly breeze in the neck is pretty close to heaven. Extra points if parking was suspiciously easy, McKormick's had a table at the back of the bar and the NPS guy hands us our concert tickets within seconds. Yes we're attending a concert.

After my "yo ho ho" pirate adventures two weeks prior and our concert mini-series, we combined the best of both worlds with a sea chantey (sailors songs) concert.

Now, I'm not usually the kind to venture into a concert when

- I don't know the singer

- I have no idea what he sings

- I have no idea where it's at

- I have no idea if it's such a good idea.

Yet, a concert aboard a 1886 square-rigged ship tickles my curiosity. What could it be like? Worse comes to worst, it's a night out without the kiddos and that's enough to do the Snoopy wacky dance. At best, we might actually enjoy Geoff Kaufman's performance. And we did.

Chances are you don't know Geoff Kaufman, the self-described "folk singer with a pinch of salt". Let me tell you. All the people attending the concert are big time Mel-type fans of Geoff Kaufman. Mel is the female fan stalking the band in Flight of the Conchords, the HBO series. It was that type of crowd just slightly older. Laughing at Geoff's jokes, helping him out with some lyrics, furiously clapping after each song. What a trip.

When we sat down, Geoff Kaufman was already singing. As the chorus started, everybody around us joined in. I mean, every single person sang along. My husband and I stared at each other.

Did the others have cheat sheets? Nope. The front row ladies sang in seconds, thirds and in harmony! As Geoff ends the song, a furious round of clapping followed.

Then Geoff gets two pairs of "sticks" from his pocket. "Rib bones gain an interesting quality as the marrow dries out," he says showing them. "They have a more hollow sound." The bones were his music instrument for the next song. Other instruments included a guitar, a concertina and a small flute.

As the evening went by, we regretted not being Mel-type fans of Geoff Kaufman. Some of the songs were incredibly beautiful, like the one about the Island of Mingulay that Geoff Kaufman introduced with: "the rhythm is fabulous for rowing."

All of the songs had stories to them. There's the song about a whaler built in 1841 and its British sailors dealing with Spanish ladies of Tijuana. There's the gorgeous song called Ambletown in which a sailor at sea receives a letter from his wife announcing a baby to be born.

There's the song about 1860s ships going to Alaska and a whalebone cutter's hands being smooth but worn. There's the song saying farewell to fishing because the seas' supplies are slowly being depleted. There's the song about "them Johnson girls are mighty fine girls." There's the hilarious song about the Prohibition and going "all along the beehive." There's the poetic song written by a reverend and describing how a carver made an incredible figurehead for the Marco Polo Clipper Ship. And there was the "Stand on Shore" goodbye song.

Totally enthused, I bought the CD entitled Fair Stood the Wind. Too bad it doesn't come with the fan audience. I'll just wait for Mr. Kaufman to come back to our friendly shores. Then maybe I can sit up front too!

Eatwell Farm: Symphony in Tomatoes and Chickens Major

My friend Heather Knape is a Bay Area photographer. She is also an epicurian and adventurous foodie.

Her series on tomatoes once decorated the walls of San Francisco's Millenium restaurant. For that series, she frequently visited Eatwell Farm and soon befriended Nigel Walker, the farmer at Eatwell.

When she offered me to join her to visit Eatwell Farm recently, I asked what for. "Why, to pick tomatoes of course!" My husband and I had just canned 52 pints and 7 quarts of Roma tomatoes the previous weekend.

You'd think we'd peeled and seen enough tomatoes for the remainder of the season. But picking fresh organic tomatoes right of the vine sounded too tempting an offer to pass. Late September is the perfect time to enjoy the last glory days of tomatoes.

On a Tuesday morning, Heather and I packed our little crew, met up with our friend Esther and drove to Dixon in the Sacramento Valley. More than picking tomatoes, I was eager to get my girls out on the farm, to have them interact with the real thing.

Nigel greeted us by the produce-packing buildings and got on his bicycle to show us the way. We grabbed a handful of empty boxes and proceeded down the dusty road.

It seemed so dry that I couldn't help asking where the irrigating water came from. "From Lake Berryessa over that hill," said Nigel pointing at two hills on the horizon.

Soon we were walking alongside the squash fields and reached the tomatoes. Now, I'm loosely referring to "the tomatoes" but the truth is, Eatwell Farm is notorious for its "Tomato Wonderland" and produces dozens of heirloom/non-heirloom tomato varieties.

As Nigel needed to tend the farm (we came on a Tuesday and Tuesdays are CSA-packing days at Eatwell Farm), his time was limited. We got a quick rundown from him: here the Romas, further Cherry tomatoes, across the road Green Zebras, towards the chicken coops, yellow tomatoes.

While we were trying to memorize locations, Nigel kneeled down and showed us how to look for tomatoes under the leaves. "Just rub them with your fingers," he said. "They'll have dirt on them and maybe sunburns, but they are good to eat. See?" Since he was graciously allowing us on his tomato fields during regular farm hours, we were only too happy to nod.

Following his example, we all got down to business. As down as down can get, feet and hands in the dirt. Heather carried her 16-month old in a carrier on her back but that did not discourage her tomato endeavours. Esther also carried a little one.

