Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hoffman Farm: The Last Walnut Orchard in Napa Valley

A Napa day trip without wine? For a change of pace and an escape from city bustle, Hoffman Farm is just the place for your next Sunday trip. I found out about this place looking to pick walnuts. I knew it was about the end of the season and walnuts are not a particularly popular u-pick item in the Bay Area. There were orchards in Vacaville/Brentwood but this one in Napa promised to be something special.

This 23-acre farm is maintained by John and Margaret Hoffman, respectively 93 and 90 years old. Visiting the farm is like visiting your grand-parents' orchard, only this one features 3 kinds of walnuts, 3 kinds of prunes, 3 kinds of plums, 10 kinds of apples, 4 kinds of persimmons, 1 quince tree, loquats, pineapple guavas, 5 varieties of pears, 2 varieties of peaches, 1 mulberry tree, 4 apricot trees and 3 kinds of figs.

As I arrived at the farm, I parked the car and looked around. With nobody in sight, I simply made my way into the orchard. I wasn't sure how many walnuts would be left on the ground though. When I called the previous Saturday, Mr. Hoffman warned me that the storm has badly shaken the trees and that many walnuts had fallen. I was set with low expectations and a big wicker basket - because you never know. At first, my non-expert eyes tricked me. I'd never picked walnuts off the tree before. "These are old apples," I explained to my girls, pointing at several trees with shriveled black fruits dangling off the branches, except ... the ones on the ground were particularly hard and round under my shoe. I bent over, peeled a slimy black skin off, and a walnut appeared. I blinked and took a second good look around. All the trees around us were walnut trees. "Bring the basket girls!" I said.

Thus began our walnutty afternoon. We couldn't resist picking up the nuts and filling the basket, slowly making our way through the trees. Soon our hands and nails got pretty black. Walnut husks are a common natural dye and if you want to give it a try, here is how to proceed. Knees in the damp dirt, I kept peeling off husks and my girls got in the game too, comparing walnut sizes. We got to the edge of a clearing and standing there, I got the full measure of the orchard. Trees as far as the eyes could see. I could tell most were walnut trees because they had a darker base and a lighter grafted tree on top (walnuts need grafting to grow well). It was big and the fact that I couldn't see a single grape was re-assuring because we were in Napa.

"Girls, apples!" I yelled. Across from us, a Fuji apple tree. This time I was right about the apples. Getting closer, I understood why Mr. Hoffman had said that there were still a few apples on the trees "if I could get to them." At 5"5, I wasn't tall enough to grab the first apples! So I climbed in the tree, careful not to damage the branches. I got my girls to move the baskets below so I could aim properly. Next to the apples, another apple tree, and a persimmon tree. We were enthusiastic and picked as if we were hosting a fall banquet the next day.

That's when I saw a man in the distance: Mr. Hoffman in person, hanging his laundry to dry in the sun. I introduced myself. He was standing under yet another apple. "Arkansas black," he said, "My favorite apple." Of course, I wanted some and again, I was too short. "Could this help?" said Mr. Hoffman, offering his cane to knock down the apples. I gladly took him up on his offer and had my girls run under the tree to get the apples as soon as they rolled on the grass. Mr. Hoffman started telling me about the orchard and I discovered a slice of Napa that's now almost all gone.

When he and his wife bought the land in 1949, it was almost entirely planted in French prunes, with other small crops such as an acre of cherries. "There was a factory downtown that made maraschino cherries," said Mr. Hoffman. Instantly, I had pictures of post-Prohibition cocktails with bright red cherries on the brim of clear glasses in my head. The factory's now gone. There was also an acreage of wheat down by the river - the Napa river, that is. "The wheat was milled in the mill by the river and shipped by boat to San Francisco," he went on. Again, I tried to imagine a pre-grape era Napa. The mill's gone too now. Mr. Hoffman bought the land and a tractor and got to work. He started pulling half of the prune trees and planting walnut trees instead, gradually increasing the acreage of walnut trees through the years.

"Why walnuts?" I asked. "There was a man up the road here who had a small walnut orchard," said Mr. Hoffman. "I consulted with him and decided it would be a good crop that was not too time-consuming." With four children at home, he needed a crop that was not too labor-intensive. Back then, there was a backlog of old Italian people living in a hotel downtown who pruned the trees during the winter.

