Sonoma County bay nuts may be chocolate of the future
If Anthony Cohen had his way, bay nuts would be as common in California kitchens as almonds. In fact, the 66-year-old Santa Rosa attorney dedicates much of his spare time to the oft-ignored local food source, with hopes of eventually bringing it to market.
For the past five years, Cohen has been on a constant lookout for fruit-bearing California bay laurels, also called pepperwoods, carrying a set of high-powered binoculars in his car for examining trees at a distance. Although the species grows well along the North Coast, only about one in every 100 of the trees bears fruit, by his estimation.
Cohen’s house, in a wooded neighborhood off Mark West Springs Road, is filled with the results of his treasure hunt - fresh, stored, dried and roasted bay nuts. Instead of a cute dog or a sunset, his phone’s screen saver is a photo of a lush green bay laurel branch.
“You could call me the pepperwood nut of all time,” Cohen said, relishing the pun.
That passion, and his work as a tribal attorney for the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, is behind his efforts to produce and eventually bring to market food products made from what historically has been an indigenous food source for Bay Area tribes. His quest is in the early stages, but Cohen considers it a promising way to bring revenue to the tribe while introducing others to a quintessentially sustainable food.
This day he is conducting a bay nut search deep within Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,000-acre nature sanctuary on the northeastern edge of Santa Rosa. He picks the dried brown nuts from the ground, where they hide among the damp leaves that carpet a wind-blown woodland grove, and tosses the foraged fruit into a paper bag. All the while he marvels that others haven’t fallen as passionately in love with them as he has.
“The whole process has intoxicated me,” said Cohen, silver-haired and slender in jeans and a plaid shirt. “Why are we not taking seriously this healthy, wonderful food that’s adapted to the environment and offering itself to us?”
In a food culture obsessed with exotic super foods such as China-grown goji berries, could a great source of nutrition lie right at our feet? Cohen thinks so, and he’s on a mission to raise the bay nut’s culinary profile. A recent laboratory analysis, commissioned by Cohen, showed that the roasted nuts have a nutritional content similar to walnuts. They taste every bit as good as cacao and are known to have a stimulant effect much like coffee but shorter-lived.
Cohen successfully petitioned the California Department of Food and Agriculture to expand its definition, for the Specialty Crop Block grant program, to include studying the feasibility of bringing native food plants into commercial cultivation. He also received approval from the Stewart’s Point Rancheria tribal council and chairman Reno Keoni Franklin to seek research money from the agency with the tribe as a collaborator in the studies.
Their rancheria, located on the Sonoma Coast near The Sea Ranch, is home to about 80 people. Members own no casino, nor will they have an opportunity to build one, so they search for economic opportunities that are consistent with their resources. Eventually, they would like to harvest and deliver the bay nuts to an outside food producer. Cohen advises the tribe’s economic development committee and would represent the Kashias as a consultant and interagency facilitator.
In a statement issued Nov. 9 the tribal council said, “The Kashia Band of Pomo is excited to continue our long history of collaborative research to better understand the health of our forest. We are working with Mr. Cohen to submit a grant to the CDFA to research conservation and environmental outcomes, pest control and disease, and organic and sustainable production practices for the Bayhem Qhale (California Bay Laurel Tree). Our study will focus primarily on the Bayhem Behe (Pepperwood Nut). We plan to use the research ... to educate our tribal members, the general public, and to contribute to the knowledge base of the California Bay Laurel.”
A team of UC Davis researchers submitted a conceptual proposal this month, requesting $449,000 to study why so few bay laurels bear nuts, what can be done to increase the production and how to process and package food products that contain them. If they make the first cut in February, the team will prepare a formal grant request, with plans to possibly conduct the research at Pepperwood Preserve, on nearly 1,000 acres of historic Kashia Pomo land at Stewart’s Point Rancheria and on 5,300 acres of oak woodlands in Hopland.
Kim Rodrigues, director of the UC Research and Extension Center in Hopland, endorsed the grant request and offered the use of that land for field research on the genetics and cultivation of the resilient, native species.