Tag Archives: California

Almonds

Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.

Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.

The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener. Continue reading

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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 relived 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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