Tag Archives: cows

The balm of thistles and a mighty tree.

tarweed

“Mmm-mmm, star thistle and tarweed — the scents of fall!” That’s what my daughter Pippin said as we started out from the trailhead on our latest outing together. Every time I am outdoors with her I learn something new. I should say, I don’t remember being introduced to tarweed  before, and that feels as exciting as brand new.

Pippin and the Professor had come from their home in more northern California for the weekend. Saturday we hung around my neighborhood in the morning, and went afield in the afternoon.

Ivy adopted the doll Madeleine for the day and took her out to gather strawberry tree fruit. Scout dissected the ripest-looking dwarf pomegranate, and we decided it was almost sweet enough to be worth the bother. We walked along the creek path to the playground at the park, but probably the “playground” on the way was the most fun. In two places kids had hung rigging from big trees, from which you could swing out into the space where the ground fell away steeply toward the creek channel. Pippin was the only one with the strength and length to hoist herself up on to what seemed to be a launching platform. Jamie tried to be patient, but reminded us, “Let’s go, to the park!”

Our destination in the afternoon was a giant California bay laurel tree that may be the largest of its species. I had visited this particular tree at least twice before, but probably not since the 80’s.

Our short walk up the hill stretched out, as we stopped to observe lichens and poison oak, the tarweed and star thistle. Two of us had painful feet that slowed us down. We saw a wild buckwheat, Eriogonum, taller and bushier than the species we were familiar with. From my reading today I think it might be California Buckwheat. But as you can probably guess, the first photos below are of star thistle, a plant you never want to have to break a trail through.

Eventually we came out of the woods onto the grassy hilltop where lots of cows were grazing with their calves, and bellowing almost without stopping. There was The Tree on the horizon, and a smaller companion alongside.

Umbellularia californica is the only species in its genus, in Oregon known as the Oregon myrtle. It’s been called by several other names including pepperwood and balm of heaven. The flavor of its leaves is similar to the true bay leaves from Laurus nobilis, only stronger, and most of my life I’ve used leaves from the abundant local “bay” trees in cooking. For a long time I didn’t know they were not the real thing. The map shows its natural range.

Umbellularia californica range map.png

I hadn’t read that nickname “balm of heaven” before our outing, but standing under the massive canopy with thousands and thousands of leaves exuding their aromatic oil, I definitely felt the olfactory presence as a balm, its scent filling my nostrils as hugely as its image filled my vision.

The children right away began to climb, and to stake out their “houses” in the several neighborhoods that have been formed under branches as thick as big tree trunks, some of them weighing themselves down horizontal with the ground. The adults took pictures of the wide views of the landscape below. Pippin and I studied the tree’s flowers, trying to figure out where they are in their bloom cycle. If it hadn’t been late in the day it would have been the perfect place to have a picnic and linger a while.

In the last few years I’ve been buying the few bay leaves I need. But I brought home a handful of the mega-flavored, special California-and-Oregon pepperwood/balm of heaven leaves, and will simmer them in a winter soup. When I get a whiff of their essence in the steam that rises from my bowl, it will keep me connected to that magnificent tree until I can get back for a longer visit.

With the cows on a winter day.

A cup of tea with Farmer Betty, that was all that Pippin asked for. Instead, five of us drank cups of the freshest milk at the close of a dairy-rich afternoon.

Nearly twenty years ago (we all pinch ourselves here to be sure this is real) Pippin worked on this dairy for a summer, and the intimate and intense dailiness on her part joined with the great hearts of all three current generations of the farmers to create a bond with our whole family.

Betty gave us a very hands-on tour and let the children help bring the cows into the barn for milking, carry dry feed and milk to heifers and calves, pet the cows who were okay with that, and peer into the giant tank to watch milk come straight from the milking machines through a cooling device.