I wanted to know more about the walnuts, when did they arrive to the Napa valley? Mr. Hoffman, a living encyclopedia about trees -he wrote a book called Trees of Napa Valley that you can order here -obliged. The first walnut variety was Franquette, a French varietal. A man named Mr. Hartley brought back a bagful of them in the late 1880s and planted them at his ranch in Napa. In 1892, he experimented with a new Franquette-based varietal that later became known as the Hartley walnut. "It was an outstanding nut," said Mr. Hoffman. The Hartleys brought their walnut to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and won a blue ribbon. Hartley walnuts thus became very popular. Showing me a tray full of walnuts drying in the sun, Mr. Hoffman pointed to some big ones. "These are Carmelo walnuts," he said. They were twice as big as the regular kind.

Mr. Hoffman's wife, Margaret, joined in the conversation. "We live here as in the 1940s," she said with a smile, adding:"When we moved here, our plan was to grow as much food as possible." Indeed, they have a vegetable garden for their meals; a well for their water; they keep their house warm with a wood stove during the winter. When they were raising their children, they also raised a couple of cows and goats for milk, and made a goat cheese similar to the Neuchatel cheese. Honestly, you've got to love a nature-loving couple who grew and ate locally seasonal produce before the word "sustainable" went around! More than sustainable, all the fruits they grow are organic (they don't spray) and because of the proximity to the river, the orchard is not irrigated. How's that for the green award?

Before I took my bow, I went to pick a few Asian pears (the variety that actually looks like pears, not like apples) and Mr. Hoffman weighed all my produce on his wood and metal scale. I might come back before the winter is over. There are still cartwheels of walnuts around and there will be persimmons until Christmas.

Since the Hoffmans don't have a computer (nor a website), here are the practical details:
Hoffman Farm,
2125 Silverado Trail,
Napa CA 94558
(707) 226-8938.

My last words: the Hoffman Farm is an endangered species in the Napa Valley. These walnuts grow on land worth millions of dollars in grapes. Let's hope that whoever takes over from the Hoffmans prizes this luxury as much as they do. More than a reminder of the past, I'd love this farm to be a sign of the future. And when you go there, don't forget to stop at Dorothy's, their neighbor up the road. She sells fresh brown eggs by the dozen.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Gorges d'Heric, Caroux Mountains

In the South of France briefly last week, I took a hike at one of my favorites natural parks west of Beziers, my father's hometown: the Gorges d'Heric. In French, gorges designate a deep narrow passage with steep rocky sides.

The trail along the Gorges d'Heric follows the Heric river over 4 steadily climbing miles, dramatic towering limestone and gneiss crags and buttresses above. This is great climbing terrain, but not for beginners as the space between bolts is somewhat daring. As the trail leaves the river, it veers off into the mountain through chestnut groves to reach the hamlet of Heric where you can sit on the fig tree-covered piazza and get a well-deserved drink at the seasonal cafe.

Since the Gorges d'Heric is protected wilderness as part of the Parc Regional Naturel du Haut-Languedoc, hikers and climbers are the only population you'll meet there apart from wild boars and mouflons mountain sheep. I've spent countless summer days refreshing in the crystal clear and frigid swimming holes along the Heric river, but have more rarely had the occasion to enjoy the off season.

October was just the perfect occasion. The weather's still not too cold and chestnuts are falling off the trees, covering the ground with their pretty green and yellow prickly burrs. After driving through Mons-La-Trivalle, my dad and I and parked the car at the designated lot. We got the girls out of the car, twig baskets for chestnut picking, and hit the trail.

Luckily for us, we met our first chestnuts very close to the entrance. It totally galvanized my girls. Each burr contained three nuts, the middle one being pretty sizable (as in "please roast me"), the two side ones less so. As it was already past 4pm, the sun was taking a bow and shade was quickly gaining ground. The wind felt completely at home, so much so that we had to hold hands with the little ones lest they be thrown off their feet, which made them giggle like crazies. Talk about a perfect wind corridor...

