Martinique: A Tropical Taste of France in the Caribbean

IMG_2657IMG_2685IMG_2759I’m spending nine weeks on Martinique—and this is my third long visit. Am I lucky, or what? (The top picture is the view from our porch.)

Yes I am, unequivocally. Although that sense did waver a bit yesterday when I was stung by a jellyfish at one of the legendary white-sand-and-palm-tree beaches. The effects passed within an hour or two, though, and I’m ready for another swim.

A smallish island, not more than 60 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, Martinique’s intricately winding coastline and hairpin roads seem to cover much more ground than its actual area of about 1100 square kilometers. Ranging from dense and somewhat arid chaparral with spiny acacia and cactus to impassable rain forest, it’s known in French as “l’île aux fleurs” – isle of flowers. It lives up to the moniker. Its volcanic origins are expressed in the dramatic landscape, heaving with steep hills and deep valleys.

Martinique is a department of France, analogous to Hawaii’s status as a state and resulting in a vibrant blend of colorful Caribbean culture and French civility.

Boulangeries supply baguettes and pastries (filled with guava or salt cod, as well as dark chocolate—no, not in the same pastry!), and any corner store will offer brie and red wine, as well as locally produced juices like corossol and maracudja (soursop and passion fruit).

The radio stations play lively local zouk interspersed with French pop. All the social services available in métropole (as locals refer to mainland France) are available here, so health care, education and infrastructure all meet the European standard. 

It has its rustic aspects as well. Brightly painted snack shops built of scrap wood dot the roads, and there’s an old house just down the road from ours with walls made traditionally of woven sticks, alternating with corrugated sheet metal. Free-roaming flocks of sheep and goats roam the countryside where late-model BMW’s whip along curving roads. Men still go out in small boats to catch tuna and swordfish, which they slice up and sell along the highway, and villagers cast out fishing nets from shore as they’ve done for generations.

A Food-Obsessed Fest with the Best

The IACP just concluded its annual conference, held in Portland this year.

Which IACP? The International Association of Chiefs of Police? Nope.

The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists? Nope.
How about the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy? Uh uh.
Maybe this picture gives a hint:
It attracted food-obsessed folks of all stripes, from several continents. Food stylists, expatriate bed & breakfast proprietors, cooks, personal chefs, cookbook authors, editors, cooking teachers–all bound by an bottomless love of all that’s edible.
I signed up as a local volunteer, allowing me to give directions, recommend restaurants and join some excellent seminars while rubbing shoulders with some renowned food folks. Ruth Reichl gave the keynote address. Legendary sausage king Bruce Aidells sassed teacher/author Crescent Dragonwagon, who sassed right back. Shirley O. Corriher, author of Cookwise and Bakewise, made me biscuits.
Okay, she made them for everyone.
Hugh Carpenter won Cooking Teacher of the Year, and I got to shake his hand and remind him that I was one of his assistants at Montana Mercantile in Los Angeles back in the eighties.
At the Host City Reception, I scooped gelato for Cathy Whims of Portland’s Nostrana, and flitted about the room sampling lavishly garnished potato pancakes from Broder, chocolates from Moonstruck, Dungeness crab with delicate gnocchi from Paley’s Place, gorgeous macaroons (passion fruit!!! port wine!!!) from Pix Patisserie, and about two dozen other delicacies. And a surprisingly delicious cocktail, bravely combining Campari and Krogstad Aquavit from our own House Spirits Distillery!
Next year Austin, Texas hosts. Need any volunteers?

Island Abundance at the St. Croix Farmers Market



Stroll through a market–or wedge your way through the crowd–and meet the buyers, sellers, producers and processors. Smell the guavas or the aged cheese or the shellfish, hear the crack of a machete against green coconut, the cackle of doomed chickens or the sizzle of thinly sliced tubers plunging into boiling oil, and you begin to taste a place. Anywhere–Java, France, Martinique or Santa Monica, it’s a colorful window into what matters locally.