This farm is not too far from the ocean, and when rains are heavy the tides affect the creeks on the property. The pasture was flooded only a few days previous, so we definitely needed our mud boots. Everyone except me had rubber muck boots, but my solid Vasque hikers worked well, and were easily sprayed off before we entered the milking parlor. All the kids enjoyed testing the feel of their boots in the varying muckiness of the terrain.

I liked the cow dog Lady, who looked just like a pet we had when I was a teenager; she liked to snuggle up to me. We heard from the other family farmers that she is affectionate with them, but only responds to Farmer Betty’s commands as to herding the cows.

Unlike the milk that the calves drank from buckets and bottle, what we got in cups had already been brought to a cool temperature; it wouldn’t be further processed until it reached the creamery. I hadn’t drunk raw milk in many years and it tasted pure and wholesome. Betty asked the children if they could taste alfalfa, or clover maybe? Or floodwaters? 😉

These farmers can still remember the old days when the milk warm from the cows would flow over exposed metal pipes containing freon, for quick cooling. When everyone went to fully contained conduits for more sanitary transport, the taste of the milk changed because it was not ever allowed to “breathe.”

I was soaking up the whole delicious atmosphere of the place; it will likely be a long time before I experience a milking parlor, with its aromatic mix of disinfectant and sweet milk, or a pasture wet with spring grass and manure. The air was chill, and our feet numb in the wintry mud. As we were getting in the car to go home Lady was still at the ready, and over the cow barns a full moon was rising.

Food is fun!

Indian food is so diverse, and delicious to my taste, it’s hard not to eat too much of it. The ingredients, the processing and cooking and serving, all have new and strange aspects. This post is all about food, things I’ve learned about or eaten that didn’t fit into other posts on India.

1 – Veg and Non-Veg

These are the broad categories people refer to when they are telling what foods they eat, not with quite the same meaning as people in the U.S. who might define themselves as Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Gluten-free, Meat and Potatoes, I Eat Everything, etc. Here, Hindus are often “Veg,” meaning they do not eat meat or eggs, because they are Hindus and not for any health-related reasons. Muslims are Non-Veg because they have no religious ban on eating meat in general.

Our family does eat meat and eggs, so we are in the Non-Veg category, but it seems strange to say that, since we do like and eat a lot of vegetables! Hindus who do eat meat would rarely eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. Chicken is in abundance, and water buffalo meat, and goat meat, known as mutton.

2 – An example of wonderful Veg food is the Gujarati Thali meal we enjoyed our first night in the mountains, a traditional spread of a variety of dishes taking its name from Gujarat, the Indian state just north of here. We were the only ones in the restaurant from the beginning of our meal until the end, because we arrived so early, 7:45.

You start out with a plate of empty stainless steel bowls, and then the waiters — we had four for the three of us — alternate bringing to the table pots of soups and stews and drinks which they ladle out, and plates of breads hot off the griddle, and as soon as you have eaten half of anything they are back to refill again and again. We found ourselves eating too fast, because they seemed to be urging us on.

Not only did they bring us refills, but they brought new items after a while, which of course we must try, until we were so plumped out we had to turn our eager hosts away, and finally eat the sweet pudding that I failed to take a picture of. I was trying to figure out what was in it — surely those little red threads bleeding orange and yellow into the creamy white must be saffron, but our waiters said not. I still don’t believe them; there was a bit of a language barrier.

3 – Milk

If you are Veg, you can still enjoy dishes like that pudding, which contained a milk product, maybe yogurt. India has become the biggest producer of milk in the world, though the average dairy milks only four cows and/or water buffaloes. “One of the main reasons India is the highest producer of milk is that it imports a lot of European cows and cross-breeds them with local varieties. But the most crucial reason is that India has had a successful decades-long programme to source milk from small farmers through cooperatives.”

Because Kate doesn’t trust the regulators of these little dairies, she buys milk in aseptic boxes, or cartons of pasteurized. But most Indian households take milk home from little shops that get it fresh daily in half-liter plastic bags, such as I saw when I went out shopping with Kareena. This smiling lady was just receiving the morning’s shipment. Kareena says they boil the milk in a pot when they get it home, and store it in the fridge in the same pot, which they don’t use for any other foods, I think mostly so that the flavors of chili and cumin won’t get into the milk.

