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Welcome to the winding fall trail — a path not yet muddied by rains and freed both from the scorching mid-summer sun and the seasonal blanket of coastal fog.

It's that time of year when you can see for miles along the Sonoma County coast. But if you take a moment to look just off the beaten path, into the surrounding plants and trees, there's a cornucopia of food to harvest along the way.

Call it an edible hike, as there's plenty to forage for a meal to be savored after the sojourn.

"It's seasonal and regional and it goes back to what the people who first lived here were living off of," says Autumn Summers, an ethnobotanist and herbalist who's teaching a class on edible plants next weekend at Pepperwood Preserve.

Much in the way that natives once hunted and gathered food all over this region, a forager like Summers will end a hike with roasted bay nuts or a hot acorn meal with berries in the morning or pesto made from young stinging nettle leaves.

"For me it's about having a deeper connection to the wild or the landscape and in a more intimate way," Summers said. "You're going out and gathering acorns, bringing them home and eating them. That's a different relationship than looking at a tree and saying &‘Wow, that's really beautiful.'"

Along with acorns and nettles, this time of year, she sees plenty of bay nuts, manzanita berries (look for red and dried berries) and madrone berries. By early winter, chickweed and miner's lettuce should start popping up.

As November and December approach, it's also time for the heralded mushroom season to kick into gear, one of the most popular foraging pastimes in Northern California.

"Because they're wild, we can only hope and go look," said Linda Morris, a longtime mushroom hunter and member of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. "One of the things that foragers begin to acquire is sort of a language understanding with nature, because really it's just a hope they'll be there."

Part of the trick with mushrooms is training your eye to pick up off-trail clues, almost like a detective. This time of year, chanterelles are starting to appear, often flashing in the distance as the color of "pumpkin flesh," she said.

"First you need a hit of rain, then you need some sun, then the light has to come in at a certain way and you have to be walking at a certain angle to see them — it's all of those things," Morris says. "It's an Easter egg hunt at the funnest level."

And the same applies with edible plants. Summers often tells beginning foragers to look for "not just where things grow but how they grow. For instance, with bay nuts, bay trees will often produce more on sunny slopes, so you can look for that."

And, along the way, it's worth remembering "At worst, you're going to get a beautiful walk in the woods," Morris says. "And at best, you're going to come home with something for dinner. It's hard to complain about that."


This recipe was adapted from "Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life" by Louisa Shafia.

<strong> Autumn Summers' Nettle Pesto Recipe, aka &‘Nesto'</strong>

<em> Makes approximately 3 cups</em>

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 pound fresh stinging nettles, young tops (top 6-10 inches of young growth — the leaves and very flexible stems)

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves (optional)

1 clove garlic, minced (more if you are a garlic lover)

1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (can use walnuts instead)

2 tablespoons lemon juice (can use less if prefered)

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup firmly packed grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese

Harvest nettle tops with gloves. Wearing rubber gloves, trim lower nettle leaves off of the tougher stem. Can use the top part of stem if it is flexible and tender.

Fill a large pot halfway full with water. Add 1/4 cup salt and bring to a boil.

While the water is heating up, fill the sink or a large bowl with cold water. Using gloves or tongs, submerge the nettles in the water and let them sit for 5 minutes.

Remove the nettles and discard the water.

Put the nettles in the boiling water and boil for 1 minute. Drain nettles.

Squeeze out as much of the water as possible.

Place the nettles in the bowl of a food processor with the mint, garlic, pine nuts, and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Process until the mixture has formed a paste.

With the machine running, pour in the olive oil. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

<em>Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@beckmediaproductions.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.</em>

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