Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Avocado Harvest and Bacon "Clam" Chowder on the Beach

The local conditions were forecast to be pounding surf, so Nicholas and I decided to head up to the Santa Barbara coast. The swell there was supposed to be a minimal 1-2ft at seven seconds and we figured it could be a good day to locate some Pismo clams and make up a pot of chowder on the beach. That’s where our story begins…
The Pismo clam (Tivela stultorum) was once a major recreational fishery enjoyed by thousands along southern California’s beaches. In the 1960’s it was commonplace to see families by the hundreds  headed out to Newport, Santa Monica, or any other sandy strands, armed with pitchforks and buckets in anticipation of the bounties of a solid low tide.
During the early 1990’s however, a massive set of El Niño storms came through eroding sea cliffs and scouring out the beaches. This onslaught of high wave action destroyed the habitat that is vital for rearing juvenile Pismos, and as a result the once prolific bivalve and its associated traditional recreational fishery were destroyed for decades. A handful of bivalve enthusiasts however, have been monitoring the health and reemergence of Pismos in the region and it is my pleasure to announce that I have seen them in great numbers at select localities…especially the juveniles! Though nowhere near as abundant as they once were, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has examined their survey data and determined that a recreational 10 per day take would allow the current breeding population to be sustainable.
As we made our way in the rusty old Honda Civic Foragemobile we agreed that in light of all that the Pismos had gone through over the years, we would only take half limits if given the chance. We still needed a few ingredients for the chowder, so we took a side road into a well forested canyon and began looking for the right ecological niche. In a tall riparian corridor we found the bay leaves we needed for flavoring the soup base. On the sunny slopes in disturbed ground we found wild fennel and under the shade of an old oak we gathered a pair of nasturtium blooms, which are as deliciously spicy as they are beautiful for a garnish.

When we arrived at our freediving destination, we'll call it Sandy Cove to protect its locality, we remembered that it was memorial day weekend. Droves of beach towels, umbrellas, barbecues and bikini's lined the beach. We got a good laugh and a lot of looks as we marched our camouflaged wetsuits through the crowd to the water's edge. The swell was far from calm and I remarked to Nicholas that "This was going to require a lot of duck diving and hard kicking to get through those waves!" We made it out past the whitewater and large swells and took a break laughing and panting from the workout and then descended into the abyss. We both soon realized that this spot was not going to work out. After literally bumping our chins along on the sandy sea floor and still unable to see the bottom we attempted a little braille diving. Realizing that there was no way we were going to locate and retain clams by feel we made the call and kicked in...well half way, then we dropped in on a few nice waves and rode them all the way to shore on the Banksboard.
After another exhausted laugh we marched back through the crowd, got back in the car (still in our suits) and headed up to the next cove which looked calmer and clearer.

A short half mile hike to the sea shore and a quick kick out yielded similar results...no water clarity! I did get a whole 1ft of visibility in the shallows however, but scanning the sea floor as much as I did, no clams were found. Returning to shore, Nicholas and I made our way to a pair of avocado trees my good buddy Lucas (the man who got me into urban foraging) had once showed me. These trees were no doubt remnants of an old orchard, later re-zoned and built up into a housing tract. Here, a few trees that did not quite fit into the plan were left undisturbed outside the boundaries of property lines in no man's land...or should I say in forager's land?

We climbed into the canopy and gathered as much fruit as we knew we could use. Taking great care and time to pick the very best avocados we could reach. The crop was abundant and our score made us feel a bit better about the lack of clams. So we headed back down the tracks from our secret trees and down the coast to enjoy the spoils of today's foraging.

We got the grill going at a nice still cove and watched waves crash on the shore as the sun set and our chowder cooked. With the last of my homemade fish stock, home made sea salt, bacon ends, potatoes, cream, wildcrafted herbs, and spices from the shelves back home we let the soup simmer. And with visions of guacamole in a few weeks when the avocados ripened, we served up our feast in abalone shells I had dove for in the north, adorned with nasturtium blooms and feasted on the best bacon "clam" chowder we've ever had!

All in all, even our "failure" with the clams resulted in a hugely successful adventure. This was a day we will not soon forget. Keep the old ways alive!

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