4 – Ice cream  I love ice cream, and Indian ice cream is all good, in my experience. In addition to ice cream in interesting flavors they have  kulfi, which is just slightly different, always served in a cone shape. I have eaten chickoo ice cream and sitafal, or custard apple ice cream. Which carries me into the topic of:

3 – Fruit

The chikoo, called sapodilla some places in the world, has been described as malt-y, and Kate and I agreed that the ice cream is so. I ate some fresh custard apple fruit and it was indeed creamy and custardy. I wanted to finish the whole thing. But be prepared for lots of finger-lickin’. As it’s mostly seeds, I think the idea of making ice cream from the pulp was inspired. Custard apple is the Indian version of the cherimoya.

5 – Rose and Pistachio

These are two of my favorite exotic flavors. Back home, I have made an Indian tapioca pudding flavored with both. So when I had a choice of kulfi flavors, I chose pistachio. And the same weekend, after our sweaty stairclimbing hike we stopped in an eclectic restaurant called The German Bakery, where I saw on the menu a Turkish Rose shake. Without a doubt I would order that! And I drank two lemon ginger iced teas as well — I was a little dehydrated and they were small, after all.

6 – Spicy food

Yes, Indians do like to add the heat to many foods. At The German Bakery, Kate ordered a side of Garlic Chana, or chickpeas, for us to share. They were really hard to stop eating!

Not only do Indians like spicy flavors generally, but there are particularly Indian blends of spices that make things taste right to their palates. So they adjust western recipes to make them fit. For example, I was munching on some Sizzling Jalapeno Nacho Crisps that looked like many versions of tortilla chips you would find in the U.S. But they seemed a little odd… When I looked at the ingredient list I found that they had ginger in the spice mix. We would not think of that as a “nacho” flavor.

7 – Sweets

Gulab jamun are balls with a doughnut like consistency, swimming in syrup. They were offered as part of a buffet we ate recently, and we ladled a couple on to our dish of butterscotch ice cream — a pleasantly sticky experience. For once I had left my camera in my pocket, so I found a picture online of gulab jamun.

And for beauty of sweets, you can’t beat this collection that Kate bought at the same store where I was buying dried apricots. Lots of pistachio here, too:

8 – Salads

I did not expect to eat salad in India, because of the possibility of contamination of raw vegetables. At home, though, we do disinfect all of our produce as soon as it comes into the house, and when eating out or ordering in, it turns out that there are many restaurants with excellent reputations regarding the safety of their menu items. Word gets around among expats about the restaurants whose food has never been known to make anyone sick.

So I have eaten salads several times, and they were some of my favorites ever. The Indian chefs seem to be creative in ways that jive with my taste preferences. They don’t overuse the ingredients that I get tired of on the U.S. salad menus, like cranberries, red onion, and avocado.

One I ate was called “Bam Bam Thank You Lamb,” and was made of Romaine and iceberg lettuces, dried tomatoes, black rice, roasted cashews, feta cheese and braised lamb.

The salad below included arugula, chickpeas, puffed rice, amaranth, cherry tomatoes, sprouts, pomegranate, lotus seeds, and feta. Isn’t that wild?

9 – Vegetables, vegetables

I love visiting the neighborhood market and seeing every sort of vegetable imaginable. It’s kind of like this in California, but more expensive, and not as fun somehow. And it’s a joy to watch Kareena cook. She roasted eggplants completely on top of the stove, just turning them every half a minute for fifteen minutes or so.

Others have noted that Indian food is not beautiful or easily presentable as a visual work of art. There are lots of basically brown items. So I think the eye appeal often comes from the shapes and textures, and the aromas and tastes are definitely sensational! Kate and I were talking about this the other night as we lingered over dessert at a South Indian restaurant, a little bowl of creamy, golden brown pudding we shared, and mused over what the ingredients might be.

