Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wild Greens Walk with forageSF at Golden Gate Park

At home "Eat your greens!" is soon to become "Eat your weeds!" thanks to a walk I went on to with Fred Bove of forageSF. forageSF is a typical San Francisco concept that includes people picking wild foods where they grow (in city parks, people's yards's, anywhere you see weeds you'd like to pull out) to serve them on your plate. Crazy? No. Revolutionary!

I used to think of seasons in terms of planted veggies and fruit, save for the stray August blackberry that I enjoyed as a rare gem. However I did not go out of my way to examine the green underbrush of our hiking trails to supplement our sandwiches or create fancy green casseroles. Now, I may actually change that and look forward to the seasons ... in terms of wild foods.
I first heard about forageSF on the California Report in May 2009. It sounded great. Urban foraging, wild foods coming in CSA boxes, underground dinners. It stayed in the back of my mind until recently when I thought it'd be a great topic for my green parenting column with the San Francisco Examiner.

First I signed up for a Pescatarian Box, the one box in their foraged food CSA that includes locally caught wild fish. I'm getting it next week and I'm quite excited. Then I contacted Iso Rabins founder of forageSF and asked him if I could join their next guided forage. Two days later, I was in front of the South Mill at the Golden Gate Park with a dozen other people, food-savvy urbanites or seasoned cooks like Jerome Waag, Chez Panisse chef and OPENRestaurant project co-founder.

Besides being the former education director for the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society and a permaculture expert, Fred Bové our guide knows his plants inside out. He'll snap a stem open, show you the inside and explain how that confirms that it's not edible. Deadly nightshade can't fool him! If any, this was an indicator we'd make it out alive - the release we signed at the beginning was pure formality. We got started.

First, Fred laid out with the three golden rules of foraging, namely:
  • you can't expect anything. It's always a surprise.
  • it's a gift from the earth to you
  • you need to respect nature and not take everything in sight. If there are three plans, take one and leave two.
Foraging in the winter will give you winter greens. Lots. And mushrooms if it rains but for that you need to find the Mycological Society of San Francisco.

A few feet away from our group, Fred showed a lush green dirt mound.

Without knowing it, we had four edible greens at our feet: oxallis (tastes lemony, the thing that people hate in their backyards), stinging nettles (that Irish people make into ale), chickweed (lush and succulent leaves, blood purifier, great in salad with a mild grassy taste) and Good King Henry (same family as quinoa, diamond-shaped serrated leaves).

Fred's walks are not just botanical excursions. He'll tell you cultural anecdotes on plant uses through the ages, he'll describe how California Ohlones used plants as medicines, he'll share his philosophical thoughts and culinary tips with a zest of humor. "People remove plants that want to live to plant plants that want to die," he said and it's true. Landscaped gardens rarely pay attention the local flora.

On we went and sure enough, other edible greens were paving the way: wild oats growing next to New Zealand spinach. Now, NZ spinach was a discovery for me because I found it relatively easy to identify and later that night, it gave a delicious nutty crunch to our dinner salad. It does look like spinach - in a way - and can be cooked and used as spinach.

To the unavoidable question about dog urine, Fred recommended to always wash wild foods before eating because dog urine doesn't go in the plant but stays on the surface of the leaf.

As we veered right to a dirt trail, fields of miner's lettuce spread before us. Miner's lettuce is very common in California and some fancy restaurants even have it on the menu.
Speaking with the ardor of a gourmet stomach, Fred showed us the heart-shaped young leaf and the blooming adult leaf, raving on what a delicious salad they make with mozzarella, olive oil and sea salt. We all nodded.

There was stinging nettle nearby. One of our group bent down and before anybody could prevent her, she picked a leaf and chewed it raw. We stared, waiting for blood-curling screams. Nothing came. That's how we learned that raw stinging nettle leaves can be picked from underneath, folded like a taco and enjoyed without pain. It's actually the only way to preserve its anti-oxydants. Amazing.

The rest of the walk included some great discoveries like wild sorrel (sorrel's cousin from the hills, full of oxallic acid, lemony taste), mellow (slimy texture similar to okra once cooked), dandelion (leaves are edible, root can be roasted to make coffee substitute called chicoree), more miner's lettuce, nasturtium (whose seeds you can pickle like capers, or whose leaves you can eat, spicy taste like wasabi) and even this bleuet mushroom with a lilac stem (good butter & garlic fry).

Concerning mushrooms, Fred reinforced the fact that you have to be absolutely 100% positive about them. Further down the slope we found some strong smelling wild onions (taste like chive and earth), wild radish (described as prime yummy spring green by Fred), poke salad (berries toxic, root extract used to fight breast cancer, spring shoots edible), acacia (flowers are edible and taste like honey), plantain (seeds very high in proteins) and my favorite of all, the salt bush that tastes like salt.

