"Get out of my way" she barked at me. Something whizzed past my head. I turned quickly and ducked under the leaves, instinctively kicking a vine loose. It was full of skin tearing thorns. I manuevered to escape. Sweating under the foliage my arm was scraped and stung in pain. I looked down seeing streaks of red. My hands looked blood soaked.
This wasn't a scene from "Lord of the Flies". Or an episode of "Survivor". My daughter and I were madly jockeying to get the best position in a thicket of wild and thorny blackberry vines. We were racing to see who could pick the most of this stain inducing juicy wild fruit just steps away from San Francisco Bay.
What drove us to this condition was a recent awareness of being able to source and grow food locally. Organically and sustainably. Several years ago the word "organic" shot into the mainstream like "Nintendo". Certainly for all the right reasons (mostly) but the evolution of organic has become something of an embarassment. The term (and industry) has been substantially taken over by big agri-business. "Organic" used to mean food that was grown and sold locally by crunchy granola people. You know what I mean by this. Bay Area hippies and peaceniks that made food a social statement. That always left a bad taste in my mouth (literally and figuratively).
Organic is supposed to mean food that is grown without pesticides and with minimal impact to the land that produces it. This is a process that, until the last 60 years, occurred regularly and naturally since the beginning of mankind. No flying the food in "fresh" from different time zones across the globe. When a cucumber has to "clear customs" or a tomato needs to have its "passport stamped" that's not fresh. It's big business. Apples from New Zealand. Grapes from Chile. More often than not it just doesn't taste as good as food you can buy that is grown (or found) locally. Our ancestors knew this but somehow we seemed to have forgotten.
The business of food and where it comes from is rapidly becoming front and center as a major issue the United States is just starting to contend with. Unthinkable just a decade ago, where your food comes from and how you get it is now a mainstream topic of conversation. The growing worldwide movement of "Slow Food" led by such luminaries as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, as well as best selling treatises such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, has pushed the sourcing and production of food into a major political issue. And First Lady Michelle Obama has moved awareness even further forward, growing an edible garden on the White House grounds. The awareness of where our food comes from is now a complex dance at the forefront of the American conversation. And I am glad to see it.
I'll admit that as much as I have always been involved with good food, cooking and eating, I never gave much thought to where it comes from and how we get it until recently. And I should point out that I am not against large scale production of food to some degree. I am fortunate that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the top food producing regions in the world. In this part of the country local farmers and producers are honored and paid accordingly for the food they produce. It's expensive but worth it. Much of this local bounty is talked about in the fantastic publication edible Marin and Wine Country. It's also worth pointing out the other side of the issue. Not every place has the ability to produce a wide range of food providing variety and sustenance.
All that said, it is nice to see some middle ground on the issue. A little awareness of where your food comes from, how it got to your plate and what it means when you make specific choices
because we all "vote with our wallet" is never a bad thing. There seems to be a bit of hysteria in the ether when people have an issue with being criticized because they eat Twinkies and Big Macs and think that such talk is a left wing takeover of American rights. No need to act like a Neanderthal and waltz around the issue. Or to start strapping firearms onto your body as a public display of your 2nd Amendment rights. It's just not food. Understand the arguments for and against both sides and then make your culinary choices intelligently.
Earlier this year two women in the community I live in started a locally grown food exchange. The Marin Open Garden Project is a simple and clever idea that I hope catches on across the country. The idea is simple and serves several purposes. A lot of people grow food, some for pleasure, others out of necessity and still others unknowingly (got a fruit tree in your yard). All of that food is local. And generally sustainable and organic. The problem is that sometimes you have too much of a good thing. What do you do with all those plums and tomatoes if you can't eat them yourself? I never gave this much thought in the past. Anytime we had fruit growing on a tree 90% of it would fall to the ground to rot and never to be eaten. Simply wasted. The one exception being my Fuerte avocado tree at our home in San Diego. It has its own fan club and every single fruit is eaten, but I digress.
It's incredible how much food that is grown never gets eaten. The Marin Open Garden Project helps to solve this problem nicely. Every weekend locals get together for an hour and bring their own home grown food to trade for other edibles. Not only is the food not wasted but you get to meet and interact with people in your community on a very personal level that you would normally not connect with. Add to that the wonderful side benefit of taking home a variety of freshly grown food and it's one of the most fulfilling 60 minutes you'll spend all week. MOGP will even arrange to have your fruit trees professionally picked with the abundance donated to those in need. Nothing wasted and you don't have to do anything except call them to arrange it.
This weekend we took home some beautiful home raised chicken eggs raised by a local family. When we got home we sauteed up some zucchini growing in our backyard and some sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (we had traded some for the eggs) for the perfect omelet filling. Topped with some garden fresh basil, I am telling you right now that nothing tasted better than this. Fresh. Flavorful. There was no stench of big business "Twinkie" here.
Later in the afternoon we rode our bikes around Tiburon, an upscale bayside enclave of seven figure homes and beautiful scenery that looks across San Francisco Bay. Wild blackberry bushes grow everywhere and the fruit is there for the taking. We thought "why not pick these and do
something with this local, organic and beautiful fruit?". OK, this was a bit "Into The Wild" and I'll tell you right now I have no plans to drop out of society and forage for food as a statement against big agri-business. But there is something very satisfying and right about harvesting your own food, growing it, trading it, and cooking it without having to have gone to the market and potentially buying something that came from another continent. It's somewhat primal but in a measured, culinary way.
We needed something simple yet elegant to help display this fresh fruit grab at its best. A simple berry pavlova, an import from Australia and New Zealand (a national dish with a history of fierce debate between the two countries as to who invented this fabulous dessert) filled the bill. Named after the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this is the perfect backdrop for summertime fruits that needs little attention to put their best foot forward. One of our neighbors grows Meyer lemons year round and lets anyone come into his yard to take what they need. Following the spirit of the fruit exchange we created this fantastic wild blackberry pavlova, complimented with a Meyer lemon whipped cream. Simple. Local. Organic...A Grand Jete of flavor that is so simple, even a caveman can do it.
Wild Blackberry Pavlova
with Meyer Lemon Cream
4 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 C sugar
4 T cornstarch
2 T Distilled White Vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 C heavy whipping cream
1-2 T Meyer lemon juice (can use regular lemon as a substitute)
2 tsp lemon zest
2 pints of blackberries, hulled
2-3 T sugar
Additional lemon juice
To make the Pavlova Meringue
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Beat the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar together in a bowl until the egg whites form stiff peaks. Gradually add the sugar, beating until the meringue becomes glossy. Add the cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla, mixing to combine.
Butter a cakepan or springform mold, or simply use a baking sheet and spoon the meringue in free form shape, with more meringue around the sides to form a rim. Bake for 1 hour. Shut off oven and open the door slightly, letting the Pavlova cool for 30 minutes.
To make the Meyer Lemon Cream
Beat the whipping cream and 1 TBSP sugar using an electric hand mixer for 2-3 minutes until the whipped cream sets up and begins to firm. Add 1-2 TBSP lemon juice to taste. Stir in 2 tsp lemon zest.
To make the blackberries
In a bowl combine the blackberries, 2-3 TBSP sugar and 1 TBSP lemon juice. Stir to combine and let sit for 5 minutes.
To Assemble the Pavlova
Remove the meringue from the baking pan and place on a serving platter. Cover the center of the meringue with 1/2 cup of the meyer lemon whipped cream. Top with the blackberries. Cut into wedges and serve with additional whip cream and berries on the side.