EDIBLE NOTABLES FALL 2011

FALL FORAGING: SALT FROM THE SEA

salt
Sea salts naturally vary in color and taste.
Photograph by John Cox

BY JAMIE COLLINS

Salt. Our bodies wouldn’t function without it, and food wouldn’t taste as good either. Experts disagree on how much salt a person needs to maintain good health. In his book Salt: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky notes that estimates range from two thirds of a pound to 16 pounds per year. Salt deficiency can cause headaches, weakness, nausea and even death, if the deprivation goes on long enough. The human love of salt is probably a natural defense mechanism that causes us to keep on reaching for it.

Kurlansky writes that ancient nomads got their salt from their cattle, which instinctively migrated towards salt ponds. Cultures that raised crops had a harder time meeting their salt quota: While a diet of vegetables is high in potassium, it contains little salt. So farmers began trading cultivated crops for salt, helping to make it a valuable commodity. Roads were built to transport and trade salt, revolutions were started over it, and eventually, people were paid with salt. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “worth his salt.”

Nowadays, salt is still used as a precious currency here on the Central Coast, when autumn takes foragers down Big Sur’s cliffs to collect naturally forming sea salt.

The Big Sur Bakery serves its famous bread with unsalted butter and an array of sea salts to sprinkle to one’s liking. One of the salts is collected locally by Big Sur resident Brett Engel, and bartered for pastry chef Michelle Wojtowicz’s “death by chocolate” cake for his wife’s birthday each year. “We tend to use it sparingly since it is hard to come by,” Wojtowicz said of the salt. “I use it to garnish caramel desserts and Phil will use the salt to finish off a fish dish right before serving it,” she added, referring to her husband, chef Philip Wojtowicz.

Engel has been foraging salt from a closely guarded spot in the rocks just above the ocean in Big Sur for the past 20 years, ever since an alchemist friend shared the location of the pool, which Native Americans may have once used. The salt pond is the size of a bathtub and about 12 to 16 inches deep. Salt begins to collect in the pool, and in others formed by depressions in rocks close to the ocean, after the summer sun evaporates seawater splashed into the pools by high winter surf.

Engel makes the annual pilgrimage each September, once the sun has done its work and the tides are low enough to allow the treacherous trip by rope down to the rocks.

“We first take the prized salt bloom, which looks like little flower buds on the top of the larger salt crystals below,” Engel said, “referring to fleur de sel, or “flower of salt.” “We only take what we can each carry up the ropes in our backpacks, which is about 40 to 50 pounds.”

“Each year the harvest is different depending on the weather— if the summer was foggy the salt may not have dried much, yielding less. The year of the Big Sur fires the salt ponds were filled with ash and the taste was surprisingly smoky and good.”

Engel has learned that the best time to collect salt is before the pampas grass goes to seed within the first two weeks of September: If they wait too long the salt will be filled with seeds. Engel says all salts taste different, and describes the taste of the salt he forages as buttery and delicious.

Todd Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. has also foraged sea salt in Big Sur with Engel, but just in small quantities for his family’s personal use. Happy Girl’s commercial organic kitchen in Pacific Grove uses large quantities of sea salt to preserve lemons and produce its pickle collection, and must buy its sea salt in bulk. Currently, Happy Girl sources it from the South San Francisco Bay–area label Giusto’s Natural Sea Salt and Sonoma Sea Salt.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to harvest your own sea salt, two local artisan salt companies produce sea salt from Monterey Bay by collecting seawater and evaporating it in special greenhouses: Monterey Bay Sea Salt (www.montereybayseasalt.com) and Monterey Bay Salt Co. (www.montereybaysaltco.com).

SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY

Gabe Georis
Gabe Georis speaks with guests at Mundaka
Photograph by Richard Green

BY SARAH WOOD

Gabe Georis misses the Mediterranean Market, a specialty store and deli that operated at the corner of Ocean and Mission when he was growing up in Carmel in the 1980s. Not because of the sandwiches he bought there, but because of what happened when he and other customers congregated next door in Devendorf Park to eat them.