St. Croix has a small and lively market in mid-island every Saturday. There are no large-scale producers–most of the vendors (mostly women) easily fit their wares onto the designated space, a table with short walls about the size of a large coffee table. A few bunches of collards or mixed herbs, a small pile of tomatoes, and a dozen avocados–that sort of thing. There are a few green thumbs in business, selling vigorous little plants in 6-inch pots: oregano, mint, orchids and ornamentals. Some women sell home-made seasoning and fruit preserves. And there are a few monoculturalists: one man has nothing but enormous stalks of green bananas and another, a pick-up truck bed of green coconuts.

Adjacent is the fish market–a picture of bureaucratic irony. There’s a series of concrete stalls with concrete tables shaded from the sun, expressly for selling fish, but for some reason that’s not allowed, so all the fish vendors sell out of coolers under improvised shade. Gutting and scaling take place on decaying wooden tables, decorated lavishly with glittering scales. A couple of 5-gallon buckets of bloody water serve for rinsing knives, hands and fish. There’s even a fish-cleaning set-up in the back of a van. I suspect it diminishes the re-sale value of the vehicle considerably….

St. Croix: an Island of History

IMG_1867In Jeopardy parlance, the answer is: A place in the United States where we drive on the left.

Or try this: A place in the U.S. that has flown the flags of 6 other nations before flying the stars and stripes.

Question: What is St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands?

I’m on my eighth visit to St. Croix, the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is for shoppers, St. John is for nature buffs, and St. Croix is for real. There’s a whiff of history everywhere you turn. Ruined sugar mills– tall pale cones crafted of coral block and white mortar–dot the landscape, from the days when sugar and rum went to Europe and the Americas by the boatload.

Christiansted, hosting a harbor on the North coast, echoes old Denmark, with stately plastered buildings in egg-yolk yellow, narrow streets and arcaded sidewalks. Frederiksted, anchored with a 1760 fort, is all peeling gingerbread trim, having been entirely rebuilt following the violent slave rebellion in 1878. Gracious great houses preside over the landscape. A few old houses are open for tourists, but more of them are still just home to somebody. And some are just home to geckos and tangled vines as they crumble into time.

We often walk a long dirt road to swim at a remote beach. Sometimes I find a worn fragment of china, relic of the plantation that once governed the property. The history here is like that–right under your feet–just keep your eyes open and there it is.

Finding Gold Among the Pine Needles


Autumn in the Pacific Northwest. A stroll in the forest, sun filtering through flaming vine maple leaves. Cushy moss and thick beds of shedded needles under the Douglas Fir. Wind whispering, birds calling. And a great big basket of chanterelles!

It was my first time mushroom hunting. My long experience buying chanterelles at the farmers market helps–I’m familiar with the variety of shapes and shades in which they come, the intertwining ridges that run underneath the cap and down the stem, the way the caps invert into distorted rippling cups, the puckering and contortion of a mushroom that has forced its way up under a log.

The first few minutes of hunting was a little discouraging, as I heard shouts of discovery from someone following right in my footsteps, picking a luscious fungus I’d virtually stepped over. Soon I found a few and my senses sharpened, picking out that certain shade of yellow, a little brighter than fallen leaves. I began to spot them capped with pine needles, thrusting up a thick layer of duff. I found rich clusters of them, and I gasped as I circled my fingers around a stem and burrowed them around it, into the forest floor. Thick around as a broom handle! A twist, a pull, a trim with my Opinel knife, into the basket.

There were 40 of us, spreading out in the woods south of Mount Hood. Bark, a Mount Hood advocacy group, orchestrated the outing. We carpooled out of Portland and into the wilderness along logging roads, passing hunters and ATV enthusiasts before spilling out into the forest, baskets in hand. Mark DesMarets, an experienced fungal enthusiast, advised us about the specimens we might find and the ecology of the mushroom. Amazingly, 300,000 pounds of wild mushrooms are exported from Oregon annually.

In view of that number, my two-and-three-quarters pound of fragrant, golden chanterelles doesn’t sound too impressive. But piled high in my basket, curving stems spreading to undulating crowns, I found them magnificent. Likewise, a few hours later when a handful of them issued their savory juices in my skillet, along with butter, leeks, garlic, thyme and creme fraiche… magnificent.

Harvesting for Humanity

IMG_1092A gunmetal gray cloud cover hangs low over the Salinas Valley, obscuring the rugged Santa Lucia Highlands and shading a crowd of workers wearing hairnets and rubber gloves as they bend in a field, plunging knives into the stems of red romaine lettuce, pulling off tattered leaves and tossing tidy heads into crates. The awkward techniques and leisurely pace make it clear: this isn’t an ordinary harvest crew. On this May Saturday morning, 60 volunteers are joining a bi-monthly gleaning event organized by Ag Against Hunger to supply fresh produce to food banks in the tri-county area and beyond.

Today, the glean team is harvesting lettuce from a field that was maintained all the way to maturity–nine weeks–and, now that prices have dropped, is no longer economically viable to harvest. Without Ag Against Hunger, the tilling, planting, pesticide spraying and watering which has nurtured this field since March would be wasted, along with a perfectly good crop of lettuce. Some Saturday mornings, volunteers engage in true gleaning: the age-old process of gathering produce after the official harvest has been completed and part of the crop is left behind due to size or cosmetic issues.

I arrived at 9 AM at the Ag Against Hunger warehouse in Salinas to find a buzzing crowd of all ages passing around a clipboard and filling out waivers. The parking lot proclaimed a broad demographic: a shiny Cadillac Esplanade, a dusty Jeep Cherokee covered with progressive stickers, a Prius, pick-ups, mini-vans and station wagons. Families with small children mingled with seniors. College kids swigged coffee from commuter mugs. Teenagers horsed around. After a quick orientation with Gleaning and Volunteer Coordinator Ananda Jimenez, and an invitation to find carpool companions, we piled into vehicles and followed a white 18-wheeler about 10 miles south on Highway 101.

Thanks to this 19-year-old organization, by noon our brief agricultural labors will be over and we will save 4200 pounds of lettuce from being tilled under. Crops rescued from the plow by volunteers make up only about 1% of the total fresh produce that Ag Against Hunger distributes each year. The balance is produce already harvested and processed that becomes unsalable due to price fluctuations. Ag Against Hunger’s network of about 50 growers and shippers are grateful for the opportunity to donate this surplus to food banks and human services agencies and enjoy the accompanying tax benefits.

Visit Gleaning Stories to hear audio recordings of gleaners (including me!). Their mission is to collect and broadcast the stories of gleaners in the Salinas Valley.

Rafting down the Rogue River

IMG_1467I hadn’t planned on dawdling in Southern Oregon. Just drive my friend to her new home in Williams, Oregon, and get on the road by noon the next day to complete my drive from Portland to Monterey, California.

But what do you do when it’s gonna be another hundred-degree day and your lovely hostess says “a bunch of us are going to float down the river. Why don’t you come?” Here’s what I did–reflected on the matter for oh, five minutes or so, and concluded that life is too short and unemployment too precious to decline such an invitation. Shortly, nine people, two trucks, four kayaks and a couple coolers of icy beers were winding their way north along the very scenic roads to the Galice Resort, where we rented a raft and gear and got a shuttle seven miles up the river, all for about $90.

After slathering up with sunscreen and cinching our PFD’s tight (that’s Personal Flotation Device, of course) we slid into the water for a few hours of leisurely floating, paddling and the occasional class I or II rapid, punctuated by a few refreshing swims. Surrounded by rugged hillsides and fragrant pines, we saw herons, mergansers, osprey and a couple of small dark swimming mammals–mink, perhaps?

We pulled out at the Galice Resort close to sunset, to a classic rock soundtrack from the live band up on their inviting deck. A little tailgate party followed: cold beer, watermelon, and chips. What a lovely way to spend a scorching afternoon.

