Little River Inn in Mendocino preserves the old ways of foraging and fermenting

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

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.

Last June, Dym decided to retool the annual Abalone Camp into a Forage and Ferment Experience that would focus on seaweed and other marine delicacies.

Greg and Vanessa Fonts, who served as the diving instructors for the Abalone Camp, introduced Dym to “Countryman Forager” Smith, and the adventure expanded to incorporate land as well as sea. Getting to know Smith has opened Dym up to lots of new foraging possibilities, from the traditional mussels, clams and mushrooms of fall and winter to the nutritious stinging nettles and wild greens of spring.

As a result, the Dyms have incorporated the bounty of the wild into the Little River Inn’s cocktail program, which changes with the seasons. The bar is currently serving the Pacific Mule, made with ginger, cucumber and foraged seaweed-infused vodka topped with ginger beer. In June, they will switch to the Paloma Pride, made with foraged elderberry syrup, amaro, fresh grapefruit juice and Tamar Distillery’s Citrus Hystrix vodka.

The history of kelp

How did the first North Americans get to California? A new theory posits that they arrived via water along the “Kelp Highway,” which stretches from Asia to Beringia to the Americas, Smith said. The lush kelp forests along the route helped support food sources such as fish, abalone, urchins and other shellfish, making survival easier for the early humans making the journey.

“As an archeologist, I learned about the wide variety of edible kelp and the importance of kelp in the early diet,” Smith said.

To introduce the Forage & Ferment guests to the North Coast’s wild seaweed crop, Dym asked longtime seaweed harvesters Erica Fielder and Larry Knowles of Rising Tide Vegetables to talk about their wildcraft business.

“Mendocino and Sonoma are ground zero for seaweed,” Knowles explained. “There are lots of rocks, and a lot of wave energy that comes in, which brings nutrients from the upwelling, and that drops the water temperature. They come up to the continental shelf where the nutrients, rocks and sunlight create the right conditions.”

The company just started its seaweed harvest season, which runs from May through the first week of August. Like many other plants, seaweed tastes best in the spring.

Knowles said he harvests the long blades of the subtly sweet wakame in Elk, using wheelbarrows to carry it up the steep bluff. The umami-laden kombu, which is used to make dashi soup stock, is harvested north of Mendocino from kayaks; the nori, which is dried into paper-like sheets for sushi, is harvested from various spots where it likes to grow. All of the Rising Tide Sea Vegetables seaweed is sustainably harvested.

“With the kombu, we slice two-thirds of the plant off, and it will grow back out of the scar,” Knowles said. “We cut the nori but leave part of the plant ... We cut a little bit so you can’t tell we were there.”

After being naturally dried in the sun, the seaweeds are packaged up to sell to consumers. Some of the seaweeds, like the whole leaf nori, can be eaten out of the bag. Others, like the wakame and iodine-rich kombu, need to be softened with soaking or cooking, Knowles said.

To allow Forage & Ferment guests to experience what it’s like to harvest seaweed, Knowles led a forage in the intertidal zone at Van Damme Beach. The guests who had purchased a one-day state fishing license filled bags with blades of nori, sea lettuce and other seaweeds.

“The limit is 10 pounds of wet seaweed a day,” Knowles said. “Once you dry it, it reduces down to a few pounds. With nori, you can dry it on the windsheld of your car, and then keep it in the dark. “

The tidepoolers also collected Brown Turban Snails to be cooked up as an appetizer that night. The snails, which taste like chewy but flavorful clams, were boiled, then cracked with a stone, Flintstone-style, and picked out with a toothpick, a handy vehicle for dipping them into a tasty Asian sauce.

The rest of the dinner, prepared by Little River Inn Sous Chef Corey Paiva, included more foraged and fermented appetizers such as Polenta Bruschetta with Scape Pesto and Steak Tartare with fermented mustard, herbs and California capers (nasturgium buds.)

The foragers then enjoyed the fruit of their labor with a “Salad that Fights Back” (miner’s lettuce, chickweed and thistle with its thorns removed), Nettle Gnocchi in Sage Brown Butter (nettles foraged on the Lost Coast by Paiva), and a Local Petrale Sole Piccata (fish from Kaito Fisheries of Fort Bragg) with fermented, preserved lemon juice, pickled California capers and a fermented herb pilaf.

“We had the Nettle Gnocchi with the Brown Butter Sauce, so I wanted to dial it back and make the entreé a bit lighter,” Paiva said. “Doing something nice and light with the local petrale sole would bring everything about the weekend experience together. It was a foraging and fermenting festival, but we also went down to the ocean.”

For breakfast, the group was also treated to Manzanita Cider that Dym made from Manzanita berries she foraged at her own property, Outlaw Ranch; and a sun tea made with chamomile, calendula and borage flowers, plus mint leaf and thimbleberry leaf, which Paiva foraged from his own garden and the Little River Inn.

“All of those things do grow wild around here and can be found,” Paiva said. “My girlfriend and I like to go camping and hiking, and when we are out, we try to find the edible foods we can forage.”

Freediving for tasty shellfish

Despite the absence of abalone, freedivers Greg and Vanessa Fonts of Triton X/Freedive in Sacramento and diver Keith Peschel were able to collect various sea creatures — scallops, red sea urchins and Dungeness crab — for a tasty array of small plates.