“Locals used to go there,” Georis said. “But nobody stayed in the store. You’d see everybody in the park—there was this whole social scene directly attributable to the store.”

Georis, an offspring of the Carmel family that for more than 30 years has run the highly regarded gastronomic empire that includes Georis wines and the restaurants Casanova, Corkscrew and La Bicyclette, has for the last couple of years been establishing a strong following for his own restaurant, the Spanish tapas spot Mundaka.

Mundaka, named for the Spanish surf town, is all about sustainability. It’s filled with character-laden reclaimed fixtures and it sources its seasonal menu from local organic farms—efforts that help promote conscious consumers and preserve the region’s family-farm culture, the environment and everyone’s health. And like all the Georis enterprises, the food, prepared by chef Brandon Miller, is transporting. But like a growing number of restaurateurs around the region, Georis is seeking to help nurture and sustain community through the very experience of eating in his restaurant.

In many cases, people are doing this with communal tables, as at Bonny Doon’s Cellar Door and Lightfoot Industries’ supper clubs in Santa Cruz, FUD’s pop-up restaurants in Monterey and Dory Ford’s new incarnation of Point Pinos Grill in Pacific Grove, as well as the expanding number of dinners held on farms and in vineyards by the likes of the Bernardus Lodge and Winery, Hahn Estates and many others. (Getting people to eat with strangers, though, can take some coaxing, as Randall Grahm explains on page 47.)

“It’s not really just trying to create a restaurant; it’s trying to help build a sense of community back up,” Georis said of his own effort. “How do you create more community feeling? You create public spaces where people get to know each other.”

In Mundaka’s case, as at the others, diners can eat with strangers at communal tables, but Georis’s method is somewhat subtle, cagey. You might not even notice it, but there are no stools at the bar. So patrons, rather than being able to stake out a fixed spot, have to share space—and start conversations with someone they probably don’t know. Providing live music and dancing is perhaps a more conventional method, but the Mundaka strategy is working—in a town that of late has not been known for its nightlife.

“Everybody likes to listen to music and dance. People come in and boogie. Eighteen-year-olds to 70-year-olds are shaking it out,” he said.

Georis especially laments the city’s loss of more bohemian days, before a surge in real estate prices and other factors over the last few decades put pressure on the city’s sense of community and its youth culture, making intergenerational crowds shaking it out rare.

But he’s been encouraged to see other businesses create gathering places that appeal to the young, like the new restaurant Vesuvio’s roof bar. And as a result, the city is beginning to shed its sleepy reputation and is staying open later.

Next, he’d love to see the city’s iconic beach transformed into more of a catalyst for community.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could have tables and chairs at the bottom of Ocean Avenue, in the sand?” Georis said. “We all respond to our environment, so if you create the environment, people will follow along.”

Mundaka is located in the Carmel Square shopping center on San Carlos St. between Ocean Ave. and 7th Ave. For more information, go to www.Mundakacarmel.com.

LIGHTFOOT’S RECIPE FOR REINVENTING SCHOOL

Carmen Kubas and student
Lightfoot founder Carmen Kubas with one of her students
Photograph by Linda Ozaki

BY SUSAN DITZ

Santa Cruz social entrepreneur Carmen Kubas had one of her biggest aha! moments last spring, in the middle of a hot, crowded kitchen at her regular Saturday night supper club at DIG Gardens.

In the midst of what some might see as controlled chaos, Kubas realized that her vision for a sustainable vocational training program focused on food and the restaurant business was working: Her highschool- aged participants were using their newly acquired professionalism to pull together and do a nearly flawless job helping chef Loren Ozaki prepare and serve a delicious gourmet meal.

Kubas is the founder of Lightfoot Industries, one of a growing number of Central Coast organizations providing sustainable agriculture and culinary vocational education for youth. Rancho Cielo in Salinas, Food What?! (part of the Life Lab at UCSC) and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s Natural Bridges High all provide such programs. The groups are coalescing into a veritable movement around food-centered educational programs. (See related story p. 28.) This fall, Lightfoot will move from a 10-month pilot project to a full four-year high school vocational program for 23 students, offered in conjunction with Delta Charter High School in Santa Cruz. Lightfoot will also continue its supper clubs at DIG, and will be available for hire to cater events. Eventually, Kubas hopes to expand the program across the U.S.

