(in which I get woo-woo, and eat a lot of potatoes)
As I type this, the afternoon winter sunlight is streaming in through the front windows. Cat is, of course, asleep in a patch of it. I sit with one hand clasped around a mug of chai-spiced and chaga-infused lapsang souchang tea, its spicy warmth diffusing through both hands and stomach to the rest of my cold body. We’ve been back a week, I’ve sorted through photos, processed the seaweeds, the redwood branches and the wood sorrel, finished laundry, put it all away, and only now am I here to tell you this: if you’re ever in California, rent a car and drive to Big Sur and sleep in your car if you have to but go. That’s it: my edict for February.
We jumped in an icy cold river. You would have too, if you’d just been on a 5 hour drive and got to your cabin and realised that the river down below was Icelandic blue and had a sandy bottom. You would have too had you been giddy on the quiet, and the woods and the smells and the sounds. I managed five seconds; Jam slightly longer. It was cold.
Walking on beaches at sunset, scrambling over sharp rocks to get out to the edges, where the sirens dwell, where the magic lies. And sea spray, and cold winds, and orange light and mist amongst the redwoods at dawn. And wandering around, coffee in hand, Victorian nightie and elf cape on, watching the light change, watching the violets and wood sorrel and the falcon swoop from tree to tree (obviously confused by this addition to its habitat so early in the morning).
A blur of a couple of weeks. And at the end of it, some redwood, hand-gathered seaweed, cold toes.
Since getting back, we’ve eaten oven roasted duck fat fries exactly six times. Apart from the fact that they’re the best ‘fries’ we’ve ever had, I have another reason: smothered in my locally wildcrafted herb blend, I feel like its helping me to return my gaze to where I am. Its really easy (especially for me: eternal road-traveller) to fall in love with places– places that have everything you could possibly want: stormy seas? Big old trees? Carpets of violets and wood sorrel? Dramatic landscapes that remind you you’re miniscule? Craggy rocks and mountains and mists?. Harder to return to a smoggy city. Harder to return to every day life of doing laundry and paying bills and navigating the meanest drivers in the world.
When its your job to remind people of the earth under their feet, it doesn’t do to be simultaneously wishing one were elsewhere. For that matter, it doesn’t do any of us any good at all to wish we were anywhere (or anyone) other than where (or who) we are for the perfectly good reason that its just pouring energy into something that doesn’t exist. (Disclaimer: this is my metaphysical woo-woo for the week) I feel like, in a way, the things we ingest become a part of us and we them. If we ingest apples from Chile then we have bits of Chile in us, and if we ingest bits of where we live then we have where we live in us. I think it helps, in our ungrounded, on the go, too busy to stop, gotta have it now world. That being rooted where we are does something intangible to the spirit. I can’t tell you what it is, I can only tell you when I see it in people and how nice it feels to be around them. It was partly for this reason that I started using local herbs to flavour foods in the first place; we’re not devoid of interesting flavours here anyway. My favourite blend is California bay, white sage, black sage, wild rose, sumac, and then a pinch of bee balm which is in the garden (also known as Herbes De Californie, which will likely be ready to go on sale again in about a month). Sometimes I add California sagebrush if what I’m making can handle the bitter. Sometimes I add more of one, less of another, but that’s my general blend. Add that to the most grounding of things- the starchy root, yanked out of the dirty earth not far from where we live, and peeled and chopped within a couple of days, its a recipe for not just grounding, but grounding where you are. Which I think is an important distinction to make, especially when ones gaze is about a five hour drive north.
So it took a while. And a lot of potatoes and plant matter. But I’m back. And while it might not be the wildest, stormiest, sea-spray-est, most beautiful place in the entire world, its home. And that’s what matters the most.
An especially rooting local-herb-flavoured oven-roast-French fry recipe for anybody who needs to re-feel the ground under their feet.
1 large russet potato per person
1 tb herb blend (I encourage you to get outside and find a local blend that tastes good to you but in a pinch you can always use Herbes De Provence which is available at most grocery stores)
2 tb butter per potato
3 tb duck fat per potato (or olive oil)
salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 375.
Get a big pot of water going on the stove, and add a good amount of salt- about 1/4 cup per gallon.
Peel the potatoes, then chop them into thirds lengthwise (I’m assuming this is one of those gigantic russets- so you’re basically making three big flat bits). Then chop each of those big flat bits into 1/2-inch long pieces. If super long, cut them in half again. Once the water is at a rolling boil, pop in all the chopped potatoes and set a timer for 8 minutes. This part is important because there’s a delicate process here: the potatoes must cook to the point of being almost soft, but they must not break apart. So, when the 8 minute mark nears, start watching the water. If there are tiny bits of potato flying about in the boil, strain them immediately, if not then wait for that to happen; it should be around 8. Once strained, put them out on a baking sheet. Lay them out so that they have at least an inch in between all of them- this is for air circulation, so that they roast and don’t steam. Dollop the fats on top, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, and your herb blend. Remember they’ll be quite salty from the water already so it doesn’t need a lot. You might need more than one baking tray.
Place in the oven and leave them alone for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, check them; they should be starting to sizzle on the bottom. Flip them all over and put in for another 20. Check them again at this point- they should be golden brown all over. If so, they’re done. If not, keep checking back every 5 minutes until they’re perfect.