The silvery leaves tasted so good that I came back later to pick some more for my dinner salad. It reminded me of glasswort (otherwise known as salicornia), this crunchy salty succulent that grows in salt marshes and that I used to pick in Gruissan in the south of France.

The walk was nearing its end and we were in for a surprise. We sat around a picnic table by the windmill and Fred brought out of his car a pot full of sauteed wild greens, pita bread, oxallis memonade (hot and cold), and tabouleh with wild greens. I was not particularly hungry but I came back for more than seconds of the delicious sauteed wild greens. Graciously, Fred handed us a recipe list, a plant list and book references. Sadly it seems there are no proper websites about Bay Area edible wild foods. Too bad, someone should do it. I'd use it!

As Fred said, I wouldn't rely on wild foods for everything I eat but it's a great reminder of nature's bounty and hiddden treasures. Got to find that salt bush and NZ spinach again!

For more info: forageSF's Underground Market will be held on January 28, 2010 from 5-11pm at 199 Capp Street and you can check the next guided forages schedule & tickets here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From St.-Nazaire-de-Ladarez to St. Etienne Hermitage: A Hike Back In Time

"Apresato Eglise. La meson a été réparée par Vogonien de Riols - 1700." This inscription, carved on a stained marble stone, hangs above the door of the chapel of the St. Etienne Hermitage in Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez. It means that the chapel was repaired in 1700 by a man from Riols named Vogonien. The site is perched atop the mountain and the culminating point (literally) of a hike that starts in St. Nazaire-de-Ladarez.
St. Nazaire is a village in the Languedoc-Roussillon, between Cessenon-sur-Orb and Cabrerolles, in the south of France.

Minutes from the Orb river valley, beaches and white-water rafting, Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez was once a 12th century fiefdom with a fortified castle and powerful walls. Roman coins are still found on the mountains trails around. The area oozes buried ancient history but clearly, the economy is dormant at best. St. Nazaire's golden days vanished in the 1950s when the marble quarries - that once supplied the Chateau de Versailles - closed.

Today, 331 inhabitants live of tourism during the summer months. In late December, we drove there to hike from Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez to the St. Etienne hermitage 2 miles up the mountain. We followed curvy roads bordered by vineyards on a background of tall quartz cliffs (Falaises du Landeyran) before arriving on the stone and slate cemetery that marks the border of the village.

As in old villages, the center of town is the church plaza where most businesses are concentrated. The baker, the cafe, you name it. We parked there and headed up a side street. Within a few feet, the road gave way to a dirt and stone path climbing steeply through an oak forest. Following the blue markers of the hiking trail was easy and the moderate climb made us cross a fire road several times on our way to the ridge. As the trail was shaded until the very end, this would make for a great summer hike, sheltering hikers from the scorching local sun.

On the ground, we noticed several spots with empty bogs of chestnuts on the ground. Wild hogs, avid chestnut eaters, are active around there judging by the number of hunters we saw stationed in folding chairs by the road. Every now and then, chestnut trees were mixed with strawberry trees (arbousiers) whose spiky red berries covered the underbrush too.

Strawberry trees are so common around here that people (especially old timers and hippies - of which there are a few communities) harvest the fruit to make sweet jams and preserves of a lovely color and despeately bland. There are lots of strawberry trees on San Francisco streets and here is a recipe for arbous jam.

Another specificity of the the ground around St. Nazaire-de-Ladarez is the presence of slate shards all along the trail. We noticed their shiny black scaly cuts more and more as we got closer to the top.

After a Y fork we took a left and finished the final ascent to the top. The view was outstanding. At the bottom of the valley lay the village with its beige and ochre hues. Across from us, another mountain showed a straight white line.

"See that line?" my father said, "It's the wall of a Gallo-Roman villa." I was blown away. This was not a small wall by any means. At 1,350 feet below the Puech de la Suque, the dry stone wall is 300 feet long and 6 meters high and wide. It must have been quite a settlement. However closer to us, we turned to the St. Etienne Hermitage.

What a lovely lonely refuge from the world. A mixture of local stones and whitewashed mortar, the building is L-shaped and includes a small chapel as well as two square rooms. The chapel iron door wasn't locked and we pushed it open.

There used to be an hermit living here. He travelled from village to village, worshipping St. Etienne and receiving food in exchange for his prayers. What a weird life the guy must have had, trekking back up to his stone bare-bones chapel each night. Let's hope he had a donkey.

Some say that the first religious building here was Roman as Roman tiles were found in the adjacent quarry. However, the current structure is more recent and a 17th-century altar salvaged from excavations gives a hint as to the age of the hermitage. Historians even found an altar dating back to Carolus Magnus but it must be in a museum somewhere.

