Thursday, July 28, 2011

Northern California Coast - Bodega Bay to Manchester

Australia has the Gold Coast, Africa the Ivory Coast, and Northern California? I'd call it the Grey Coast. Having checked the weather forecast - which lied, saying it would be clear over the weekend - we headed for the coast, admittedly in the hopes for a little cool down, but got more than we had bargained for. The sky was grey, the sea was grey, even the sand was grey.

For some bizarre reason even the houses are painted grey!
California's North Coast is perpetually shrouded in sea fog, especially in the summer months. Two miles inland the sun will be splitting the trees As it was in Duncan Mills where we stopped for a cuppa as we followed th Russian River Inland on our way home.
As soon as you venture any closer to the edge of this great continent the fog roils and its wispy tendrils soon envelope the unwary traveler - such as us.

We had approached the trip as somewhat of a reconnaissance mission - a scouting trip to see what was there. Now we know - overpriced accommodation, limited (very limited) beach access and poor tourist facilities.
$150 a night for a small room (shower only, no bathtub) with an beautiful ocean view - of the fog!
I've been spoiled beyond repair by Ireland. I've always found it hard to beat the the coastline there, whether it be the ravaged western coast, battered by the Atlantic, the wide (and usually empty) beaches lying between the rugged cliffs and bluffs, beaches with fine white sand, some even with pink sand, and others covered in pebbles smooth as a babies skin; beaches where the tide goes out so far you'll think it's never going to come back, and where you can take advange of the hard, damp sand and learn to drive. Other beaches have sand so soft you can bury a beachball and never again find it. (If you find a beach ball on Ballybunion beach, it's mine!). There are stretches of coast with rocks so jagged and fierce it makes your heart beat faster just to watch the waves tear them selves into a fury of foam against them. Cliffs so high you get vertigo 100 yards from the edge. Sweeping estuarys, sand bars and dunes, strange rock formations that make you believe that giants could have once ruled this land and built these features, cliff-top castles that defy gravity - all this in a 100 mile stretch.

A hard act for any coastline to follow.

The trip from Bodega Bay(made famous by Hitchcock's movie - The Birds) to Manchester, California is 70 miles of fairly uniform cliff top driving. It's the utter repetition of the same scene that loses me. The land dips down where the Russian River meets the sea, but it's pretty much a straight line, as if God cut the edge with a hand saw and forgot to finish the job having left his jig-saw in Ireland or at the Fjords of Norway or Southern New Zealand.
Seals and pelicans lounging on a sand-bar at the mouth of the Russian River.
All along the road are sign posts that promise "Coastal Access" but many are closed - probably due to the parks closures. In another place that was open, we paid $6 to park the car - I don't mind supporting the parks, but I can't see where my money is going here. In Ireland, you park where you can and scramble over whatever is in the way to get to the sea. In the US the whole trespassing thing is a lot more ominous and what with the gun toting that goes on, I'm not sure I'd like to risk it! So after parking up and paying our fee, I was heartily annoyed to be shepherded along the one path available - all other paths sporting the following sign.
Why make a trail private? It is obviously there for someone to use (not for habitat preservation in this case). If you aren't going to damage anything, why be so selective? It's not like hoards of people are going to descend down this path in this Godforsaken place! It makes me mad to think people are so greedy that they'd keep a beautiful view or a pretty place away from the eyes of another.

The tourist facilities were simply limited. The locality didn't seem too keen to attract travellers - a fact that bemuses me in this economy. However, I was charmed by the tiny general stores that popped up by the occasional campground.

Gualala seemed the most welcoming of the towns we went through. The gas station there had the most beautiful mosaic that a local informed us cost $5000.
It was some kind of a memorial judging by the names on the plaque, and I though it was beautiful - a refreshing splash of color in a grey land.

We stayed overnight at Fort Ross Lodge. The room was expensive for what you got, but we realized that once here you had little choice - and no internet or cell phone reception. A bonus as far as I was concerned. A real switch off from life. And even my high tech husband didn't seem to suffer too much, though we did jump on and check our emails when we found a spot by a lighthouse that did have data connection!  It reminded me of being a kid and my parents driving us to the seafront at Tramore Co. Waterford, parking the car overlooking the strand and then sitting in the car reading their newspapers as my sister and I fought with boredom in the backseat, listening to the rain pelting on the roof of the car.

