Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Menfi, an engaging Sicilian town located southwest of Palermo and northwest of Agrigento, is known for its ceramics, the oil made from Nocellara olives and its viniculture. Only a few miles from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, Menfi also carries the allure of the local food that combines traditional products with a simple yet delicious art of cooking.

Hungry for those Sicilian specialties? Here are six reasons Menfi stands apart from its neighboring towns.

1. Go spiny

My driver, Nino, passionately recounted details about the carciofo spinoso (or spiny artichoke), whose exterior bracts have a base color green with shades of violet and large golden spines. The Slow Food movement has placed this special artichoke on the list products worthy of protection. These ‘chokes are greatly aromatic, crispy yet delicate and delicious eaten raw, grilled, canned or cooked-through as a caponata and paté. Considered a medicinal plant for centuries, rich in antioxidants, it boasts a high percentage of cynarin, a polyphenol able to promote liver function and to improve bile activity.

2. Street food 

It’s a Sicilian tradition. Nino directed me to Signor Pino, Menfi’s most respected street vendor, who usually parks his cooking trailer in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. At the top of the choices is the pane cà meusa, (spleen sandwich). It is a soft panino stuffed with small bits of previously boiled beef spleen, fried in a little bit of lard and served piping hot with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. “The darker the spleen, the better the taste,” said Pino (aka Mr. Panelle from the very popular panelle, a type of fritters made from chickpea flour). Spleen is rarely on the menu, and it tastes a little bit like liver or kidney. Its soft pulp crumbles in your mouth like a blood sausage. Most either love it or hate it. For the record, I so loved it that I had two.

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

3. Giovanni, the Last (or the best?) Fisherman 

Menfi inhabitants call him “Ultimo Pescatore.” Giovanni Tarantino fishes at night or in the early morning after studying the moon. “A weaker moon is better, sardines are scared of the light! I choose the beaches of Porto Palo or Selinunte, I drop the net and wait. To prepare them, I usually skewer and grill over coals with a pitch of oregano. Hey, I am about to make a pasta with sardines and wild fennel, would you like to have a try?”

You bet I did. Legendary Sicilian hospitality exemplified.

4. Low libido?

Sicilians are ready to share a tasty secret. Take a sea urchin without poking your fingers, cut it in two, squeeze a little lemon and indulge in this delicacy, considered an aphrodisiac since the days of the ancient Greeks.

In the vicinity of Menfi, the morning markets offer succulent sea urchins to be eaten raw on the site. I loved their creamy sweetness that I found more similar to mussels than oysters. In Menfi a restaurant called Vittorio’s uses only female urchins colored in purple, green and brown to make a great pasta sauce.

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Raw sea urchins. Credit: Cesare Zucca

5. Don’t call them pizza

I had my first encounter with a slice of sfincione accompanied by a glass of the well-balanced Chardonnay by Planeta. Sfincione comes from the Latin spongia, meaning sponge, exactly the way its dough should be: soft and spongy, then topped with an intense sauce made of tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese and olive oil. Delicious.

In the nearby city of Sciacca, I tasted the tabisca saccense, a special kind of “pizza” stretched to a 23-inch oval shape, topped with roasted tomatoes, grated pecorino cheese and lots of onions. Finale touch: one black olive in the middle.

6. Have a glass

Since 1995, Menfi has been host of Inycon, a three-day wine festival, the which is oldest in Sicily. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of excellent wines. Inycon offers a marathon of wine and food workshops. It features the cookingof Sicilian chefs, visits to wineries, walks through the vineyards, even great rides by horse or bycicles. The piazza hosts several wine tastings showcasing the production of local vineyards, including Planeta, Settesoli and Donnafugata. 

Evenings are magic. I loved the old courtyards in Vittoria Street, all decorated with lamps, candles and fabrics and surprisingly transformed from the neighbors into small restaurants, where often the chef is the real nonna (grandmother)living in the building. Everywhere is an array of food tasting, from the porchetta to pate’ tapas, from the sweet cake cassata siciliana (where else?) to seafood couscous. Great bread and local extra virgin olive oils will abound in their basic majesty.

These six good reasons should be added to the main one: The incomparable welcome that the inhabitants of Menfi will reserve to you making your visit preciously worth.