The two back rooms were closed and it's only by peeking through a side window that I was able to see them. Bare and empty with vaulted ceilings - slightly creepy too - there may have been a floor between the two openings. To store hay or wood in the winter? I wonder where the hermit got his water. A gust of wind blew on us, making us zip up or button up our tops. Soon the sun would come down.

We started our descent and were back at the car in less than an hour. Half way down, well-rounded "clonk-clonk" sounds came to our ears, followed by loud barks. The village's cows were being herded by the dogs. It complimented the picture nicely.

All we needed now was a shepherd playing the flute at the edge of a well - so we would feel we were back in the 1900s. No shepherd in sight. The cafe was closed, we forgot our hope for a hot chocolate. We got in the car and bade farewell to St. Nazaire-de-Ladarez.

If you ever go there, there is a town pilgrimage to the hermitage every May (Pentecost holiday). It's probably your only chance to see the chapel alive.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lamotte Beuvron, Home of the Tarte Tatin

Lamotte Beuvron is a small sleepytown sandwiched between Paris and the Loire Valley with a big claim to fame. This is where Stephanie and Caroline Tatin, two sisters who ran the Hotel Tatin, accidentally caramelized apples with butter, shoved them in the oven with the pie crust on top, flipped the cake and served it to a hunting party in 1898. The Tarte Tatin was born and cooks have been making upside-down caramelized cakes since then.

Since we were spending Christmas 20 miles away, we decided to visit Lamotte Beuvron, if only to check the culinary legacy of the Tatin sisters in their native town. Lamotte Beuvron is is surrounded by wooded forests that - sadly - very few hiking trails criss-cross. Forests in Sologne are mostly private and maintained for hunting game. However we found a level 2-mile loop on the outskirts of the town to spend the afternoon. The trail featured wide straight alleys cutting through groves of oak, birch and chestnut trees, some with their naked branches reaching high to thick balls of mistletoe.

After the hike, we drove to the city center to find the famous Tarte Tatin. Our first stop was at the gas station to refill the car.

"So where's the best Tarte Tatin?" my husband asked candidly to the local guy.

"Ah Monsieur, it sure is on the Champs-Elysees!" exclaimed the guy - meaning in Paris. What? So much for town loyalty. The guy wouldn't recommend any local pastry shops. Hmm, some bad blood there. Good thing for him he's the only gas station in town.

Without recommendations, we proceeded downtown. There were four patisseries (pastry shops) in sight. We checked the first one out. There was a nice bike parked next door. We entered. I had the firm intention to gather seldom-heard and vital info on the original tarte Tatin.

To make the questioning easier, I first asked to buy a tarte Tatin for 10.

"What a nice tarte Tatin you make. Do you get your apples around here?" I asked.

"Why yes. We buy them from an apple farmer in the region," answered the woman proudly.

"Interesting. What kind of apples are they?" I continued.

Silence. Frown.

"That I can't tell you. I'm not allowed," she replied earnestly. Dang. The apple variety is classified information in Lamotte Beuvron.

"Oh, I see. Would you be able to just show me the apples please?" I risk.

More frown. She's getting suspicious.

"No I can't do that either. I'm not allowed," says the woman shaking her head.

"It's for my blog. I would really like to see how things are done in Lamotte Beuvron," I try with a sheepish smile.

"You're not from around here, are you?" she asks, already guessing the answer (or suggesting it).

Both my husband and I vigorously shake our heads. No no, we live very far, in America. Pause. Bright smile.

"Then of course you can!" she exclaims.

She goes out back, rummages and returns with three big apples. I'm impressed by their size. Sam, my Californian cousin and gardener extraordinaire, suggests they may be the Belle de Boskoop variety and after looking it, I think he's right.

"Wow!" I say. "These are so big. How many do you use per tart?"

Instantly, the woman's face returns to shadowland. Why don't I get it?

"I really can't tell you that Madame. I'm not allowed by the boss," she says.

Fine. I might as well ask for the ingredients of Coca Cola in Atlanta. After some more skillful chit-chat, I glean business bits and pieces. The patisserie sells 10 Tartes Tatin on regular days, 25 on big-selling days. That's a lot of apples to peel. There's a vacation resort nearby and  the tourists all come for Tarte Tatin. You bet they do. Hopefully they don't all ask the type of apple or how many per tart or the name of the farmer. Because if they do, it's classified info and we don't want any trouble with the townsfolk! In Lamotte Beuvron, Tartes Tatin are really the apple of the people's eyes.