During the opening reception, these briny treats from the deep were prepared by Chef Jason Demers of freediveshop.com, an online magazine the Fonts plan to launch this summer.

Dishes ranged from Rising Tide Wakame Salad with Diver Scallops (seaweed from Rising Tide Sea vegetables) to a Citrus Mixed Green Salad with Uni-Citrus dressing and an Uni Cream Sauce Pappardelle with Dungeness Crab.

“We use an abalone bar to get the scallops, and the limit is 10 per diver per day,” Peschel said. “They’re hard to spot, but they have a bright orange fringe that gives them away.”

The flavor of uni, which comes from the reproductive organs of the red sea urchin, is similar to that of briny oysters, with a creamy, sweet flavor that tastes like the sea.

However, when sea urchins are starving, they go into a hibernation state, and their reproductive organs shrink. This helps them survive difficult conditions and live to be 100 or 200 years old, according to a study by Oregon State University.

In an effort to save the abalone and bring back the struggling kelp forests, diving associations, marine conservation and education organizations have banded together to fund a California Department of Fish and Wildlife project to remove some of the small, purple sea urchins from certain areas of the Northern California coast, including Fort Bragg.

Only time will tell if that unprecedented action will be able to bring the marine ecology on the North Coast back into balance again. But experts hope that bringing back the kelp will help.

“We have to start sequestering carbon, and one way to do it is through kelp,” Knowles said. “Fish and Wildlife are working on that by clearing the urchins out. Then the seaweeds can produce spores and start regrowth.”

This cocktail developed by Cally and Marc Dym of the Little River Inn, is made with the Elderberry bush’s delicate, white flowers, which are commonly used in syrups, cordials and other beverages. (Warning to foragers: elderberries should be cooked before eating to destroy the glycosides in the seeds, and the elderberry leaves, sticks and roots, should be avoided. ) The sweet-tasting flowers can be foraged in Sonoma County, but you can order elderflowers from Mountain Rose Herbs (mountainroseherbs.com) or Starwest Botanicals (starwest-botanicals-com).

Elder Flower Mimosa

Makes 1 cocktail

1 ounce elder flower syrup

1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice

4 ounces sparkling wine

For the syrup, combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in four bunches of elder flowers and allow to cool. Strain and refrigerate.

Combine all ingredients in a champagne flute.

_____

This spring salad can be made with various wild greens, including dandelion, mustard, miner’s lettuce and redwood sorrel. Miner’s lettuce was used by the miner’s during the Gold rush to prevent scurvy. Wild radish seed pods are crunchy and peppery and grow throughout the U.S.

Wild Greens and Radish Pod Salad

Makes 4 servings

16 ounces wild greens

8 radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 head fennel, thinly sliced

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1/2 teaspoon champagne vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

24-30 wild radish seed pods

— Flaky salt

Wash greens and let air dry. Tear the larger leaves.

Combine the radishes with the fennel with zest from air a half lemon. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and juice from the half lemon and toss.

Toss greens with 1 tablespoon olive oil, juice from the other half of the lemon and vinegar.

Plate greens and top with the radish/fennel mixture. Garnish with seed pods and flaky salt.

_____

“This recipe really showcases the flavor of nettles,” Dym writes. “If you have a traditional gnocchi recipe with ricotta and egg that you like, halve the amount of nettle leaves and incorporate with the potatoes.”

Nettle Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Makes 4 servings as main dish or 6 as a side

2 pounds Yukon or Russet potatoes, cubed (skin on)

2 cups all-purpose flour

8 ounces nettles (leaves from about 8 stalks)

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

20 sage leaves

— Parmesan for garnish

— Freshly ground pepper

— Salt

Blanch nettle leaves in boiling water for about 3 minutes. Drain but do not squeeze dry. Puree in food processor with a pinch of salt. Set aside in large bowl.

Steam potatoes about 10 minutes. Mash by hand or in a food processor. Combine the potatoes and nettles with another pinch or two of salt. Add the flour and knead for 5 minutes.

Divide the dough in four pieces, then roll into 1/2-inch ropes and cut into 1-inch segments. Flatten each segment with the tines of a fork.

Cook the gnocchi in batches in salted, boiling water until they float (about 3 minutes.) As they cook, preserve them in ice water until ready to warm with the butter sauce.

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add the sage leaves and slowly cook over medium heat until the butter browns and smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the gnocchi and cook until warmed through.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper.

_____

“You’ll never look at mustard the same way again” Dym promises of this recipe.

Fermented Yellow Mustard

Makes 1 to 2 cups

1/2 cup mustard seeds (all white or half white and half brown)

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup unchlorinated water (It won’t ferment with chlorine)

1 tablespoons grated fresh turmeric root

1/4 cup raw apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

Combine the first four ingredients in a blender and blend into a paste. Make sure you blend past the creamy stage until the mixture is firmer and paste-like. Ladle into a pint jar, tap and use a butter knife to remove all the bubbles. Screw on lid and let sit on your counter for at least 3 days.

There are several ways you can tell when it’s ready: it will lighten slightly in color, the smell will become a little tamer with an earthy edge, or just taste it! When ready, stir in vinegar and honey and keep in the fridge.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine