September 6, 2012
While Oregon’s craft beer market may be nearly saturated with foamy brew, which flows from nearly 60 brewpubs in Portland alone, breweries in Northern California are fewer and farther between—with just enough beer taps to sate one’s thirst and spark interest but far enough apart that one arrives at the next one thirsty for another pint—especially travelers on bicycles. North Coast towns with breweries include Eureka, Ukiah, Blue Lake, Fort Bragg, Boonville, Healdsburg, Sonoma and Petaluma, and here are several worth pedaling for.
North Coast Brewing Company, Fort Bragg. In a dark cellar at North Coast Brewing Company, the beer bottles endured the slow crawl of time. Years plodded by, the Chinook salmon industry crashed, whales migrated past going north, then south, then north again, and one American president replaced the next—until finally, on a recent afternoon in August, five aged bottles of Old Stock Ale saw daylight. I was lucky enough to be there, along with the brewery’s owner, Mark Ruedrich, and the company’s two brewers, Patrick Broderick and Ken Kelley, for a very special event: a vertical tasting. In a vertical, the drinkers taste multiple bottles of progressively older vintages of the same beer (or wine) in order to observe how the beverage grows and matures (or, if it happens to be the case, deteriorates) through the years. We started with the 2012 Old Stock Ale, and we noted the 12-percent alcohol beer’s bright and fresh youth, with its sharp and brassy scents of prunes and sherry. Then we stepped back three years and found in the 2009 bottle a fudgier, thicker version of the last. Next, we re-entered the George W. Bush era and tasted the 2007. The sharp, vibrant esters of the beer’s younger days had softened into something bittersweet, with distinct notes of marmalade. We dug deeper still into the strata of the years, back to 2005. The beer was a shade darker now and with a slight tartness of acidity in the rich layers of flavor. Now, think back: Where were you in 2003? I was just entering a long and homeless stint of trekking through Baja California, when I could live on a dollar a day but didn’t know a pilsner from a porter—and when Ruedrich and his brewers were just putting caps on the fourth vintage of Old Stock Ale. Opened nine years later, the beer gave off a heavy, bready smell thickened with notes of molasses and whiskey. In the mouth, it was soft and creamy. And we went back further still, into another era of modern society—when the Fort Bragg salmon industry was still afloat, and when people everywhere could still walk through airport security with their shoes on and, no doubt, with a bottle of wine in their carry-on. And with just the slightest hiss of escaping gas, the 2001 Old Stock came open—a creamy, thick, velvety beer of time-reduced carbonation but still delicious and alive. “Is there a point where this beer peaks?” I asked. “We haven’t seen it yet,” Ruedrich said of the Old Stock, which was first released in 2000. Want to have your own private vertical tasting of Old Stock Ale? Aged cases of this remarkable beer will soon be for sale, Ruedrich promises. Watch the North Coast Brewing Company’s website.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville. It doesn’t take a master’s in chemistry to taste and ponder beer—but at Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s tasting room, in Boonville at the junction of highways 128 and 253, it helps a person to know a bit of the local dialect called Boontling. A local tongue mostly forgotten, Boontling is more like a form of slang than a language and supposedly was born in the hop fields among women and children workers seeking to entertain themselves with a quirky set of alternative vocabulary. Today, a few old-timers in this quiet wine- and apple-growing region supposedly can still break into fluent Boontling. Listen closely on your next visit and you might hear someone say “Bahl hornin’,” which means “Good drinkin’” or ”Cheers!” And wine in Boontling is “seep,” bear is “leeber,” coffee is “zeese,” payphone is “bucky walter” and beer is “steinber.” To crowd your way in to a tight space is to “ab”—possibly a reference to the tide pool crevices out at the coast jam-packed with abalone. But to be realistic, Boontling is not likely to be heard anywhere outside of the brewery’s tasting room, where the chalkboard menu is scrawled with the bizarre lettering of beers named in Boontling. Examples include the Hop Ottin’ IPA, the Poleeko Pale Ale and the Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout —that one named after the Boontling name for Hendy Woods, the local state redwood park (with a nice $5 campsite for cyclists). The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and until 7 on Fridays, and offers a delicious selection of beers unavailable by the bottle. The sour stout and the bourbon-barrel aged stout, for example, are each creative renditions of the oatmeal stout—and of which two five-ounce taster glasses gave me the fuel and courage to leave the valley via the rigorous and uphill Highway 253.
Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma. Lagunitas is the brewery that fights for its right to party. Federal regulators have multiple times figuratively frisked this charismatic and often irreverent beer company just north of San Francisco for various suspected infractions, and for use of questionable language on bottle labels. Today, several beers in the brewery’s lineup are references to such incidents. The Censored Rich Copper Ale, for instance, was first introduced in 2002 under a slightly edgy title that was rejected by federal product labeling authorities. So the brewery’s owner, Tony Magee, simply slapped the word “censored” over the original bottle label and resubmitted it. The label was approved. And another high-alcohol, malty brown ale was brewed after a 2005 incident in which false accusations of illegal activity in the brewery led law enforcement officials in disguise to crash an after-hours employee party. “We felt pretty insulted for that, like we had been sucker-punched in the jaw,” Tony Magee explained to me recently. And so he and his brewers released a bitter and aggressive beer to commemorate the occasion, and they named it Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, with the shrugging subtitle of “Whatever. We’re still here.” And where is “here,” you may ask, if you’re hoping for a draft pour of these and other brawny Lagunitas ales—like the Brown Shugga’, the Cappuccino Stout and the Hairy Eyeball? As posted on the sign in front of the brewery, Lagunitas Brewing Company can be found at “1280 N. McDowell Boulevard Petaluma, Calif. USofA, Earth, Sol, Local Group, Virgo Super Cluster, Space.”
More North Coast Breweries Worth a Pint:
And this just in from the White House: President Obama, with the assistance of local homebrewing experts, has made a beer. The White House Honey Brown Ale is believed to be the first beer brewed on the presidential property, though George Washington reportedly dabbled in off-site distilling, and Thomas Jefferson made wine. After Obama and his colleagues drank the Honey Brown, they were inspired enough to plod onward into the homebrewing frontier, where—like America in some ways—anything is possible. And so they brewed a Honey Porter and a Honey Blonde (which sounds kind of boring to me, but at least we taxpayers didn’t cough up for it; Obama did, from his own pocket). The honey, according to the White House’s website, comes from an on-premises beehive. And while Obama may have pitched the beer yeast, I will venture to guess he left the beehive raid to an expert.
August 29, 2012
Between Portland and San Francisco lie thousands of miles of zigzagging routes across a complete spectrum of landscapes. To get home to San Francisco, I considered traveling east and south over the high desert and scrub country of Oregon’s Deschutes, Lake and Harney counties and from there into California’s volcanic northeast. I also gave thought to weaving my way south through the Cascades. Another option was to travel the length of the Willamette Valley, home to much of Oregon’s wine country, then over the high plains around Ashland and Weed and south further, past Mount Shasta, and into the Sacramento Valley. But I succumbed to the allure of the obvious: the coastal Highway 101 route, through rainforest and redwoods, and as beautiful as it is popular. I camped a night at Willamette Mission State Park for the standard $5 bicycle fee, had a quick peek at the college town of Corvallis, pedaled over the coastal mountain range via Highway 20, slept in the Eddyville pasture of a Baptist family who sent me off with a prayer in the morning, and then hit the famous coast where the ride began. Here are the highlights—good, bad and ugly.
Newport. John Maier rides his bicycle across the Yaquina Bay Bridge almost every morning. Some days he turns right at the south end to hunt porcini mushrooms among the pine trees on the sand dunes. At least once, he rode all the way to the California border during the annual Amgen People’s Coast Classic, a charity ride against arthritis. But most days, Maier turns left and rolls down into the parking lot of Rogue Ales‘ headquarters, where he has been brewing the well-known beers since 1989. Rogue is a pillar of the community in Newport—possibly the finest, coolest community on the Oregon coast. Rogue has a brewpub on the north side of the bay, on the thriving, colorful wharf, while the main brewery and a distillery operate in South Beach. Every local is familiar with the brewery, and Rogue’s presence seems as deep and permanent as the salty wind that sweeps in off the Pacific. Last year, when a local surfer named Bobby Gumm was attacked by a great white shark just outside the harbor, it was Rogue that stepped forward and replaced the uninjured man’s board, from which the shark had taken a trophy-sized bite. Other locals know the brewery simply for its beer, which can be as quirky and eccentric as the funky, artsy, salty town itself. Maier makes a regular beer brewed with chipotle peppers and recently produced a batch infused with bacon. A beer tried once but abandoned was made with garlic, and another one-off was a cilantro ale. Visitors to Newport can’t—and shouldn’t—miss this brewery, whose warehouse stature and giant beer silos are easily seen from the bridge as one travels south. Staple beers are the Dead Guy Ale, the Old Crustacean Barleywine, the Shakespeare Stout and an ever-evolving line of IPAs made with unusual hop varieties. As Maier said to me during a quick pint together at the South Beach pub, “Label something an IPA, and people will buy it.” So prove him wrong and order the Double Chocolate Stout.
Coos Bay and North Bend. Coos Bay greets a southbound touring cyclist with a rude sneer: the Conde B. McCullough Bridge. Narrow, long, gusty and busy with lumber trucks and autos, the bridge should be crossed on the sidewalk unless you don’t care to live to see the town, which would be understandable. Coos Bay has a reputation as an indifferent old mill town, rough and salty, with a calloused, blue-collar populace marginally interested in welcoming tourists. And it isn’t hip, cool or edgy like Newport. But accept the steely gray of the bay-side machinery and paper mill, and look a bit further, you’ll find some charm. Just after the bridge, a right turn lands you in a picnic park and playground, complete with all the basics of a much-needed rest stop, like soft green grass, tall trees for shade, pullup bars and barbecue grills. Further into town, along Broadway Avenue, are a movie theater, antique shops, a yarn store for locals to knit their fishing beanies and winter mittens, coffee shops, a sushi restaurant, a fantastic, shadowy, dust-layered wine cellar and a grim-looking gun store. But best of all is the Coos Head Food Co-Op on the west side of the street, an essential stopoff point for southbound cyclists running low on rations of nutritional yeast, $3 avocados and wheat germ. Indeed, I will grant that Coos Bay was good to me; its quaint Americana charm feels poignantly delightful, like a gritty scene from American Graffiti. But it grew old after a few blocks, and by the time I reached end of the main strip, I only wanted out of this town. Perfect, because by then Coos Bay was behind me as I rode the never-ending, screaming tailwind south.
Gold Beach. “Welcome to Gold Beach,” reads the sign as one crosses the bridge over the Rogue River and enters this thriving little hub of resorts and outdoors gear shops. But Gold Beach is the town that the Kim family of San Francisco never reached on November 25, 2006, when they started on a midnight drive west across the coastal mountains from Grants Pass and got snowbound in the high country of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. James Kim, 35, made a heroic attempt to seek help for his family and walked for days downstream, though he didn’t get far. After his wife and two daughters were rescued, Kim’s body was eventually found just a mile as the crow flies from the car. He was also only a mile from the Black Bar Lodge, which was closed at the time but full of food and supplies. I considered pedaling up the small highway that leads into the rugged terrain that Kim attempted to traverse in the dead of winter, on foot, but I thought better of the plan after speaking with a local man outside a grocery store. He said, ”Bring plenty of water and food. But if you want a real adventure, it’s a great area to go.” The wind was howling southward, and the path of least resistance was, well, irresistible; I flew south 25 miles with almost no effort, arriving at Harris Beach State Park campground after dark.
It was at this campsite, just north of Brookings, that I met, among a dozen other cycle tourists, a lanky vegetarian hippie named Tim with dreadlocks down to his waist and riding a rusty single-speed bike with two purse-sized saddlebags on the rear. He told me his next immediate destination was Ashland, Oregon—an uphill, inland ride of more than 100 miles from Crescent City on Highway 199. Tim explained that Ashland, a known hippie hotspot and counterculture destination, is home to one of the most abundant, glorious natural foods grocery stores in the West. I was tempted and even went away to study my map before I came to my senses: I reasoned that granola, coconut oil soaps and bulk bins of sprouted grains could be found almost anywhere; 300-foot-tall redwoods cannot. I continued south, along the California North Coast. Stay tuned for more.
Other Oregon Coast highlights: Oceana Natural Foods Cooperative in Newport; Bike Newport Oregon in Newport, a shop that caters to cycle tourists with a lounge, sofas, showers, Internet access and a foosball table; Bullards Beach State Park campground, where mushroom hunting is legal in season; Mother’s Natural Grocery in Bandon by the Se; Oregon Wine Cellars Etc in Coos Bay; entertaining anti-Obama political banners posted along the road; Wednesday and Saturday farmers market in Brookings; migrating whales visible from shore for those who take the time to stop; bottomless bounties of enormous roadside blackberries; a northwind that virtually never stops (read as, ”Don’t try pedaling San Diego to Seattle”).