Thanks to Michelle, the aforementioned lovely hostess, organizer, driver, and kayak-den-mother. Here she is!IMG_1470

Scream Sorbet: Fruity Frozen Farmers Market Delight

IMG_1012Scream Sorbet is sharing the love at 17 farmers markets in the Bay Area: The love of true, pure, frozen flavors. Their mission is to make the best sorbet in the world, and I think they may be doing it! Imagine local, seasonal, mostly-organic fruit transformed, at the peak of perfection, into a dense, smooth, creamy scoop of frozen delight. Just fruit, sugar, water and–occasionally–pectin.

They are just beginning to usher out the vibrant winter citrus flavors (goodbye, Meyer lemon, Oro Blanco grapefruit, and lime-mint) and welcome the luscious flavors of summer (hello apricot, cherry-rhubarb, and strawberry). Some flavors know no season: chocolate (made with top-of-the-line Blanxart organic chocolate), cashew-caramel, pistachio. These nut flavors are astonishing: so creamy and thick, you’d swear a cow was involved.

Six flavors are featured at each farmers market, a teasingly small fraction of the 35 listed on the website. Many flavors are inventive, even visionary: I tried the coconut-lime-Thai basil and was dazzled by the interplay of tangy lime and herbaceous basil embraced by round buttery coconut milk. On my wish list: saffron-almond, coconut-lemongrass, beet-lemon, and pomegranate-blueberry. And the other thirty flavors.

They work the magic in an Emeryville catering kitchen and roam the Bay Area, from San Rafael to Monterey, where I was lured in by their very generous sampling policy, characterized by the following phrases: “anything else?” “try another” “here, try this.”

Fort Ord: Mountain biking among the wildflowers

IMG_0699Seldom have I seen a valley as a hawk does. As I approached one of the many crests on a steep fire road in Fort Ord, a former military reserve now open to the public, a hawk slipped over me on the breeze. I turned to watch it coast down the length of the whole valley, curving from ridge to ridge like a skier, never once flapping a wing, just riding the drafts as they effervesced over the slopes. It cruised over hills faded from green to brown like worn velvet, smudged with lavender from the distant lupines, circled over a small wetland and gained altitude again, effortlessly.

The dense woods of Oregon, which I love, would never offer a show like this. The bird would appear briefly overhead and vanish behind dense boughs, its path a mystery. Each raptor would have its own strategy: the California hawk glimpsing prey from a great distance and approaching with stealth, the Northwest bird employing lightning-quick reactions to nab a creature unseen until the very last moment.

Goats, goats, glorious goats

IMG_0599IMG_0591IMG_0585Henceforth, no spring will be complete for me without a visit to Harley Farms in Pescadero, California–a goat farm and cheese factory nestled in a green and picturesque valley moistened by ocean fog. I’m sure a visit any time of year is nice, but what happens in the spring? Baby goats do, that’s what. As of April 1st or so, 267 had been born. Goat fans can not only tour the farm, the fields, the barn and the cheese kitchen, but also pet endless (very friendly) adult and baby goats, and even, with the explicit consent of Harley Farms, pick up, hug and kiss the babies. And even–can you believe it–milk a goat!! I was in heaven for two hours, and that wasn’t even counting all the free samples of fresh goat cheese I scarfed down in their little shop.

All the babies are descendants of the first six goats acquired by Dee Harley over a decade ago. They are watched over by three guardian lamas, who instinctively protect their goat friends from predators in the fields. The babies stay with mama for about four days, then they are penned up together–separated by sex–and fed on re-hydrated sheep’s milk as mama returns to the milking parlor for twice-daily milkings, at which she delivers about a gallon a day.

What else did I learn? A baby goat may nurse vigorously on your finger, but it won’t hurt. A grown-up goat enjoys gently chewing on your clothes–they browsed on me like a shrub! A socialized goat really likes people and petting. Milking is hard–imagine getting a secure grip on a turgid water balloon and then coaxing the water out through a pinprick, a tablespoon at a time. I suspect carpal tunnel didn’t originate with the typewriter, but with the domesticated dairy animal.

And the take-away advice: next time I’ll choose gardening clogs over tennis shoes (they still smell like barnyard) and perhaps bring some knee pads, so I can kneel in the muck for maximum petting pleasure and picture-taking prowess.