Stagecoach Stopovers

I have been reminded during recent travels that the convenience of super highways and speedy travel are relatively recent occurrences. Only 150 years ago–a mere blip in the history of human travel–stagecoaches were considered a very modern means of transportation. They crossed the United States, from east to west and north to south, connecting cities and towns and outposts. However, places to clean up, dine, and spend the night were necessary, because transit took days and weeks.

On my trip to California and again on a more recent trip to Michigan, I relieved a sliver of this history, stopping at two splendid examples of these stagecoach stopovers–one considerably more rustic than the other, but both remarkable — and both still serving food.

In California, it takes a fair bit of driving on a winding, mountain road to reach Cold Spring Tavern. Built in the 1860s, this is actually a complex of buildings that stood on what was, until 1963, the the only route over the mountains into Santa Barbara. (Hard enough to do in a car; can’t imagine doing it in a stage coach.) Today, while the buildings are still rustic, the menu is very upscale and quite pricey for dinner. I opted for lunch and enjoyed my buffalo burger immensely.

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern


Cold Spring Complex

Cold Spring Complex

A much different experience was visiting the Stagecoach Inn, in historic Marshall, Michigan. This handsome Greek revival building is impressive even amid an entire main street of impressive, 19th century buildings. Constructed in 1838 and made an inn in 1846, it is the oldest continuously operating inn between Chicago and Detroit. Amusingly, while the rustic Cold Spring Tavern offers an extremely upscale menu, the externally elegant Stagecoach Inn offers simple, though very tasty, bar food. A hand-formed burger and wonderfully crisp sweet potato fries made a good lunch during a break in a long drive.

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Come on in.

Come on in.

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Santa Barbara Seafood

Santa Barbara from Sterns Wharf

Santa Barbara from Sterns Wharf


After Ojai, I headed a bit farther north to Santa Barbara. Even here, there would be a bit of history and food research, but also a lot of enjoying the area’s beauty.

I spent many hours at the delightful Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, where I learned about the history, ecology, and ongoing reality of fishing in the area, with information about sea urchins, abalone, lobster, crabs, and numerous tasty food fish. There was also a tremendous amount of fascinating history on non-food topics, including Native American groups of the region, early exploration, wildlife, and numerous shipwrecks. One fact I found interesting was that the Santa Barbara Channel is considered one of the ten best places in the world to watch wildlife, with an abundance of whales, dolphins, seals, otters, and sea lions.

Of course, I didn’t want all my research about local seafood to be purely academic, so I made a point of locating the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, at the end of Sterns Wharf.
SB Shellfish Co-B
Sterns Wharf offers an amazing view of the Santa Barbara harbor and coastline. And Santa Barbara Shellfish offers a splendid array of seafood options. There were a few items that had been flown in from elsewhere, but I figured there was no point in eating fish from somewhere else when I was visiting the home of such splendid creatures as the Santa Barbara rock crabs. So I grabbed an outdoor seat overlooking the harbor, ordered the day’s special of just-caught rock crabs, and settled into an evening of wrestling with heavy shells and delighting in sweet crab meat. (I also enjoyed watching the sunset as I ate.)

Santa Barbara Stone Crabs for Dinner

Santa Barbara Stone Crabs for Dinner


If you get to Santa Barbara, I can definitely recommend this spot. There are many good dining options on the wharf, but the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is hard to beat for reasonably priced local seafood.

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Ojai Olive Oil

olives
I posted a while back on olive history and have previously offered a couple of recipes that include olives. (Just type “olives” into the search bar at right, if you’re interested.) They are tremendously important fruit, especially among Mediterranean cultures. News of their health benefits has given olives and olive oil a great boost in the last decade or so in the United States. Countries with the right, Mediterranean-type weather, including Australia and South Africa, are now growing olives and producing excellent olive oils. Happily, the Mediterranean climate of parts of California have made that state a wonderful producer of olives and olive oils, as well.

