Matt and I have been planning to live in a campsite in the woods for over 6 months now. On September 18, our plans came into fruition on a small homestead in Annapolis, California. Our woodland adventure is an opportunity to reconnect with nature and start to learn primitive survival skills – which we will ultimately hone over a lifetime if we keep up with them. To some this conjures up images of secret stashes of spam and artillery. While we expect at some time to learn our way around guns, planes, and blades, we don’t share a doomsayer outlook nor an appreciation for meat “foods” that will outlive humans. We simply want to expand our awareness and learn to adapt, survive and enjoy the experience of the wilderness. Of course we’re still working remotely, so it’s not an entirely off-the-grid dirty hippy holiday.
We spent about two weeks setting up camp – putting up our awesomely large canvas tent, making a cooking fire, setting up our kitchen, toilet and shower, and clearing up the land in the campsite generously loaned to us by our homesteader hosts. Now we consider ourselves “arrived,” or at least capable of cooking on fire, eating, procuring water, sh*ting and sleeping without any major snags or reasons to sigh in exasperation.
Our little enclave in Annapolis is seven miles inland from the California coast. I specify the seven miles because this means the difference between damp, cold and foggy and dry, hot, and sunny. So we get to take advantage of the beautiful coast without being in its storm cloud clutches. Our camp is in a clearing at the end of an old logging road (read: dirt that feels like rock) on a 43 acre private property, 5 acres or so which is an operating homestead called Wildforest Sanctuary. In addition to land, our hosts Melinda and Karl give us access to their garden, eggs and the occasional jar of goats milk in exchange for doing simple work 5-10 hours a week. Very cool, huh? This enables us to continue our “day jobs,” while also practicing making fire, cooking, cordage, shelter and all the basics of life outdoors.
We learned of their homestead and many like it through a network called WWOOF on their US site. WWOOFing, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a network of organic farmers and workers of any age or any locale. The network helps match people who are interested in learning about organic and sustainable methods of agriculture with farmers of the like. This could be anything from dairy goat farms to permaculture to biodynamic to apiaries and anywhere from Mexico to Thailand. After looking at a number of awesome farms, we finally found a plot of land that made sense for us – as in there was Verizon coverage, clean water, a flat place for a tent, lots of sun and minimal danger of predators. So here we are, making camp and learning how to live outdoors for the next two months. You can read about our adventures on our blog Traveling Monkeys. Suffice to say, we’ve been leveraging a lot of fire! If you want to keep up with our day-to-day, I’ve added an insert of the posts on Traveling Monkeys on the bottom left. The most recent five posts will always reside there. I’ve also finally added in related links to the bottom of each A Smart Mouth post. I love me my relevant content. So enjoy! Mom will continue to deliver recipes to you from her kitchen in Connecticut – which I miss dearly, BTW – as she eats her way through autumn in comfort and style.
A breeze has been blowing through the camp in the last few days, about as long as we’ve been practicing our new schedule. We hear it softly whistling at night. In the morning it picks up, whipping through the canopy of trees surrounding our clearing while we go about our morning fire. Hooded in heavy sweatshirts, we eat toasty bread or oatmeal, feeling the crispness of the morning air on our faces. We do an hour of yoga as the sun paints the sky blue – peeling off our sweatshirts and stretching into the day. Then we meditate in the shade of oaks as the wind dies down and the North California dry heat picks up (yes, it’s still hot here most days!). We scoot our butts in our little camp chairs to a still, shady area to listen to the birds rustling around and making their daily calls. Only then do we proceed with hours of workshop – so far collecting and chopping wood, building a track aging box, working on bowdrill kits, and assembling cordage material. We break for lunch, rekindling our fire in the heat of the day to cook some quinoa or kichidi or bake some bread. Then more skills before we break for dinner, blistered, dusty, sweaty and exhausted.
The evening meal is my favorite in camp. The light flickers through the trees and surrounding hills, basking everything in a diffuse glow. We wind down and make our biggest meal of the day. Mind you, it’s only 4:30pm! Mostly camp-like meals coaxed into a nourishing heartiness with some love and a bit of fire. Fall comes quietly, first as a change in light – from white to a soft yellow glow, followed by that unmistakable crisp air that lifts up all those earthy smells of musty leaves and dirt. But it’s most encapsulated for me by comforting foods like grilled cheese and tomato soup. This was one of my favorite lunches growing up – mostly on weekends – when Mom would get the griddle hot and butter toast, then layer on the cheddar, fry it up and lay it down next to a warm bowl of tomato soup with lots of freshly cracked black pepper and maybe a little cream. The soup was probably store bought, but it didn’t matter. That black pepper hitting the back of your throat and playing against the mellow, acidic tomatoes was the most welcome bit of warmth.
As part of our work here at Wildforest, we’re helping Melinda preserve the bounty of her garden. What we don’t can we bring back to our camp to eat. I’d been dying to try her yellow kumato heirlooms. Their beautiful, pale yellow orbs with a mild sweetness and soft, fruit-like meat. So with these first quiet hints of autumn on the California coastal range, I made a mellow yellow tomato soup. We had a half pint of cream in our cache that just wasn’t staying cold enough so I decided to add a bit of fresh butter, buttermilk and whipped cream to the soup in layers to add a bit of body to a relatively easy Alice Waters recipe. I shook some butter up in minutes and added it right then and there. And of course we ate it with grilled cheese made of an incredible sourdough starter gifted to us and extra black pepper.
(Adapted from Alice Waters The Art of Simple Food)
1/2 pint of heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter [from whipping cream]
1/2 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 pound ripe tomatoes, washed, cored and sliced
Salt to taste
A few sprigs of thyme
1/3 cup buttermilk [from whipping cream]
1/3 cup water
20 grinds black pepper + more for serving
A few tablespoons whipped cream [from whipping cream]
A handful of chives, washed and chopped
Slices of cheddar or other cheese of your choice
A dollop of butter
Put the whipping cream in a ball jar, secure the lid tightly and shake vigorously until the cream becomes thick and sticks to the side, about 3-5 minutes. Open it up. You now have whipping cream. Take out a few tablespoons for serving with the soup. Secure the lid tightly and continue shaking until the butter separates and the buttermilk begins to splash about the sides, another couple of minutes. Strain the buttermilk into a vessel. Add 1/2 cup water back into the jar and shake for 30 seconds, then discard the water. Repeat once more. Now you have butter! You may proceed with your soup.
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add the onion, cover, and sweat on medium low until soft but not brown. If it’s threatening to brown, add in a bit of water. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more. Add in the tomatoes, a hefty pinch of salt and the thyme and saute, uncovered, until the tomatoes are falling apart, 10-20 minutes depending on your tomatoes! Add in the buttermilk, water and butter and saute 10 minutes more.
Remove the thyme and puree the soup until smooth. If there are large seeds or skins, pass through a sieve. Add back to the pot. Turn up to simmer, grind in black pepper and adjust seasonings. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, spread a bit of butter on one side of toast and place the slices of cheese on the other. Fry (butter side down) in a skillet until the cheese has melted.
Serve soup with a garnish of freshly whipped cream, some chive and more black pepper and the grilled cheese toasts.