August 14, 2012
A real-life drama, tragically similar to the story line of the 1974 film Jaws and replete with sharks, a reluctant town mayor and hired fishermen, has erupted on a small island in the Indian Ocean.
Here, on the usually idyllic community of the French-owned Reunion Island, a 22-year-old surfer named Alexandre Rassica died after a shark bit his leg off in late July. Thierry Robert, mayor of the small Reunion beach town of St. Leu, answered by proposing that local fishermen cull the island’s shark population in spite of protections imposed in 2007, when area coral reefs were made part of a marine reserve. An immediate global outcry from shark advocates sent the mayor backpedaling, however, and he withdrew his proposal. The sharks remained protected, and begrudged surfers kept surfing.
Then, days later, another man was attacked—a 40-year-old who survived but lost a hand and a foot. About 300 outraged surfers gathered outside the St. Leu town hall, demanding an organized hunt. Two fatal shark attacks in 2011 along the island’s beaches already had the local wave-riders on edge, and this time Robert said he would open up the marine protected area to shark fishing.
Now, as Discovery Channel’s annual TV series “Shark Week” takes to the tube amid all the usual viewer excitement over the world’s most feared and fascinating predators, the hunt is officially on at Reunion Island. Hired fishermen, reportedly to be paid by the French government, have been charged with the task of removing 20 sharks from the island’s waters—10 bull sharks and 10 tiger sharks, each species being a known culprit in numerous attacks. Yes: it’s a bounty, that wayward feature of 19th-century wildlife management that many of us supposed had been done away with decades ago. And while the island’s people are understandably upset by the string of attacks, it’s fair to ask: Is imposing a shark bounty the appropriate course of action?
After my last shark post, in which I wrote about the Western Australian government’s proposal to lift protections on great white sharks after a fifth swimmer was attacked and killed in less than a year, numerous comments came in, with most readers lambasting the suggestion of intentionally reducing shark numbers in Western Australia. Several people, though, voiced support for thinning the population of great whites, and one reader even alleged that pro-shark advocates might sing in a different key if they ever spent time in the water. That was an erroneous blast of hot air, for many or most shark advocates do go into the water. They include surfers, kayakers and divers—and I’m among them. I spend many days each year snorkeling in great white shark habitat off the beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m aware of the small risk of a shark attack and even wear a Shark Shield in the hope of reducing the danger—but I wouldn’t wish to see white shark fishing, illegal since 1994, resume even though it might lower the risk of an attack.
When we walk into a coconut grove, we risk getting bonked fatally on the head. When we cross the street, we risk getting squashed by a car. And when we go surfing, swimming or diving in the ocean, we run the risk of encountering a shark. And so it seems fair that as long as we plant coconut trees and manufacture vehicles, we must refrain from organized shark hunts.
But as we speak, organized, get-paid-to-kill shark hunting is already underway—and even generating praise from the press. A young sport fisherman in Pensacola, Florida, recently won the annual Outcast Mega Shark Tournament on August 4 by reeling in a half-ton tiger shark, which one of the angler’s companions shot in the head with a pistol after a three-hour battle on rod and reel. Tiger sharks are protected in Florida state waters, but the angler, 21-year-old Tyler Kennedy, and the boat’s crew were in federal waters when they hooked the fish. After securing the big dead fish to the boat, they towed it back to port, where the official scale of the fishing derby rang in the tiger shark at 948.6 pounds. The group posed for numerous photos with the bloody, tail-tied shark, its belly distended with what would turn out later to be a seven-foot-long porpoise.
Vividly illustrating the bizarre cultural contradiction between advocating to protect sharks while simultaneously practicing the sport of killing them, Kennedy, who would catch a 336-pound bull shark the next day, told the media he was pleased that the shark’s bulging belly was not laden with unborn pups.
“We were worried that it was going to be pregnant because we really don’t want to kill a bunch of baby sharks,” he told the press.