Fort Ross actually had a fort.
It was a Russian settlement, and its inhabitants nearly wiped out the population of seas otters along that coast. The Fort was nicely restored. The chapel was cute.
The armory and some of the interiors of the barracks were well furnished too. If I were in charge, this would have had a mock up of life in its heyday with food tastings and people in costume and a wee coffee shop and possibly some vodka for sale! But the rangers talk was all that was on offer, and she seemed to have a good idea of what went on.
If you ever get the chance to travel in Ireland, go to Bunratty Castle, County Clare, or Cultra, County Down, to see what I mean about bringing history to life. In fairness, Columbia State historic park in California does this, so why not here?

Whilst I have been scathing in this report, I just feel that California can do better. And the coast line does have its moments - even if they are few and far between...

Byddi Lee

Friday, July 15, 2011

Charges dropped but the plot thickens - and not the veggie plot this time!

I would love to say that the Oak Park case had a great Hollywood ending, with Julie Bass being carried on the shoulders of her neighbors as they paraded past her veggie beds after the city dismissed their charges against her. But alas, Hollywood only happens in, well, Hollywood Movies!

Julie's triumph over having the case against her vegetables dropped was short lived as the city slapped her with different charges - this time a re-dredging of an old case against her regarding her failure in the past to license her dogs. An oversight that she fully admitted to and took responsibility for by paying the fines at the time, and which she thought had been all sorted out and put to bed. Her disappointment and frustration is evident in her blog post.

It is just me, or does this sound like a petty vendetta? 

I liked this video clip of a local TV report on the matter. It was nice to get to see Julie and her lawyer, to get a measure of the people behind the story - after all, the camera never lies!

 Oak Park Drops Charges Against Julie Bass and Her Vegetable Garden:

She doesn't strike me as a big time trouble maker - just an ordinary gardener seeking an ordinary weed-pulling life. Unfortunately for Julie, the most toxic weeds she seems to be facing are at Oak Park City Hall.

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gardener threatened with jail for growing vegetables in her own front yard!

The case of Julie Bass of Oak Park, Michigan planting vegetables on her own front lawn and being threatened with jail time has received world-wide attention and deservedly so. As a gardener, I’m appalled that such an innocent, healthy, environmentally friendly act can be punished like that. As a new immigrant to the USA, I’m worried at what this says about civil liberty in this, the “Land of the Free.”

Though one can’t deny that it is the “Home of the Brave” if Julie Bass is anything to go by. This ordinary woman is taking a stand. There is a great recap of events in her blog Oak Park Hates Veggies, but to summarize: – A city tree damaged sewer pipe running under her lawn. The Bass family had to dig up their lawn to fix it, at their own cost, and when they went to fix up their front yard they decided to put in raised vegetable beds. According to Julie Bass, she did check the ordinance and there was nothing that stated she couldn’t.

But when the code enforcer came out a couple of weeks later, he stated that the code says that all unpaved surfaces shall be covered with grass, shrubbery, or suitable live plant material. The furor is centered now on the word “suitable” which the code enforcer says means “common”. It has now become one of the most looked up word definitions on the internet!

As you can tell from the title of my blog, I am no fan of lawns. I recently heard Rosalind Creasy speak at a Master Garden talk on Edible Landscaping, and she raised some really good points in relation to growing vegetables - even in the front yard.

Like asking the question, "How can you complain about the price of veggies when you have a lawn?" I thought she made a great point, especially when you consider the money that goes into buying fertilizer and the chemicals many folk use to suppress weeds and pests on the lawn, and the fact that it is an environmental “black hole” being a monoculture. Not to mention the watering it needs…

She also pointed out that when you grow something that you eat, you save water. Take for example lettuce – A home gardener will pull off the leaves they need, leaving the rest of the lettuce to continue growing. The farmer has to pull the entire head of lettuce and keep the lettuces in huge vats of water to keep them from going limp until he gets them on supermarket shelves. Lots of water wasted per lettuce compared to the home garden.

If you grow your own food you save native plants elsewhere on the planet that would have been cleared for farming as farmers need to remove native habitat to grow food.

Vegetable gardens don’t have to be ugly. All vegetables have flowers, and it is also a good idea to grow flowers amongst the vegetables to encourage pollinators and beneficial insects.