Eventually we learned from the waiter or figured out ourselves that they were chikoo fruit (photo below of the fresh fruit), millet, milk, ghee, about three golden raisins… a combination that added up to an externally drab affect. But oh, it was lovely, and we did not want it to end.

At home, I have been cooking so little since becoming a widow, compared to my life before that. I wonder if my stay in India will have any effect on my life in the kitchen once I am back again? If I do find that I have been inspired to create something interesting, I’ll let you know here, because food is fun!

The high and the low.

Kate took me to South Mumbai last week to visit some Must See sites, which I’m sure I could write a book about if I only had enough lives to live. I tell you truly, this exciting life with its realms of experience and knowledge that I can only manage to dip my little toe into is wearing me out. My understanding of many things I present here is slight, and my photos are not as good as you can find other places online. But they are what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and we had good reason for going to these spots, and I was so glad we did.

I’ll start my report with one of the High things, the Gateway of India, which is hard for someone as unskilled as I to photograph, looming as it does so huge at the edge of the sea. The British built this monument to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, and it was completed in 1924. When the last British troops departed India, they passed through the arch, ceremoniously relinquishing power.

Kate and I walked all around, and she took my picture in front of this icon of Mumbai, under which one is no longer permitted to walk. We also had our picture taken with various groups of Indian tourists. But then we sped away, because there was so much to see…

The next High thing on our agenda, which often appears in photos with the Gateway, was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This five-star hotel opened twenty years before the Gateway was completed, having been commissioned by the Tata group, a conglomerate founded in 1868 by the man considered “The Father of Indian Industry,” Jamsetji Tata. A staircase leads up to a bust of this patriarchal figure.

I didn’t notice when I took my picture of the exterior that I was including a row of men posing for someone else, but I was happy to have them come along! That picture shows the original building and the tall addition, which between them have more than 600 rooms and suites. “The Taj” is the place where John Lennon, Oprah, and Queen Elizabeth stay when they are in town.

In 2008 a terrorist attack on Mumbai focused on the Taj, where the attackers holed up for days, and where many staff were killed. This garden, which has a waterfall not in the picture, memorializes those who lost their lives:

We wandered around for a little while, appreciating the artful opulence. In the restroom each patron has a clean and folded cloth napkin with which to dry her hands. Everything was elegant and serene and orderly.

I could imagine the lovely dresses in the clothing shop, but I was concerned that Kate not get worn out, so we left The Taj pretty soon and went to lunch at a famous Parsi cafĂ© called Britannia & Company. “Parsi” refers to the Zoroastrian Persians who emigrated to India centuries ago to escape persecution. There is a large Parsi community in the Mumbai area, from which the Tatas are descended, by the way, and much good Parsi food available. Pilau is probably the center of a good Parsi lunch:

In the rankings of high to low, our lunch was not high cuisine, but it was a high point of the day, and Parsi food ranks high on my list. The next places I’ll tell you about, though, are both low in different ways, which I dare not begin to muse on philosophically. It’s another book to be written.

I have to mention that it was in this busiest part of the city that I saw the most cows, three strolling through one intersection alone.

Dhobi Ghat… In Hindi, ghat means “steps leading down to a body of water.” (It also means “mountain,” as in my last post.) Dhobi is the name of a caste of washermen. Dhobi ghat can refer to any laundromat, but in Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the giant open-air laundry that Kate and I visited. My first picture above was part of the view as seen from the road on one side; after, we walked down into the area of washing pens and flogging stones, where drying laundry hung in close rows above us.

Our tour was very informal: we entered what in essence is a little village, started looking around, and a young man asked if we wanted a tour for 200 rupees, about $3, each. We said okay, and paid, and then he walked us through very fast and told us some things about the laundry. I missed much of what he said because I was hanging behind taking pictures, and just generally being overwhelmed and spacey from barely believing that I was in this place. I love doing laundry, but it seems ludicrous for me to say that in the context of Dhobi Ghat. These people take the task of washing clothes to a level that is outer space. But the whole affair lies so low as to be hardly noticeable as your gaze is carried upward by the skyscrapers all around.

