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.

“The bay laurel tree is often ignored or neglected in our native stands as it is not considered a commercial timber production species,” she wrote in a letter to the CDFA. “The lack of commercial value has resulted in lack of comprehensive research or attention to this important species.”

Cohen didn’t know anything about California bay laurel trees five years ago when he signed up for a class on how the native people of Sonoma County maintained and managed their food supply, much less that the trees produce an edible nut. The class was taught by anthropologist Benjamin Benson, Pepperwood Preserve’s cultural resources coordinator.

There, Cohen experienced the unique “unsweetened mocha” flavor of roasted bay nuts; others tasted burnt popcorn or dark roasted coffee.

“I was shocked by how much I liked the taste,” he said. “Why import cacao when we have something better right here?”

Sonoma County’s local native people long considered the nuts a viable source of food, collecting and grinding them into a powder used to make cakes. Bay nuts are particularly oily, so the oil acted as a binder and held the cakes together, which allowed for them to be stored and eaten as needed.

Bay nut cakes might not have much commercial potential in the 21st century, but what about mocha-like candy?

Last year, Cohen began experimenting with candy in his home kitchen. He baked the nuts and combined them with honey. Simple and rustic as it was, it actually tasted pretty good.

Driven to expand the product’s potential, Cohen Googled Sonoma County chocolatiers in September. He called the first name that came up in the search: Jonas Ketterle, a young chocolate maker and owner of Firefly Chocolate in Windsor. In Ketterle, Cohen found a like-minded soul. In fact, the former electrical engineer had long wanted to incorporate locally grown wild edibles into his fair-trade cacao repertoire.

When Cohen approached with his bay nut stash, Ketterle went to work using his existing equipment to make candy bars. It wasn’t much of a leap. Like coffee beans, bay nuts must be peeled and then roasted before they are edible. And like cacao, the nuts tend to liquefy when ground into a powder. The sample bars were rich, with an earthier taste than cacao, and were an immediate hit with friends.

“Bay laurels are one of the dominant species here,” said Ketterle. “Consuming a local product like this connects people to the local ecology and can be a gateway to improved stewardship of the local ecosystem. Plus, they are delicious.”

Ketterle said he has no doubt the candy could be scaled up to commercial production levels, and Cohen sees other uses for ground bay nuts in trail mix, granola or simply sprinkled on fruit or cereal.

But the biggest challenge is lack of supply. With little known about the tree’s genetic makeup or why only a limited number bear fruit, cultivation is a challenge. While rigorous scientific research is done to solve that puzzle, Cohen imagines the days when groves of bay laurel trees will grow as they always have, but with fruit-bearing specimens replacing the barren trees.

He acknowledges that project likely will outlive him, since newly planted bay laurel trees take at least 20 years to produce fruit, but he said he is content just taking the project to the next step.

“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Cohen said. “Why are we importing food-producing plants from other parts of the world when we have a tree here that’s offering a food source that’s delicious, wonderful and already adapted to the environment?

“This one is calling out, ‘I’m healthy, and I’m here.’?”

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