I was probably the only one with two useful hands but my 3-year old was whining. "It's full of dirt Maman, I want to get back home!" What can I say? My little urbanite doesn't live on a farm. Fortunately she noticed her little friend Lily helping Heather and so, started helping her too. Spotting red tomatoes through green leaves is not difficult but then, you have to discard the half-rotten ones, the "squishy" ones, the bad ones.

My 5-year-old was getting pretty involved, especially after she and Lucas noticed the Green Zebras. Green Zebras are a great tomato variety with whitish stripes, a very firm texture and a tangy taste. They make for fantastic tomato salads.

Both children went crazy over the stripes and literally went on a treasure hunt in Nigel's fields. It did not take long for Lily to join the fun.

Meanwhile the litller ones were getting tired and before heading back, we opted to visit the chicken coop. There, we had the biggest surprise ever.

Who ever heard of chickens fed with organic jalapenos, cherry tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers and apples? Eatwell Farm clients who get the farm's eggs probably have no idea how lucky they are. Only the best organic produce for these feathery guys!

Candidly, I never heard of anything but grain-fed chickens. When my grand-father ran a chicken farm in the South of France in the 1980s, his volatiles were always fed corn in dusty barns lit with low-lying aluminum lamps.

To this day I remember the sweet grain smell and busy rustling of feathers. It did seem pretty crowded in there and they didn't get to go out much (except to get slaughtered or sold, obviously). Life wasn't a picnic for them.

Nigel's chickens are treated like royalty in comparison! They eat fresh produce year-round, have their private elevated red-painted quarters (very cheerful) with stairways and awnings for sun-protection, run around as much as they want in their fenced-in area, are protected by a big barking dog and see the sun every day. Fancy that.

No wonder Nigel restricts his clients' egg orders. You need space and commitment to make 3,000 chickens happy!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Birthday Parties: A Pinch of 1978 and More

This year, I combined my 3-year-old and my 5-year-old birthday parties. Out of my mind, I opted for the at home/home-made birthday party. No entertainers, no catering services. No fuss? Think again.

As the date grew nearer, the idea of having 23 kids under age 6 running around in my home lead to several sleepless nights. I had visions of post-atomic gooey floors with chocolate cake spread on the walls and popcorn bits magically appearing until Christmas. At last, I found the answer: the backyard!

I'd never thought much of it before, mostly because it's a steep and narrow terrain, therefore tricky to use.

However I recently built a tree house (or rather a house under a tree) with my landlord's help and the backyard gained monumental appeal overnight. First, the B-day activities.

The best idea I had did not emanate from me. It came from a 1978 photograph where my younger brother and I are standing in our living room under a string of felt puppets my mom made. The photo was taken on the day of his 5-year-old birthday party.

My mother was and is still very crafty (she made puppets and sets for The Night Before Christmas two years ago) and I got completely inspired.

I dusted off my sewing machine and two evenings later, I had 25 felt puppets ready to decorate. I made a point of making whimsically gender-neutral puppets using mostly primary colors with odd ears, hair and head shapes.

I knew it'd be a hit when my girls started playing with them before they were even sewn. "When I'm a mom, I'll make puppets for my children's birthday party too," confided my 5-year-old with a grin.

So as children started trickling in on the B-day, I got them each to choose a puppet and then they decorated them with fabric markers. Even the 3-year-olds got into the groove and soon enough there were decorated puppets hanging from each parent's purse awaiting the ride back home.

Second activity was of course the tree house, where children were naturally drawn. Until then, I had no idea of the maximum occupancy of that structure. Now I know it's about six screaming kids inside and as many as you want around.

They climbed in and out, waved their puppets through the windows, re-arranged the table and two chairs in many creative ways and later, threw the furniture out the windows. That qualifies as sheer success.

I did try to organize a "wrap the mummy" game with toilet paper but while some of the kids were particularly enthusiastic at freely unrolling TP, none of them wanted to get wrapped.

So we moved on to bobbing apples where Tiana, Andrew, Ben and Domenico each had a try. Soaking wet, Tiana succeeded twice. Out of curiosity I gave a go too, mainly because I'd never tried before. It's not that easy!

An hour into the party, the pinata made its appearance as some guests had to leave early. Girls will be girls and mine chose a sickeningly pink blond princess as their pinata.

Since I bought it empty at a grocery store on Mission Street, my husband and I filled it with healthier alternatives than the usual crap-candy-alternative. We went for fruit leathers, chocolate bars, salted caramels, natural fruit lollipops, honey sticks and natural fruit hard candy instead.

I'm not sure the kids noticed when they all ran and tumbled to pick up candy on the ground but we felt a lot better about it. The birthday cake followed of course.

My girls had requested a chocolate cake. Standing firmly against cake mixes, I bake everything from scratch. This one was no exception: three layers of chocolate sponge cake, two layers of chocolate butter cream and one of Nutella. Rich!

To honour my artisan clock-reparer older brother Jean, I made the cake in the shape in a clock whose needles marked three and five respectively. As additional decorations, I baked animal-shaped meringues (hedgehogs, mice and snails).

As usual, children were way more interested in the frosting and rainbow non-pareils than the cake itself. The party was coming to an end and before they left, our guests received the goodie item some had been waiting for all year: the annual selection of our girls' favorite songs compiled by my husband.

Party over. Time to switch to Halloween mode.