Our guide told us that 400-500 people live here, and that he had been born at the “laundromat” himself. Internet articles say that their clients are “neighborhood laundries, wedding decorators, garment dealers, mid-sized hotels, clubs, and caterers.” I believe those things. But so much else that you can read, or even hear residents of Dhobi Ghat say in YouTube interviews, is contradictory or contrary to recorded history, so my questions only multiply and are unlikely to be answered to my satisfaction.

Some of my pictures are dark, because it was dark, especially in a passageway under tarps or some kind of roof, where in the space of five yards motorcycles and a bicycle were parked, a young man was cooking a big pan of potatoes, and an old man was pressing jeans with a vintage iron.

I came upon a man flogging a large wet item on a stone, his back to me, and when he lifted it each time to slap it down again, washwater fell in a shower behind him and on my path. So I timed my crossing, and managed to scoot past between slaps. In places there were little puddles or ditches to hop over, but we got through the busy laundry without getting wet.

It was noon, a clock in my photos tells me, and this man with one hand on the door of a big washer has a small glass of masala chai in the other hand. As we walked the lanes and streets we saw little apartments where the workers and their families live; some of them had a curtain pulled across, but in one doorway a woman was sitting on the floor preparing a salad. In the work area we walked past the occasional man stretched out sleeping on a wide shelf.

 

Dhobi Ghat was built by the British in 1890. Washermen own their wash pens and hand them down through the generations; some of them have installed modern washing machines and dryers. How they manage to keep track of the 10,000 items they collectively process every day is completely beyond me.

I thought the little girls I saw headed to school must be going off-site, but I learned in my research that the residents started their own school after one of their children was in an accident traveling to school elsewhere, and now they also have families from neighboring areas sending their children to the Dhobi Ghat school.

I count it a privilege to have had fifteen minutes in the presence of these hard-working people. When I am home again where I can hang my garments on the clothesline after letting my machines do almost all of the hard work, I will continue to think of them with admiration.

The last stop on our touristy outing was the lowest of all relative to sea level, because it was sea level, Girgaum Chowpatty or Chaupati Beach, a famous beach in Mumbai, but not for swimming. Festivities surrounding the favorite Hindu god Ganesh are held here, and at the end of the yearly celebrations effigies of Ganesh are plunged into the Arabian Sea, unfortunately adding to the trash problem. I found this photo online showing the event:

If I didn’t have a growing sand collection, I would not have taken the time to go to a beach in Mumbai, because a beach where the water is toxic is so disheartening. It’s not just trash, but sewage that pollutes these waters. And did I even want to collect sand from it? We had been trying to fit in a trip to an Indian beach ever since I arrived, and I was grateful to Kate that she insisted I not miss the opportunity.

We didn’t go on to the wet area of the wide beach. I theorized that the dry sand far away from the shore would have been washed by the last monsoons and not be the dirtiest. Nonetheless, when I got a sample home I washed and disinfected the sand with bleach, and then baked and dried it in the oven before filling my little bottle. 🙂

When you read here or elsewhere about all of the air pollution, water pollution, trash, you might think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” The problems are complex, but sometimes simple baby steps can improve the situation.

We were only on the beach for a few minutes, during which time we were surprised to see big coppery urns — what could they be for? Kate asked a young man nearby, and he said they were waste bins! Many of the trash cans that have been installed all over the city are bright blue plastic barrels, but these elegant receptacles were both functional and beautiful. I did think of how a child would not be able to use them — oops! I guess that’s a design flaw.

While the government and environmentalists keep working on the source of the problems that humiliate the water and the sand, it makes me happy that someone has honored the beach with these trash urns. When I showed Tom my picture of Kate below he said, “Cute wife looking into the greatest trash can in India!”