While I loved the book store mentioned in the last post, it wasn’t my reason for visiting Ojai. The Ojai Valley has a great climate for olives (as well as oranges and avocados), and it was the region’s fruit-growing, especially of olives, that had brought me to town. The Ojai Olive Oil Company not only produces world-class, award-winning oils, it also offers free tours twice a week, and that was where I headed the day after I first arrived in Ojai. This operation is sustainable, organic, and family owned. It’s also remarkably beautiful, if a little hard to find. (If you go, be sure to follow the directions on their website, as a GPS can lead you to the wrong side of the sprawling ranch.)

Ojai Olive Oil has olive trees from several of the major olive oil regions of Mediterranean Europe, including France, Spain, and Italy. Apparently, both the soil and climate are ideal for the olives, and the trees show their gratitude by producing abundant olives, all hand picked.

In addition to being shown around the orchards, we also got to see the crushing equipment and then, best part, got to taste about a dozen different olive oils. Wow. We were told that the intense, complex, fruity, peppery flavor of course reflected the health and quality of the trees and the care of the process, but also demonstrated the difference freshness can make. Any olive oil shipped from Europe, unless you had it air freighted yourself, will likely be many months old by the time it reaches the grocery store shelf. It will still be good, but it probably won’t be great. For great olive oil, you not only want to buy good quality but also as fresh as possible. I had always wondered why olive oil I had in places around the Mediterranean always tasted so much better than oils I had at home, and now I knew why.

(The stuff on the grocery store shelf is fine for pan frying, by the way, or using in a marinade, but if you’re going to be dipping bread or drizzling it on a salad, that’s when you want the really good stuff.)

Because of the freshness factor, a California olive oil may offer your best opportunity to taste how good this oil can be. Of course, I can offer from experience a definite thumbs up for the oils from Ojai Olive Oil, but it is not the only good olive oil company in the U.S. But you owe it to yourself to try to find something really fresh and brilliant, so you know why olive oil is so revered in so many places. But if you are interested in seeing what the Ojai operation offers, here’s their website: Ojai Olive Oil Company. Enjoy.
Oils-Organic-Award

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New Favorite Book Store

Ojai-bookstore
When I headed for Southern California last autumn, I had a good idea what I was going to do: for work, visit an olive oil farm, do some research, and connect with some business associates, and for fun, attend my college reunion. One of things I hadn’t planned on was running across an incredible store for secondhand books.

Bart’s Books dates to 1964. It bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, though I find it hard to imagine it has too much competition in the “outdoor” category. Bart’s has nearly a million books crammed into a maze of al fresco book shelves. Attractive seating areas with umbrellas for shade on sunny days and brick ovens for warmth when the weather turns chilly invite hanging around. The variety of titles is stunning. There is actually a small house at the center of the sprawling “store,” but even it is filled with books (cookbooks in the kitchen and dining room, of course).

If you find yourself in Southern California, I encourage you to at least consider a side trip to Ojai–a charming, mountain-cradled town filled with artists and surrounded by orange, avocado, and olive orchards. And if you love books, then definitely seek out Bart’s Books. You never know what treasures you might find, but even if you find nothing you need, you will have been to one of only a handful of bookstores that might be considered destinations.
Ojai-bookstore2

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Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed by the lovely folks at InPrint Radio. This is a station that features Midwest writers, not just to promote the writer’s work, but also to encourage other writers. InPrint Radio is operated by a Rockford, Illinois-based writers group, also called InPrint. I don’t actually live anywhere near Rockford, but sometimes encouraging other writers is worth a long drive.

Because this is an interview geared for writes, rather than for the book-buying public, we spend a lot more time talking about things that would help other writers, from guidelines about editing to newer options for publishing to rules for writing and even ways to stay motivated. Which is not to say we don’t talk about my work. Waltzing Australia, which is supported by my other blog, gets a bit of time, as does my next book, on the history of corn, which won’t be out for a few more months yet, and general comments on my life as a writer. But the intention is definitely to encourage and guide other writers. Hope you find something useful.

In Print Radio, Episode 42

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Beet Soup

Borsch? Borscht? Depends on who you’re talking to or what sources you check. Encyclopedia Britannica has borsch and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has borscht. Of course, both mention the other, along with other possible spellings. The problem arises from the fact that the word occurs in several Eastern European languages, plus it’s being transliterated from another alphabet, and there is rarely a perfect correlation between the sounds represented by characters in differing alphabets.

