Little River Inn in Mendocino preserves the old ways of foraging and fermenting
Unless you’ve been hiding in a sea cave like a giant rock scallop, you already know that modern foodies have reached a fork in the road, where it’s no longer enough to smoke, grill or even sous vide your own food.
These days, we’re doing our grocery shopping in nature, with bragging rights awarded for the ability to gather, fish and trap our own foodstuffs. From diving for shellfish and picking seaweed to collecting wild mushrooms and greens, the old ways of eating are returning as a fun-loving, low-tech alternative to Grubhub and Blue Apron.
At the annual Forage and Ferment Experience held at the Little River Inn earlier this month, Sebastopol native and “Countryman Forager” Kevin Smith revealed that he has been digging for shellfish since he was in diapers.
“We grew up fishing, but I never realized that not everybody did it,” he said. “Then I got into mushrooms in college ... There’s a ton of abundance if you know where to find it.”
Smith, a doctoral student in archeology at UC Davis who has a blog and a YouTube show called “Catch N Cook California,” led a group of about a dozen foragers through the rolling woods and pasture surrounding the Little River Inn to identify edible plants and forage for a dinner salad of chickweed and miner’s lettuce.
“It’s all about sustainable harvests of local, wild foods and cooking these delicacies up into one-of-a-kind gourmet meals,” Smith said. “Bring your friends and start the next generation.”
Abalone’s deep tradition
The 80-year-old Little River Inn offers spectacular ocean views and a cozy, wood-lined bar — Ole’s Whale Watch Bar — where locals and fisherman have gathered for decades to eat abalone, play bar dice and trade fish stories.
Little River Inn founder Ole Hervilla — grandfather of current innkeeper Cally Dym — was legendary for his harvests of the once-abundant abalone, and the inn became known far and wide for its grilled abalone. Hervilla passed his skills on to Dym’s father, who then passed them on to Dym.
“Abalone is part of my family’s and the inn’s heritage,” Dym said. “I grew up diving with my dad, who supplied the abalone for the restaurant.”
To honor that tradition, Dym launched an Abalone Camp at the Little River Inn in 2015 as a way to teach interested folks how to freedive, prepare, and cook abalone. The camp also took a deep dive into the history, culture and ecology of the prized sea snail.
“The Abalone Camp was our way of sharing that heritage — how to dive safely and how to prepare abalone so it stays tender and delicious,” Dym said.
The abalone fishery was closed indefinitely in 2018 to protect its dwindling population as well as the disappearing kelp forest, both suffering from warming ocean temperatures and an overabundance of purple sea urchins, which compete with the abalone for their favorite food. So Dym was forced to reinvent the concept.
“When the fishery closed, switching over to our latest passion of fermenting seemed a natural progression,” said Dym, who loves to grow and preserve her own food. Her recipe for traditional kimchi has been adapted by her husband, Little River Inn Chef Marc Dym, and makes cameo appearances on the menu, often mixed with mayonnaise.