So, how can Julie Bass be sent to jail for such an environmentally positive act?  

Reading through all the reports, face book posts and her blog, I am impressed by two things:

1 - Her courage for taking a stand on this.
2 - I admire her fair mindedness and how she hasn’t let bitterness, or a sense of vengeance overtake her.  I particularly like that she has urged people not to make personal (verbal or otherwise) attacks on the city officials who are hounding her. (“Hounding” being my word not hers.) And when people have suggested that she recruits her neighbours to plant veggies in their front yards as an act of solidarity alongside her, she has said she doesn’t want anyone else to get into trouble. 

Julie – if I were your neighbor I’d plant veggies in my front yard – though I’d be totally embarrassed at how badly my tomatoes are doing!

A pre-trial is scheduled for July 26th.  In support of Julie, I would urge anyone who feels the same way to spread the word, “like” the facebook page heading up the online campaign, Oak Park HatesVeggies, read her blog, and sign the petition

Byddi Lee

Friday, July 8, 2011

Plum tuckered

It's raining plums in our front yard right now. Big, purple, juicy, sweet, delicious plums. The kind that burst when they hit you, leaving a magenta splodge, so you look like you are in the middle of a paintball game. When you stand on the ones all over the ground, they squelch up the sides of your flip-flops, staining your feet red with a warm, sticky goo. I have now a designated pair of shoes for plum picking to avoid ruining any more. And yes, I suppose I should be picking them up, but there's just so many.
This is the tree that 18 months ago, I didn't even know we had. Not that it is small or tucked away in a corner, but because it was over-grown with giant privet, oleander bushes and ivy. As I chopped those bad boys away - one branch at time - I found this bedraggled plum tree. And, oh boy, is it happy to be standing alone with its toes all covered in mulch! I've never seen a tree with so much fruit.

My friend Mareese,who baked the wonderful graduation cake (and is generally brilliant at all things culinary), came over this week to teach me how to make plum jam. I cashed in on her expertise (and canning equipment) by digging out some recipes for plum chutney and plum sauce. The internet is a wonderful place to get recipes and ideas for using up produce you may have a glut of. It's fun to experiment too. In this case, I have more than enough plums if something doesn't work - I can throw it out and start again.

With the help of Mareese's wonderful kids Allison and David, and my lovely neighbor Laurie, we held a "catching sheet" below the tree while one of us shook the branches. In a matter of minutes we had a tub full of plums! And the tree looked as though nothing had been taken off it.
We washed the plums in the tub - that's why the photo has a weird sheeny look to it.  The jam recipe we were following called for the plums to be peeled and stoned. This site gave great directions for the entire process. Click on the link for a total education in making plum jam.

We put the washed plums into boiling water for a few seconds...
then straight into iced water. The peels came off fairly easily but not quite as easy as when you do this with tomatoes.

Stoning and chopping all those plums is the most tedious part.
Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I'll encourage you to click on the links to get the recipes and instructions for actually making the jam. Our first batch of jam was delicious - the sample toast didn't even last long enough to photograph.
We used 1/2 pint jars which were much easier to handle and needed less water in the canning bath. Horrified at how much sugar is in jam, we tried to lower the amount, with the result that our jam was a little on the runny side but still set enough to stay on the toast.

The second batch of jam, I kept the skins on and put in all the sugar. It had a nice texture, with the fruit holding together in nice chunks, and it set well. If I did it again, I'd forgo the peeling process!

We made the chutney next. It looks gorgeous, but it needs to sit for 6 weeks before we can get the full taste.
While it plopped and bubbled on the stove, we had a break for lunch. This time my own home made recipe. - Philadelphia cream cheese and sliced plums.
The kids scoffed them down and came back for more - result!

My favorite creation of the day was the Tangy Plum Sauce.
We changed two things in the recipe. first we used Chinese five spice because I didn't have allspice, and second, we put the sauce through a sieve before we canned it.

It was a good day's work - lots of jam, chutney and sauce, and even a couple of jars of pickles sneaked in there too.