Main photo: Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

Summer may be on its way out, but autumn weather brings a new promise of leaves to be peeped, apples to be picked and trips to the country in cooler weather. Whether you take to the road in your car, on your bike or on a train, a well-stocked picnic basket or knapsack is an ideal complement to the day.

With less worry about the summer heat and insects ruining your moveable feast, the thought of a cool-weather picnic is made more appealing thanks to the wide variety of single-serve wines built for portability and proportioned serving.

Single-serve wines are not a new phenomenon, per se. Certainly, small bottles, as one might find in a hotel minibar or an airplane, have been around a long time, but those tend to be glass, making them less ideal for on-the-go enjoyment, and they also require bringing along stemware for imbibing.

Novel packaging part of the single-serve wine game

Newer versions of single-serve wines have come to market in a variety of clever forms, leveraging unbreakable packaging materials like plastic and tin in portion sizes of one or two drinks. Often, the uniqueness of the packaging can be the biggest draw, because, with a few exceptions, the wines are mainly serviceable rather than spectacular — and at a price many will find too high given that, as with most mini or single-serve food and drink items, the cost per glass often outstrips the cost of an entire bottle.

Yet among these offerings there are those that don’t sacrifice taste or quality regardless of the sexy packaging. The versions detailed below represent a variety to choose from, many of them quite good of their own accord.

But first, a tip for buying and storing single serve wines: Non-glass packaging is not conducive to long storage times, as with traditional glass bottles. Tin and plastic can alter the taste of the wines if held long enough, particularly in fluctuating temperatures.

If you prefer to go with a total bottle experience, a variety of portable wine stoppers, such as the multicolored Rabbit Flipper/Pourer, are inexpensive enough to have on hand to re-cork that better bottle. And when you’re done, handy Wine Wipes purport to ensure your pearly whites stay that way, even after a couple of glasses of red (about $8 for a pack of 12).

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Bottles of FlyWine. Credit: FlyWine

Sofia Blanc de Blanc Mini: Dry but slightly sweet with good effervescence, each wee scarlet can comes complete with its own matching straw. While convenient to consume like a grown-up soda, the taste is better when decanted into a champagne flute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces. $18 to $20 per four-pack of single-serve cans).

Baby Voga Italia Sparkling: The chic bottle may call to mind a fancy hand-soap dispenser or bottle of perfume, but the single-serve sparkling wine has a solid, respectable flavor. Great to have on hand for those special occasions that may call for a toast but just a sip will do. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $6 to $7)

FlyWine: This line of Sonoma Valley, California, reds and whites under the monikers “The Kitchen Sink” “Fly Your Way” and “The Party Starter” respectively are packaged in glass bottles with a TSA-approved volume of liquid so that it can be purchased for in-flight travel. The wines are solid table wines without fanfare and though pricier than most in-flight options, they’re tastier too. (100ml, 3.3 ounces, $10 to $13)

Stack: So named because its Reidl-esque plastic glasses stack on top of one another, these wines come in Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet and Merlot. The white wines were quite sharp with the taste of alcohol, but the reds were somewhat better. While the glasses are adorable, the foil seal is very close to the top of the liquid so even when removed, there is little chance for the wine to breathe. It’s also a bit difficult to drink toward the bottom of the glass because of the narrowness of the mouth. There are better options at the price point, but those little glasses are cute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $15 per four-pack)

Steelhead Vineyards Wine for One: Available in Merlot and Chardonnay, Steelhead’s single-serve offering is easily the most elegant self-contained wine. The plastic wine glass fits over the plastic bottle, forming a seal that is twisted off, and then the glass is ready to use. Like other offerings, the wines are solid and not harsh — good enough for simple picnic or barbecue fare. (12 pack, 187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $49)

Union Wine Co. Underwood: Equal to two glasses, this slick canned wine is a delightful surprise. Easy to transport and easy to enjoy, this wine is not bubbly but simple, still wine. It must be said that the taste of the can is subtly present in the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and while the can is pretty cool, the price might be too much to pay for novelty when for not too much more you can get a pretty good bottle of wine packaged the old-fashioned way. (375ml, 12.6 ounces, 2 servings, $6)