Lightfoot is a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit organization, so it can operate a nonprofit academy while giving kids real-life business experience working with its roving restaurant.

The aim, Kubas said, is to provide marginalized teens with entrepreneurial training, an innovative curriculum and meaningful apprenticeships and, in so doing, develop the participants’ social, environmental and fiscal responsibility. The students learn about nutrition, farming, food preparation and food service. They attend yoga classes, learn social media proficiency and receive hands-on experience in developing new products and marketing a wholesale food line. “It’s designed around a culture of achievement, with real incentives, reachable goals and in-depth integration with the teachers, and with the same graduation requirements of traditional high schools,” Kubas said. “We take a whole-person approach, giving young people critical guidance and marketable skills, so they can become fully engaged, responsible citizens.”

Kubas, who drew on her experience as a parent, restaurant consultant, soccer coach and teacher to conceive Lightfoot, became a proponent of sustainable vocational education years ago, “because people are diverse, so there can’t be just one method of education, and education needs to take a relevant, whole systems approach,” she said.

“Vocational education is often seen as less valuable and desirable than college prep, but we need the infrastructure of skilled workers and artisans who are critical to the health of our economy—they are just as important as doctors and lawyers. And to be successful today, all high school students, regardless of whether college prep or not, need to learn the three principles of sustainability: social, environmental and fiscal responsibility.”

During the pilot program, Kubas saw every student grow—especially in discovering how to think for themselves. Each had a story. “Kyle started out very shy and awkward as a busser and evolved into my lead server, who earned a stipend by showing up and pitching in for everything,” she said. “Enrique is another success story for us—he was totally introverted in the beginning, but learned how to speak up and delegate when he was put in charge of the dish area. He’s returning to do an internship in product development.”

Lightfoot’s weekly supper club dinners at DIG Gardens (420 Water Street, Santa Cruz) will be starting up again on September 30th. See www.lightfootind.com and diggardensnursery.com for the latest event information.

ATTENTION ADVENTUROUS
LOCAVORES AND OENOPHILES!

welcome center
The welcome center is already attracting plenty of business.
photo courtesy of California Welcome Center

BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN

Did you know that in our region, Monterey County alone boasts more than 150 wineries? Whether you’re a longtime resident of Santa Cruz, Monterey or San Benito Counties or just passing through, the new California Welcome Center that opened over the summer just off Highway 101 in Salinas aims to help you get to know and enjoy the area better.

The center provides maps, information and a concierge service that can make hotel reservations and sell tickets to such attractions as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The center is focused in particular on the region’s agriculture and wine, and will serve as a catalyst for development of farm tours and winery visits, both popular tourism products elsewhere in the state.

“I call it Napa version 2.0,” said Craig Kaufman of the Salinas Valley Tourism and Visitors Bureau, which runs the center.

“We have so many wonderful agriculture businesses here that people don’t know about, and what is being done at some of our wineries is truly amazing.”

It is a destination whose time has come. “We have what people are looking for in healthy eating and good wines,” he added. Wine tourism is still in its infancy in the Salinas Valley, compared with places like Napa and Sonoma counties. For example, few people know that there are so many wineries in Monterey County or that it boasts nine different appellations or unique growing areas.

Visitors looking to sample Salinas Valley wines are directed to the River Road Wine Trail, which starts just south of Salinas and winds its way past 14 visitor-friendly wineries along the banks of the Salinas River south to Soledad. Or they are sent to tasting rooms in Carmel Valley, which include the award-winning Heller Estates and its certified 100% organic vineyards.

Farm tours are expected to get under way soon. Kaufman said they would begin with nationally known brands like Taylor Farms and Fresh Express—both producers of pre-packaged salads—and Ocean Mist, which grows 70% of the nation’s artichokes.

“You’ve got nearly 2 million people a year who come through here on their way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium who would also be interested to know how their food is grown,” he said, emphasizing that locals will also be welcome on the tours.