Webster’s does offer this little bit of info on the origin of the word: Yiddish borsht & Ukrainian & Russian borshch First Known Use: 1808

Some sources suggest that the Ukraine is where borsch was born, but I think most folks associate this beet soup with Russia. Russia is, indeed, among the cold places where beets are quite happy to grow, and borsch is probably Russia’s most widely known soup.

There are numerous variations of the soup throughout Russia. It may have a base of beef or chicken, or be completely vegetarian. Beets are about the only consistent ingredient, though cabbage appears in most versions, too. However, many recipes include a wider variety of vegetables. The modification that makes a borsch Moscow-style is the addition of ham or slab bacon. If you don’t want ham, leaving it out of the recipe below won’t make it inauthentic, it just won’t be Muscovite. This is a hearty, delicious soup with a slight sweet-sour taste. Enjoy.

Borsch Muskovskaia
(Moscow-style beet soup)

1 quart beef broth
2 quarts water
2–2.5 lb. beef brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1-1/2 lb. beets, peeled and cut into strips approximately 1/8 inch wide by 2 inches long
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1-2 parsnips, peeled and cut into strips
2 carrots, peeled and cut into strips
1/2 head white or green cabbage, cored and coarsely shredded
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 lb. boiled ham, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 cup sour cream Continue reading

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Beet It

Beets-cropped-B
If you say that you like beets, you were likely raised in the U.S. This is not because beets are exceptionally popular in the U.S., but rather because Americans are the only people who call them beets. Everyone else calls them beetroots. So if you’re traveling overseas and see beetroot on the menu, you now know what to expect.

Beta vulgaris is a widespread vegetable with a variety of forms and functions. The familiar roundish, red-rooted variety is known as a table beet. It is raised primarily for its root, though the leaves are edible, especially when the plant is young. The delightful variety of beet grown for its leaves is commonly known as chard or Swiss chard. The sugar beet can be eaten, but is cultivated primarily for obtaining sugar. Finally, the mangel-wurzel, also called the forage beet or field beet, is grown as food for cattle.

Beets most probably originated in Italy, but spread to other parts of the Mediterranean region in prehistoric times, so it’s difficult to place their point of origin precisely. In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, only the leaves were consumed, though beetroots had been added to the Roman menu by the beginning of the Christian era. Beets spread unevenly, primarily moving north, where they throve in the cooler temperatures. Though Charlemagne knew of beets and wanted to see them grown in his domains, there was no real beet presence in France until their introduction (or reintroduction) during the Renaissance. Because beets tolerate fairly high degrees of salinity, they also became popular in countries near salt seas or, more especially, that were reclaiming land from the sea.

The rise of the sugar beet is easier to trace, because it occurred after sugar started to increase in importance. The process for extracting sugar from beets was developed by a German chemist in the mid-1700s. It was easier to extract sugar from cane, but cane only grew in tropical climates, and beets liked it cool. Even so, the beet sugar industry didn’t explode until Britain blockaded Napoleon’s France, cutting off access to imported sugar. Napoleon ordered that 70,000 acres be planted with sugar beets, and French financier Benjamin Delessert opened a processing plant, and soon France was independent of outside sugar sources.

Even now, about one third of the sugar in Europe is beet sugar. However, it is still the table beet that is the more familiar and widely grown beet variety, especially in colder or saltier regions.

Still, the most commonly encountered beet for most people is the table beet. They are beautiful when roasted, but also delighted when pickled, and even simply simmered they’re not bad. I frequently add canned matchstick-cut beets to coleslaw, as they brighten and add nutrition. Because beets are true nutrition powerhouses. They offer antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory, and current research is looking into possible anti-cancer advantages. However, as with all vegetables, don’t overdose. Virtually everything with benefits also has some side effects of taken to the extreme (as has been occurring in recent months with kale). And be advised — the red color in beets is “persistent” — that is, it doesn’t vanish when you digest it, so if you eat a lot of beets, you might think you’re bleeding to death when you go to the bathroom the next morning. You’re not. It’s just the beets.

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