Vini: Cleverly packaged as giant vials bundled together in packs of four to equal one bottle, Vini comes in red and white blended table wine. Single varietals are in the works. As with Fly Wine, this product benefits from being packaged in glass, which doesn’t compromise the wine taste. Certainly drinkable, the real appeal of this product is in the tactile nature of the container, which fits pleasantly in the hand. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $9 to $10 per vial)

Zipz: Shaped like a traditional stemmed wine glass, these plastic goblets are available in vintage year Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. The packs can be purchased as single varietals or mixed. Overall the wines were a bit harsh and did not hold up as well as the other single-serve options, but they were the most useful to transport and easy to drink. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $40 per 12 pack)

Main photo: Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

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Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

When people talk about eating local food, the first thing that comes to mind is often produce-related — shopping for fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or joining a community-supported agriculture group, or CSA. While those actions do help support a local food economy, an event I recently attended made me realize how much broader the idea of being a “locavore” has become.

“Let Us Eat Local” is an annual benefit for Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on making good-quality food accessible across the city by promoting community gardens, CSAs, urban farms and the like. Its tasting event brings together chefs, bartenders, farmers, fish and meat purveyors, beverage producers and representatives of other New York-area culinary businesses to showcase the region’s bounty.

Local food not just about fruits and vegetables

Although I’ve attended this fundraiser before, I was struck by the sophistication and “big-tent” feel of this year’s iteration. Not surprisingly, the event included some of the city’s stalwart veggie-focused and vegan eateries, but their tables were just a stone’s throw from those of Jimmy’s No. 43, known especially for its meat and beer offerings, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose founding chef, David Chang, famously delivered the line “Let’s put pork in every f****** dish” when he appeared as himself on the HBO show “Treme.”

There were also farm-to-table brunch spots and an Italian perennial, but the remainder of the restaurant lineup was filled with some of the heaviest hitters on New York’s fine-dining scene — tony Michelin-star recipients and Zagat-list toppers such as Blue Hill, Esca, Gramercy Tavern, Perry St and Riverpark. The sheer preponderance of these types of places made it clear that local food is no longer the sole domain of the ascetic or preachy.

Some of the most intriguing participants were the artisanal craftspeople whose wares defy the pious crunchy-granola expectations that (often unfairly) get pinned on anything relating to sustainability. It’s nice to see the movement become established enough to let down its hair and have some fun. Here are three examples of products that break the mold:

Mixing it up

The next time you sit down to a meal of organic local produce, cheese and poultry, consider pairing it with a glass of soda. Wait, what? At first glance, soda might seem like a strange bedfellow, but when you taste the syrups produced by Anton Nocito’s P&H Soda Co., the combination makes perfect sense. Eschewing extracts, Nocito creates his blends in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn using only sustainably sourced whole ingredients. In addition to six year-round varieties — cream, ginger, grapefruit, hibiscus, lovage and sarsaparilla — he experiments with flavors such as the tart, aromatic lemon verbena he served at the event.

The P&H Sodo Co.'s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

The P&H Sodo Co.’s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

Available at retail locations and via the company’s website, P&H’s complex concentrates can be mixed with seltzer to your desired level of sweetness, but they’re also terrific in cocktails, which is how they’re being used at some of New York’s hottest bars and restaurants. Looking to put a spin on the classic margarita? Nocito recommends adding a little of his hibiscus syrup, which is made from a blend of dried hibiscus leaves, organic ginger and cane sugar.

Worth her salt

If you’re making the hibiscus margarita with P&H syrup, you might want to rim the glass with New York sea salt, produced on a rooftop high above Manhattan. Although Urban Sproule did not have its own table at this year’s event, Sarah Sproule’s company was represented in the evening’s gift bags, which included small tins of her “Virgin” salt. (She also produces several infused varieties, such as celery and grilled ramp.)

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

The idea for the venture came to the young chef when she was doing weekly cooking demonstrations at the Union Square Greenmarket. As she prepared dishes using market ingredients, she dreamed of topping them with her own locally made seasonings. The seawater she uses is gathered 30 miles east of Montauk, Long Island, by two area fishermen and transported to a building in Chelsea, where it is brought up to the roof (16 floors by service elevator, plus two flights by stairs) and placed into an evaporation house. Once the crystals form, the salt is harvested by hand and baked by the sun before being infused or packaged in its pure form.