Developing agrotourism or winery tourism is not part of the county’s general plan, and that makes the permitting process for farm stays and wine tasting rooms extremely complicated. While tourism officials acknowledge the need to preserve farmland, they also report it can take years to open a new tasting room and that wineries are not yet allowed to operate bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

Sites related to writer John Steinbeck and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas are also promoted by the new center. European tourists are especially drawn to the Steinbeck literary trail and enjoy visiting spots mentioned in his famous books, such as East of Eden and Cannery Row.

The Welcome Center is located in the Westfield Shopping Center at 1213 N. Davis Rd. on the West Laurel Drive exit off Highway 101. It is open 9am–7pm daily. In addition to travel information, it provides for the basic needs of travelers and their pets, with public restrooms, picnic tables next to a cool pond and a dog walking area.

HOLMAN RANCH LAUNCHES
NEW HOMEGROWN PRODUCTS

Holman Ranch
Holman Ranch is located on 400 acres in Carmel Valley
Photograph courtesy of Holman Ranch

BY RENEE BRINCKS

Five years after acquiring Holman Ranch, its owners are adding a new chapter to the property’s storied history. The first estate-grown wines and olive oil from Holman Ranch Vineyards have hit shelves, and construction of a new on-site winery wraps up this fall.

The late Dorothy McEwen, who owned Holman Ranch from 1989 to 2005, first introduced vines to the resort grounds. Though she planted only 1 1/2 acres, her goal was to build a 25,000-case winery. Current plans are more modest—2,000 to 3,000 cases a year at most, according to Holman Ranch Director of Hospitality Hunter Lowder—but guided by a similar vision.

“We focus on the past of the ranch—the history, romance, memories— and the future,” she says. “And it’s all about using the land for what it does best.”

Lowder was attending a wedding at the old Hollywood hideaway when she learned it was for sale following McEwen’s passing. She persuaded her parents, whose European travels had left them with dreams of tending grape vines and olive trees in their retirement, to take a look at the 400-acre property. They were skeptical, initially, because the land was more than they envisioned for themselves. Still, Lowder insisted that they visit.

“They saw the mountain views and the hacienda and really saw the potential,” she says. “It’s not just about having a family vineyard; it’s having a family business.”

Thomas and Jarman Lowder took over Holman Ranch in 2006 and began renovations that modernized the grounds, stables and 1928 stone hacienda building. They planted 17 additional vineyard acres, and the winery will be completed in the coming months. A series of caves dug into the hills houses the crush pad, barrels and storage facilities. “It’s a very low-impact, low-footprint, modular type of winery,” Lowder says.

Though the facility will not be open to the public, guests can sample Holman Ranch wines at a new Carmel Valley Village tasting room opening later this year. Neighboring restaurant Will’s Fargo pours them, as well, and a wine club is in development. Selections include a 2009 Pinot Noir aged in French oak, and 2010 wines ranging from Pinot Gris and Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc and rosé of Pinot Noir.

“We really wanted to be a Pinot house because we’re located in the Carmel Valley appellation, which is a small and very rare appellation. All our wine is from estate-grown vines; we don’t bring in any grapes, and we don’t sell our grapes,” Lowder explains.

She says the earliest releases, which “came out pretty complex and tasty,” have earned positive feedback for their originality. The Pinot Noir, for example, falls somewhere between the traditional flavor of a French Burgundy and the fruit-forward blends from the nearby Santa Lucia Highlands.

“We wanted to try and span the generations of different wine drinkers,” Lowder says.

In addition to growing the property’s wine program, the Lowder family also planted a grove of 100 Tuscan-varietal olive trees at Holman Ranch. Only a small quantity of this year’s extra-virgin, coldpressed olive oil remains.

“It has a little bit of a spice on the back of the throat, and a little bit of greenness, but it’s buttery on the finish,” says Lowder. Like the wines, the olive oil is particularly popular with people who have ties to the property.

“The romance and history of Holman Ranch and Carmel Valley … you get a piece of that,” says Lowder.

To order wine or olive oil from Holman Ranch Vineyards, call 831.659.2640 or email wines@holmanranch.com. Resort, wedding and vineyard information is at www.holmanranch.com.


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