That night we ate the Lamotte Beuvron Tarte Tatin for dessert. Was it good? Sure - on the super-sweet side with firm & slightly tart apples - but if you ask me, Laduree makes a better Tarte Tatin on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Friday, January 8, 2010

One Night in London, Accidentally

What do you do when in London for one night only? One night sounds ridiculous but we were stranded at Heathrow because of our horrible, epic and unbelievably long journey from San Francisco to Paris. Once checked in at a London Heathrow airport hotel, we needed some fresh air. Since all we had with us was our cabin luggage (books, toys, computer), some light shopping seemed de rigueur

An hour later, we were in a cab in front of Harrods. At 4pm on a chilly December Saturday afternoon, Harrods is not for agoraphobics. The place was nuts! Shoppers left and right, families looking for the Christmas shop, visitors headed to Lady Di and Dodi's memorial shrine at the bottom of the Egyptian escalators with red roses, ceilings loaded with themed holidays decorations. It was a total sensory experience. 

Amidst that hustle, we made our way to the the upper levels. All we wanted was tea, scones and underwear. Tea and scones with clotted cream, we found at the Terrace Bar - note: in my opinion, Lovejoy's Tearoom in San Francisco puts up a better tea & scones- and the rest we found easily. Easily yes, but as a total Harrods rookie, I was floored by how expensive things were. Say, the children's clothing department. It's either designer brands (mostly French and Italian) or formal wear - as in, upscale school uniforms or formal attire for functions. There is strictly no middle ground, as at Parisian big department stores. We settled quickly and headed for the London Eye

If we only had one night in London, we wanted to show the city to our girls. Where else than the biggest local tourist trap, from a bird's eye view? Rising 135 meters (442 feet)  above the ground, the London Eye is the world's largest cantilever observation wheel. A sort of monste-size fair wheel. Each oval-shaped glass-walled capsule takes 30 minutes to revolve completely around the axis, taking two dozen visitors on an aerial trip above the Thames. 

For people afraid of heights - like me - the woodwork on the central bench is nothing world-class but you can't see completely through it and that's more than you can say of the 360 degree scene around you.

For others, the city at night was an incredible sight to behold. Pointing to the Tower Bridge, St Paul's cathedral or Big Ben over the Palace of Westminster, to the OXO Tower and the Millenium Bridge, my husband was ecstatic and loud. On a sugar high, my girls were playing monkey bars on the side railings. Finally, Peter Pan's flight over London came to an end. Again, I needed fresh air.

After the "flight" (that's how they call it), we decided to walk down the South Bank to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, so we'd be able to see a few London landmarks before hitting the Heathrow airport hotels. Walking along the Thames is a real pleasure as you can follow the Thames Path, a pedestrian path that's not only clearly signed but literally crosses the city from West and East - and conversely - with large paved pathways. The river-side cityscape is an eclectic mix of delightfully traditional Ye Olde English Pubs and loud modern installations, this one with multi-colored neon lights. It's absolutely fascinating. 

As we passed the Christmas market at the foot of the London Eye, we admired the bright golden globes of the carousel spinning next to the pretty wooden huts as the crisp air filled with sausage smells mixed with vapors from German mulled wine. Here and there, hard frozen puddles shone like steel mirrors. The night was cold but not windy. 

We kept going. One of the tunnels was walled side-to-side with tiled black and white renderings of the old London, its bridges and 19th century city life. Soon we reached the outskirts of the Tate Modern and the Millenium Bridge. 

Late at night the doors were closed but just being there and admiring the building was something. Between the Thames and the former power station, eerie rows of birch trees lit with white spots in the ground framed the green lawn on the plaza.  It felt fitting for the place. 

The landscape architecture of the Tate Modern waterfront was a perfect link between the heavily industrial past of the site and a realistic reminder of the lack of green spaces in that area. It was a place to play tag, a place to reflect, a place where trees act like sculptures out of their element. 

Had we known then that we were to spend another 24 hours in London due to snow storms on the continent, we would have come back the next day to explore the current exhibits. Instead, we meandered  between the trees, stared at the red neon scriptures in one of the display windows, absorbed the size of the building and left. All of a sudden I felt starved for museums.

Soon we would need to leave to feed the troops and I absolutely wanted to get to Shakespeare's Globe Theater. I was dead set on that. I wintered in London once in my former life as a tax attorney and my favorite haunts were in the East End, around St Katherine's Dock, Hackney's markets and along the Bankside. For some reason, Shakespeare's theater epitomized the old and the new. 

This thatched building is a mid 1990s reconstruction of the 1599 Elizabethan playhouse where Shakespeare's plays were performed and where he acted himself. 

Interestingly enough, the current Globe was founded by Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director who was disappointed not to find a lasting memorial to Shakespeare and his theater in London. Nowadays, the theatre is a performance venue as much as a giant classroom on Shakespeare and his legacy. 

Here was the theater finally. We decided to make it back to the hotel. Wandering through back alleyways and streets, we were on the lookout for a taxi but we were obviously away from major arteries. The girls started complaining. They were cold and tired.

Only the thought of a "funny taxi" with opposing stools and seats comforted them. They were eager to get on the stools and look at the city lights. Four hours in London. It had been short but nice. Now I wanted to come back for a proper visit.