Your pick of pickles

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

One of the veterans of New York City’s resurgent artisanal food movement, Rick’s Picks has been brining local produce for the past decade. Based on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood filled with pushcart pickle vendors a century ago, founder Rick Field has helped transform the image of this ultra-traditional food-preservation technique. His product line — which includes “Phat Beets,” “Hotties” (Sriracha pickle chips), “Smokra” (pickled okra) and “Pepi Pep Peps” (pickled red bell peppers) — is clearly marketed to appeal to those who would breeze right past the supermarket Vlasics and B&Gs. These are not your Nana’s gherkins.

While you could certainly go the conventional route and top your next burger with the company’s gently sweet “Bee ‘n’ Beez” (bread-and-butter pickles), the promotional postcard handed out at the event also featured this recipe for Pickletinis.

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Ginger Apple Honey Pie from Bubby’s Restaurant. Credit: Sofia Perez

Pickletinis

Recipe courtesy of Rick’s Picks

Yield: Makes 1 drink.

Ingredients

2½ ounces gin

½ ounces dry vermouth

½ ounces Rick’s Picks Classic Sours brine

1 Classic Sours spear

Fresh dill, for rimming the martini glass

Directions

Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice cubes. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the Classic Sours spear. Rim the glass with fresh dill.

Main photo: Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

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Foragers' feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips and wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

When I first met Pascal Baudar he was driving a stripped-down red Jeep Wrangler with a bad muffler. Not exactly your typical image of a professional forager tiptoeing his way into the wild.

We were heading north toward the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles with a shopping list of stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, elderberry, rabbit tobacco, white clover and small ants. Try finding those items at your local Trader Joe’s.

Pascal is a certified master food preserver with a passion for the flavors of California. He’s the real deal and the culinary community in Los Angeles knows it. Chef’s eager to create uncommon and flavorful gourmet dishes rely on Pascal’s local food sources and his ability to provide unique ingredients with rousing flavors.

His partner, gourmet chef Mia Wasilevich, shares his passion for a cooking lifestyle based on self-reliance and sustainability. Together these soul mates created the Wild Food Lab Dinner Party series — the perfect opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration. The items on our shopping list were the last bits and pieces Mia needed for their next big wild-food dinner party at the historic Zane Grey Estate in Altadena. What could be more intimate or more Californian?

Thirty people were about to share a 10-course wild food dinner hosted by Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel, founders of Mariposa Creamery. The evening began at 6 with mountain vinegar shrub cocktails on the back porch. The kitchen was alive with action. Mia worked with a handpicked group of four chefs skilled at multi-tasking. Posted on the wall was a course timetable. Moving around each other like ninjas, they sliced the duck prosciutto, clay-baked the trout, prepared the quail, braised the goat and rolled fresh chevre.

Gloria kept a crew of six servers plating and waiting on guests. Steve, a restaurateur, directed a wine pairing that included Chardonnay from Slovenia, Chenin blanc from Loire Valley, Champagne Delamote Brut Blanc de Blanc, and a rare Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso from Italy.

Pascal served as the master of ceremonies. As he introduced the wild food elements in each course and fielded guests’ questions, his French accent lent a stylish tone to his foraging expertise. With the approach of the final course — elderberry frozen custard with candied buckwheat flowers and coconut milk flan — the guests grew louder. A hearty round of applause arose for Mia and Pascal as the group toasted the flavors of California.

Main photo: Foragers’ feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips, wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

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Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec

Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.

The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.

I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.

In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.

I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.

Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.

The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.

Huckleberry bushes. Credit:  Erica Marciniec

Huckleberry bushes. Credit: Erica Marciniec

For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.

It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.

If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.

The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.

Huckleberry Shrub

There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.

Preparation time: 2 hours

Ingredients

1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)

3 parts sugar

1 part water

Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup

Directions

1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.

2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.

3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.

4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.

Huckleberry Cream Scones

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream

1 egg, beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup huckleberries, frozen

1 tablespoon coarse sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.

2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.

3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.

5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.

6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.

Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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