The young Kennedy’s words were heartening, but confusing. Because which is it? Do we want sharks dead? Or alive? Around the world, these animals command a strange sort of fascination in their human admirers—an urge to see, learn and encounter, but also to kill. While “Shark Week” plays on the Discovery Channel, we’re killing the animals. Shark butchery continues in spite of laws that prohibit cutting off the the fins of live sharks—and some authorities have even shown reluctance to support shark protection laws. Estimates vary, but it seems humans kill between 26 million and 73 million sharks per year for their fins, a prized and essential component in the controversial Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Other mortality totals are not even accounted for. Even some research institutes that advocate shark conservation seem reluctant to criticize shark derbies, which provide them with specimens for dissection. To be fair, shark derbies kill a small percentage of total sharks killed each year—but the public celebration and cheer that derby fishermen receive are troubling. The Outcast Mega Shark Tournament is hardly the only active derby. The Monster Shark Derby is held every summer in Martha’s Vineyard, where crowds of summering tourists cheer and applaud anglers as they haul their dead mako, thresher, porbeagle and tiger sharks from their boats for weigh-in. The Yarmouth Shark Scramble in Nova Scotia, Canada, is still one more, a derby spotlighted in journalist Carla Allen’s new book, Shark On Line. The Food Network’s “The Wild Chef” even sent their hosts out fishing several years ago on a boat at the Yarmouth derby to kill a shark, for the paltry thrill of cooking it at sea. That these derbies and others still take place is a discouraging thorn in the side of conservationists, and a reminder that the lust that has driven humans to wage war on so many cohabitants of the planet still boils in our blood. Opposition to shark derbies is loud (this Facebook page is dedicated wholly to stopping shark-killing tournaments). Yet enough media sources cover the events that it seems clear they’re pandering to some segment of their readership enthralled at seeing sharks die.
In related news, the aforementioned Shark Shield—an electronic device that costs a pretty penny (about $600)—may not be the shark deterrent we would like it to be. Tests by researchers in South Australia found no difference in the frequency with which great whites attacked tuna carcasses fitted with the device and those served au naturel. But a similar series of tests conducted in South Africa produced conclusions well in favor of the Shark Shield’s purported effectiveness.
In less related news, juvenile salmon sharks, possibly affected by a bacteria, have been washing ashore on Northern California beaches. The salmon shark is a close relative of the great white and the mako. They can grow to hundreds of pounds in weight and bear a formidable armory of teeth but are not known to attack humans. When the first beaching incident of this summer occurred on August 5 at Manresa State Beach, several beachcombers found the stranded juvenile and carried it back to the water. Later the same day, another juvenile appeared thrashing on a beach in Pacifica—and do you know who came to the rescue and delivered the pup back to water? Surfers.
August 10, 2012
Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.
No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.
Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.
Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.
Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.
Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”
Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.
Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.
Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.
Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.
Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.
Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.
Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?
August 7, 2012
No lake is more lake than Lake Baikal. Set deep within the Russian subcontinent, Baikal is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous of all lakes, a superstar of superlatives in hydrology, geology, ecology and history. The lake is more than 5,300 feet deep (exact figures vary) at its most profound point, which lies about 4,000 feet below sea level. With 12,248 square miles of surface area, Baikal averages 2,442 feet deep—its crescent moon-shaped figure a vast rift valley that first appeared about 25 million years ago through the divergence of the planet’s crust. Today, Lake Baikal contains some 20 percent of the earth’s lake and river water, making this Russian giant comparable in volume to the entire Amazon basin. So huge is Baikal that it reportedly takes an average of 330 years for a single water molecule to flow through it, from inlet to outlet. Lake Baikal features 27 islands, including one 45 miles in length called Olkhon, while in and around Baikal live more than 1,500 animal species, about 80 percent of which live nowhere else on the planet.
The most famous of these animals may be the nerpa, the only exclusively freshwater seal on the planet. The nerpa numbers an estimated 100,000—a comfortable and well-adapted population of animals whose presence in interior Russia has stumped evolutionary biologists, who aren’t certain when or just how the animals came to be so far from the open ocean. Guided tourist outfits can provide visitors with views of the animals, though the seals are generally skittish around people, who have long hunted them for pelts, fat and flesh. Brown bears and wolves dwell near the lake, too, occupying the top tiers of the Siberian food chain, as do a variety of deer, birds, rodents and smaller predators.
