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!