Along the trail, we only met three other groups of hikers, most going down and yes, some were holding bags loaded with chestnuts. Chestnuts are a big element of that region's flora. I would even say they are part of the Languedoc's history and culture, as communities were built around chestnut groves and festivals celebrate this typically local harvest such as Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres' traditional Fete de la Chataigne (Chestnut festival) due to take place Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 October, 2009. At this festival, chestnuts are combined with revivals of medieval Cathar life in period costumes, the Cathars being the early Christians persecuted and eradicated by the French crusaders on behalf of the Pope and the King of France.

As I looked up the sides of the trail, I noticed man-made stone terraces, labor of necessity for generations who survived on this staple food. Some were still up, others in rumbles. If the regional park system wants to preserve the history of the site, they better prevent erosion and torrential rains from completely washing away these terraces.

We kept going on and as we reached the turn that separates the trail from the river bed, more and more chestnut trees appeared. Their tender green foliage creates harmonious overarching canopies over the trail and as the late afternoon light pierced through it, we got rather quiet. After this hard mineral world, it was a soothing sight. More terraces showed up further up. There is a saying in the region that says that no inhabitant of Heric ever died in their bed, implying that these were hardy mountain stock always on steep trails working for their living. I looked for time markers, indicators of past centuries other than piles of rough-edged rocks. It was soon to come under the shape of the hamlet of Heric.

I don't know how many people live there but I'm guessing a few dozen people at most, if even that. The hamlet is typical of nearby mountain villages. Stone and dirt streets. Stone houses. Slate or stone roofs. Somehow, it says something of the way people lived. We are not talking cozy multi-level wood cottages here. Life was hard and the sturdiness of the local architecture reflects the harshness of the elements.

It was well past 5 pm by the time we reached the hamlet's piazza. I had promised my girls a soda at the cafe but a "Closed" sign crushed my hopes. We were 20 minutes past cafe hours. Thirsty, my girls were disappointed. As we were turning around to go get my mother at the train station, a woman walked out of the house with the cafe sign. "You here to drink?" she asked from afar. "Sure thing," I replied, "We'll get seated." And so my valiant junior hikers feistily drank their soda on the piazza.

Then, the woman noticed our baskets. "You been picking chestnuts?" she prodded with a disapproving look. "Well, a few," I said. As I said that, I knew this was no good. She lectured us on how forbidden it is to pick chestnuts because it is a regional park and that by doing so, we deprive boars and mouflons of their main diet before wintertime because you see this year acorns have been really skinny with low rain fall and what not. We politely nodded. Most of our chestnuts were in our backpack. The baskets just had a few.

What can I say? Had I seen a sign banning chestnut picking, I would happily have complied - but I did not see a single one. I did not see any restrictions on the park's website either. If there are restrictions, the park's officials are being discrete about them. "As if the boars need to go on the paved road to pick their chestnuts," said my father shrugging. True, chestnut trees are everywhere. I'll have to investigate with the local rangers. As we walked down the road, we crossed paths with two other hikers. I am not telling what they were doing.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Autumn in the Yosemite Valley

Come October, Yosemite National Park's high country is virtually off-limits. The mercury drops to the teens, campgrounds have wrapped up and snow storms close off roads. For the weekend visitor, that leaves the Wawona area and mostly, the Yosemite Valley: 1% of the park area, 95% of tourism trafic, unparallelled awesomeness throughout. Fortunately, autumn days allow visitors to enjoy crowd-free trails and exquisite fall colors that are just unbelievable.

Last weekend, we camped in the valley at North Pines next to the stables with our two girls and two climber friends- Christine, my swimming partner and her husband. In less than 48 hours, we experienced the very last of a beautiful summer day and a bone-chilling wet winter day, compliments of a snowstorm up in the high country. The best part? We planned nothing.

Rather than the usual rabbit race - drive to trailhead, park, hike, drive back - we decided to take it easy and leave on foot from the campground with no itinerary mapped out. As dumb and simple as it sounds, it was sort of a novel idea for us. It was great too!

After a non-memorable oatmeal breakfast on Saturday morning, we put on our walking shoes, packed a picnic lunch and left the camp site. From the North Pines campground, a marked dirt trail meanders along the Merced River as the river's waters go down the valley. We started there and followed the path. Shortly after we hit a bridge, my girls were startled by how clear the water was. It was clear and a fascinating jade green color too. We inched closer, looked down and spotted a small grey fish, a rainbow trout perhaps. As we admired it angle its way on the rocky bottom, we forgot about time and the next thing you know we were 20 minutes later. At that point, we could have just sat there all day but since we were in the valley, we wanted to go see the meadows past the Yosemite Falls.

Up on our feet we got and a few hundred yards further, we heard what sounded like violin music. Or was it guitar? Then right there was a cute cottage with a stylized feather pattern above the door. We were actually in the gardens at the Ahwanee Hotel, listening to an elegant concert on the lawn for a wedding celebration. Guests in their Sunday best were buzzing around a few tables or arriving on foot from the rustic cottages.

I quickly folded in my messenger bag the little plastic pouch we'd been filling with trash found along the path and walked through the beautiful building.

From the Ahwanee, it's a short hop to the Yosemite Village and another hop (on a shuttle bus) to Camp 4. Camp 4 is an iconic rock climber's campground, the place where El Capitan climbers congregate before their big adventure, alongside other granite enthusiasts and tightrope walkers. I've never seen so many tents huddled together in each other's backyard and yet, I envy the wonderful evenings these people must have, retelling their climbs of the day or planning the next. But I digress.

From Camp 4, we crossed the road and headed for the river, barely two minutes away. We searched for an isolated lunch spot in the shade with pretty views and oddly enough, settled for the river banks below the Swinging Bridge. Clearly we were not alone (it's a major path way for tourists or bike riders), but our girls had a whale of a time digging fool's gold with spoons on the beach and making mud pies for fictional piglets.

It's funny to write "the beach" when in fact that's the bed of the river, a seasonal beach usually under water after the spring snowmelt. Before the afternoon flew past us, we left the river banks and headed towards El Capitan in the meadow.

Without a proper trail, we entered the tall swaying grasses. Most of the grasses came up to our waist and we criss-crossed our way in the meadows. Our girls loved being "hidden" in the landscape and from time to time they would raise their hands and shout "I'm here!" to let us know that we were not lost. The yellow grass sea eventually became so thick that we made for the trees where we knew grasses can't grow because competition with pine needles is fierce. It seemed to us that we had strolled for hours on end when in reality we must have ventured there only half an hour. Looking at our watch, we realized it was time to turn back if we wanted to see the Yosemite Falls and visit the Yosemite Indian Museum before it closed.

Finding the trail under the trees, we followed it back to the Yosemite Falls, taking a few minutes to stop below granite cliffs where newbies tackled slabs, cracks and overhangs, led by guides from the Yosemite Mountaineering School. It was a very entertaining watch for our girls.

Next, we finally made it to the falls but of course, the falls weren't there! The summer has been dry and all you can admire is the dry bleached wall that is usually washed by the waters of the Yosemite Creek. To fully enjoy the moment, we sat around a big boulder and played around -climbing, sliding down its side, ordinary stuff that people do when they're next to a big boulder.

Last stop before the campground: the Yosemite Indian Museum. Lodged next to the Visitor Center, it consists of a small indoor museum dedicated to the Ahwaneechee and other California Indians, and an outside area where a Miwok village has been reconstructed after 19th century photographs. That place is a riot! Ok, a quiet riot. Inside the museum, a man in his 30s was deftly carving out an arrow head with a copper tool. Behind him was a reconstructed Miwok lodging and next to it, an invitation to play Miwok games. We had a ball playing the stick version of the Miwok dice game, releasing acorn halves on a table to gather sticks from your opponent. Try it, it's fun.

The outdoor village, though nice, is a bit dusty and could use a few interactive exhibits to bring to life a lifestyle that has mostly disappeared.

That was our day in the Yosemite and we were glad we did that on Saturday because on Sunday, the snow storm hit. Word of advice: always pack for iffy weather in the Yosemite Valley. Between sunny high 70s and 33 degrees with a chance of snowballs, there can be less than 24 hours.