Monday, December 10, 2012

Ancient Ohlone "Vinaigrette"

Last week we debuted the Taste of Big Sur menu at Sierra Mar.   My goal was to create a menu that was directly inspired by the Post Ranch Inn’s dramatic surroundings, while using as many ingredients sourced from the property as possible.  In preparing for this menu, I did extensive research into the Native Californian culture and unearthed some interesting stories in the process.  One I found most fascinating was practiced by the Ohlone tribe.  They would collect miner’s lettuce and other wild greens and pile them on ant hills while they foraged.  The ants would then season the greens with a faint trail of formic acid.  I have often heard about cultures from Central America to Southeast Asia incorporating ants into their diet, but had never heard of this approach. 

Miner’s lettuce is not in season, so I collected a few nasturtium leaves and laid them on top of an ant hill in front of my house on the coastal ridge.  The ants did not seem terribly interested, but a few did find their way across the leaves. After a day had passed I shook off a leaf and took a discreet bite.  The flavor was very mild and the taste of nasturtium almost completely overpowered the faint hint of acidity left behind by the ants.  While the flavor was barely perceptible to me, I suspect that Native Californians had far more acute senses and were unaccustomed to heavily seasoned foods.  

For my next experiment, I dabbed a jar with some local honey and waited to collect a few dozen ants.  I shook the ants into a mortar and ground them with olive oil and sea salt until they become a smooth-emulsified dressing.  The dressing was still mild, but did have a nice level of acidity and completely unfamiliar flavor.  Next, the dressing was drained through a coffee filter and put into an atomizer.  I could then take the atomizer and spray a lite mist over wild herbs and flowers.  

Today when I was walking through the back part of the ranch in search of chanterelles, I happened upon a large rock that had several cylindrical mortars carved into the top.  Aside from a few acorns, the property did not yield much this rainy afternoon and I can only imagine how challenging finding dinner might have been a thousand years ago.

For the Taste of Big Sur Menu I combine a number of herbs from our garden and wild herbs in a small arrangement and then spritz them with the ant “vinaigrette”.  Each herb has a distinct flavor, sweet hysopp, spicy mustard, floral nasturtium, refreshing pea shoot, tart wild strawberry and brassica like Alyssum - each complimented by the mild acidic base of the ant vinaigrette.  The course is served midway through the nine course meal and acts as both a refreshing palate cleanser and a small glimpse into a forgotten chapter of local history.

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