The first European to visit Lake Baikal may have been Russian Kurbat Ivanov, in 1643, though local lore claims that Jesus took a short walk to Lake Baikal and back during his days of desert wandering. Today, a wilderness of forest, plains and semidesert surrounds Baikal in the grand landscape of Siberia, though development along the shores of the lake occurred last century with the building of several urban and resort communities. Ugliest, perhaps, among the defilements of Baikal’s coastline is a paper mill that discharged pollutants into Baikal for years before being closed in 2008 on grounds of ecological protection. But the mill reopened in 2010, supposedly using cleaner and safer practices than previously. Meanwhile, local conservationists have other causes of concern. They have, for example, resisted plans to build a uranium plant in the nearby city of Angarsk. And they raised a stink when a petroleum development company called Transneft nearly built an oil pipeline that would have passed within 3,000 feet of Lake Baikal, threatening its waters with leaks and spills. The planned pipeline route was eventually changed. Tourism development is a minor itch in comparison, though it may produce eyesores like the hotels and vacation communities of Listvyanka, a popular winter and summer tourist town.
If you visit Lake Baikal, remember that winters here are frigid and icebound, with continental cold snaps bringing temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and producing a layer of surface ice as thick as two meters. Summertime is friendlier, offering long, long days and superb opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and fishing. Along the lake’s northern shore, the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track leads 65 miles through the wilderness. How to reach Lake Baikal? Try the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
Other Weird Waters
Dead Sea. Almost nine times as salty as the ocean, with a salinity level of about 30 parts per hundred, the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—is inhospitable to nearly all living things, but it’s a blast to bathe in. The water’s salt-boosted density is so great that people endowed with a generous layer of body fat can hardly swim and may merely flail over the surface as if they were crawling across a sandy dune. Better not to try and, instead, just turn over on your back and enjoy the bizarre wonder of a lake in which it may be almost impossible to drown. The Dead Sea’s surface lies 1,378 feet below sea level, and it is 1,083 feet deep. This just in: Life-forms have been found associated with freshwater springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Time for a name change?
Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level in a high valley in the Andes Mountains, the giant Lake Titicaca is the loftiest lake commercially navigable by large boats and contains more water than any other lake in South America. Its two main ports are Puno, Peru—a beautiful old town steeped in Incan history—and Challapampa, Bolivia. Isla del Sol is an island on Titicaca’s Bolivian side. Strewn with ruins but without a single paved road, this large island is an adventurer’s playground. Get yourself a fishing rod and a canoe, and go.
Melissani Cave Lake. Locals allegedly knew about the Melissani Cave Lake in Greece all along, but if they did, the world never heard about it until 1953, when an earthquake caused a collapse of rock, exposed the crystal-clear lake and brought sunlight and color to its waters for the first time. The lake has since gained fame—and it happens to be located on the island that Homer named as the home country of Odysseus.
Wuhua Hai Lake. Widely lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth, Wuhua Hai is located in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. The waters are emerald blue and clear as air, and over the shallow lake bed lie scores of sunken logs visible from above the surface. Forested mountain slopes rise from the lake’s shore, and wild pandas dwell in the woods.
Plitvice Lakes. A chain of 16 lakes connected by streams, caves and waterfalls, the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia gleam in a spectrum of blue to azure colors and demonstrate beautifully what water, nature’s finest sculptor, may make of a soft basin of limestone. The dense green woods surrounding the lakes are home to bears, wolves, eagles and numerous other creatures protected in this national park and Unesco World Heritage site.
Aral Sea. A reminder of the devastating effects of agriculture gone haywire, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has just about dried up since 1960. The two rivers that fed this once-giant inland sea (330 rivers feed Baikal, for comparison) no longer get there, diverted to fields instead. And while the Aral’s blue ovoid shape still appears on most world maps, cartographers must surely soon realize that the sea, once one of the largest and most productive inland waterways and fisheries, has all but dried up, sacrificed over a mere 50 years for the sake of local cotton and rice.
Salton Sea. This lake in southern California’s Imperial Valley is another testament to sloppily conducted water projects—but unlike the diminishing Aral, the Salton Sea was born in the wake of a breach in a diversion canal in 1905. For years the Salton Sea was a productive fishery, but today its increasingly saline waters are so polluted that huge fish die-offs keep the shores littered with decay and rot, and fishermen are advised not to eat the corvina and tilapia they catch.
Lake Karachay. Don’t visit this lake—ever. Just read: Set in the Ural Mountains of western Russia, Karachay has been called the most polluted place on the planet, teeming with radioactive waste and particulates that you want nothing to do with. What a wonder that before the age of modern progress, one could drink from this poisonous cesspool.
So, which ones did we miss? Tell us about more watery wonders in the comment box below.