It was exciting to get three distinctly different tastes from the plums.  The plum sauce was my favorite but only makes a small amount, and I really wanted more of that taste. So that evening I went back out and pulled another basket load of plums.
I roughly followed the recipes for the plum sauce, but I cooked the onions and garlic first in a frying pan, then added sliced chicken breast. When the meat was cooked, I threw in the rest of the ingredients. It was so tasty!
Loaded with sugar though, so the next night I experimented.

I fried some salmon fillets in a pan. I then added a cup of coarsely chopped and stoned plums, 1 table spoon of brown sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla essence, scant 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, juice from 1/2 lemon and salt to taste. I let it all simmer together.

Talk about gourmet food - every thing on this plate is from my garden except the salmon.

Bon apetite!
Byddi Lee

Friday, July 1, 2011

What a Pickle!

Summer has arrived, bringing with it my first crop of cucumbers. Two cukes to be exact! But that's enough for one jar of pickles. I'm hoping to get a glut so that I can pickle more than one jar at a time, but for now, this will have to do. Notice how the lettuce comes in all a once but the pickles in ones or twos!
This time last year the whole pickling process was a complete mystery to me. But isn't the internet wonderful? One afternoon of research brought me to the conclusion that I should at least try to make pickles. The important part seemed to be processing them in boiling water. This is to kill nasty germs - like botulism. I was nervous when I ate my first batch last year but no-one got sick and they tasted so much better than shop bought (of course!) I'd seen this process on the one other occasion I'd partaken in preserving food, namely watching someone else turn my pomegranates into pomegranate jam, or jelly or preserves, or whatever they call jam here.

Not wanting to buy too much fancy canning equipment, I tried to get by with as little new stuff as possible. I belief in reduce, reuse, recycle, and I'm a stingy git!

You do need the special jars and lids. I use wide mouthed quart (approximately 500ml or a pint) jars.
But the jars and the rims of the lids can be reused. Apparently the discs need to be replaced because they only make a good seal once, but these jars can be used in the freezer. I use the old discs with the rims in this case, since you are not relying on the seal as the freezing itself is what keeps the produce safe.

After nearly scalding my self a few times, I gave up trying to use BBQ tongs and sprung for the special "jar grabber" thingy-ma-jiggy. Good job I have a camera because I've no idea what these are called.
You can get big canning pots. A pot that can hold water deep enough to go over the lid of the jam jar will work. If I'm only doing one jar at a time, I use an asparagus steamer.
There are lots more recipes online. I chose this one because I have all the ingredients in my garden, and it is the simplest. It makes 8 quart  jars, and if I only have enough cucumber for one jar, I scale it down acordingly.

Dill Pickles

8 pounds 3 to 4 inch long pickling cucumbers
4 cups white vinegar
12 cups water
2/3 cup pickling salt (i.e. table salt will do as long as it is non-iodised though I did use iodised salt last year and got away with it!)
16 cloves garlic, peeled and halved.
8 sprigs fresh dill weed
8 heads fresh dill weed (the seed bit)

1.  Wash the cucumbers. I slice mine but the original recipe didn't mention it. I guess if you use more smaller pickles - like when that glut happens - then you don't have to slice them.

2.  For really crunchy pickles, soak them first in iced water for at least 2 hours (I'm impatient and have gone a lot less time and it seems okay) but no more than 8 hours, refreshing the ice if it melts.

3. Sterilize 8 quart canning jars and lids in boiling water for at least 10 minutes. You can use this hot water again to process the jars, so don't throw it out.

4. Combine the vinegar, water and salt over medium heat and bring the brine to a rapid boil. Use it at this rapid boil to keep the pickles crisp.

5. Into each jar put 2 half-cloves of garlic, one head of dill, enough cucumbers to fill the jar, 2 more garlic halves and 1 spring of dill.

6. Fill the jars with hot brine and wipe the jar's rims of residue before sealing the jar.

7. Place the jars in a water bath so the water covers the jar and boil for 15 minutes.

8. Remove the jars from the water bath. As they cool and the air inside contracts the lids will depress. You can hear them pop. This is how you know you have a good seal.

9. Label the pickles with the date they were pickled and also the date they can be eaten - 8 week later.

10. After 8 weeks they are ready to eat. Refrigerate after opening. Unopened and stored in a cool dry place, pickles will keep for up to 2 years - but they taste sooo good they'll never last that long.

Be brave. Give it a go. You won't be sorry.

Byddi Lee