Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Camping by the Eel River and we seriously miss good Slovak sausages!

I know I haven't posted anything in a dog's age, but I figured I'd document this short but long overdue camping trip we just took over the first weekend of August at one of my favorite spots, up in the northern edge of Mendocino County along the Eel River, in part because something on the trip raised a Slovak-related matter that I really need to address.

First off, things have been going well. I've been working for the Academy of Art University's online education department since June, and Terezia is still cooking up a storm for the family she's working for, in addition to some other clients.

But it became abundantly clear that we needed to get away from the daily grind for a few days and unwind. Plus, the weather in San Francisco this summer has been so cold, dreary, windy, and grey that it's been giving me seasonal disaffective disorder, so we desperately needed to refill on some nature and sunshine. Also, the last time we'd been camping was exactly two years ago, on the Croatian coast in summer 2013.

We took off for a campground I've been going to ever since I was a kid, up north just off 101, along the Eel River, near a tiny town called Leggett (pop. 122).

Yes, it's a car-camping site, and I know what you're picturing: loud families in big-ass trucks with ill-behaved kids buzzing around on dirt bikes and a radio subjecting the usual 70s classic rock hits to the adjacent campsites; horrifying restrooms and showering facilities that make you wish you'd come equipped with full hazmat gear; a baby whaling incessantly in the distance; a humorless Berkeley family in REI gear and a Subaru wagon trying desperately to impart a modicum of nature's beauty to their bored children, etc.

And, well, this campground inevitably has some of that, but it's actually nicer than most. For starters, if you go deeper into the park to the steep hills on the western side of the Eel River, the campsites are much more secluded by redwood trees and foliage, which, apart from just being plain pretty, offer a sense of privacy.

The campsite as seen at the foot of the little path from the car.

But what's always excited me about this park sever since I was 10 (when my family starting coming here) are a few swimmable sections of the Eel River that are as much as 25 feet deep and lined by rocky beaches and tall, picturesque stone walls. The water itself is generally quite clean. Bitingly cold in the morning, by later afternoon the river actually warms up and it can become exceedingly difficult to extract oneself from it, if swimming in natural bodies of water is your kind of thing.

This part of the river is about a half mile away from the campsites. The first beach you come to is quite nice, set against the backdrop of a craggy, tall, rock wall, complete with attractive, jagged rock layers and scraggly trees along the top. The rocks are perfect for diving into the super deep river.

But unfortunately, this beach is where most of the loud families with obnoxious kids park themselves - and I can't blame them: it's a super inviting stretch of the river and the swimming area is fairly large. This beach also faces an infamous 60-foot high cliff from which macho hicks, meth addicts, and jocks plunge into the river in an effort to make up for their apparently inadequately sized genitalia. Sometimes they egg each other on, and on a couple of occasions when I was a kid, a few of these types appeared to get potentially seriously injured and had to be carried out by their so-called friends.

But we always head downstream a little bit to another beach area where few people bother to go, in part because you have to traverse a flood plain covered in big, loose, ankle-spraining rocks (and which is crawling with lizards and cicadas whose loud chorus always seems to serve as the perfect soundtrack to hot summer weather) to get to it.

But once you're there, you've got another stretch of the river that's plenty deep and big enough not just for swimming, but for a little (more modest) rock diving as well. Though some of the commotion from the first beach echoes audibly downstream, on some days you may get this more tranquil part of the river all to yourself. And if you do get some visitors, they are usually (but not quite always) folks who are looking for a mellower alternative to the first beach too, so it's not a big deal.

We both love baking on the sandy beach in the sun while reading a book, then going into the river to cool off and swim for a while, and basically just repeat that throughout the day until we get hungry for dinner and go back to the campsite. This more peaceful section of the river has a rock ledge that's fairly easy to climb to and is about, oh, maybe 15 feet high, so nothing too crazy, but high enough for me to get my rock diving thrill.

You can typically see steelhead and possibly rainbow trout in the river, and the younger fish love to check you out and nibble your feet when you first walk into the shallow part. You can also see the occasional small, harmless snake drifting by, as well as some water gliders and frogs.

Another fun thing about the river: near our preferred beach is a big tangle of blackberry vines, and we love to pick the berries for making delicious blackberry pancakes for breakfast.

So, how is the Eel River looking amid California's epic, off-the-charts drought?

Overall, not too bad. You can see from the white markings along the rock walls that the water is about a foot and a half lower. Also, Terezia and I both swear that the current used to be stronger. It was never crazy strong, but it used to take a little more effort to swim against it.

Also, this time there seemed to be a little more algae, making the river a bit greener in color, which I suppose could also be a sign of lower water levels, slower current, and warmer temperatures.

At any rate, the trip got off to a rough start when we pulled up to our reserved campsite (the very site my family used to get when I was a kid) to find that the neighboring one was inhabited by six 20-something douchebag frat boy types (and one poor girl - clearly the new "item" of one of the boys, who misguidedly thought it'd be a swell idea to take her along). That first night they stayed up super late, droning on with inane anecdote after inane anecdote in their bellowing outdoor voices, while one of them kept making this annoyingly repetitive banging noise, which turned out to be the sound of someone splitting wood to keep the campfire going. Luckily, I remembered to bring earplugs for both of us, which were good enough to allow us to tune out all of the din and get some sleep.

And fortunately for us, they split the next day, and the park rangers, for reasons unknown, left the reserved sign on the campsite's little numbered post, and the campsite stayed vacant the next two nights!

On the second night, a group of three raspy voiced, fidgety, middle-aged meth addicts set up camp in a site sort of across the road from us, and we were initially concerned about their radio playing an endless barrage of Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Bad Company, etc., but we weren't able to hear them from our site, so not a problem.

Visually, the park isn't exactly Yosemite Valley or anything, but it's still quite scenic and pretty, and the rocky, steeply sloped landscape is packed with gorgeous, soaring, old redwoods and jagged, picturesque rocks. I mean, with this area of northern California, the coastal redwoods of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, you really can't go wrong.

Now, on to my rant about Slovak sausages:

When getting food for our trip, Terezia thought it would be fun to buy some good sausages for grilling, since that's kind of an easy, no-fuss thing to grill over a campsite fire pit.

But first, I need to back up a bit:

Terezia and I have come to suspect that Americans, or at least Californians or Bay Areans, don't understand what good sausage is. Most American sausage is flat, one-dimensional, bland, and kind of dry. With one exception (a stunning, locally made Merguez lamb sausage), every sausage we've ever had here absolutely pales compared to the best examples of good Slovak sausage.

I spent my life thinking sausage was a perfectly fine but generally not terribly exciting thing until on our honeymoon in Italy back in 2011, when in Perugia we stumbled on a big annual cultural street fair, at which there was a Slovak section with a woman (from just outside of Bratislava) in a food truck grilling up the most mind-blowing sausages I've ever tasted. (You can read the post about that here).

Amazing Slovak sausage in Perugia, Italy. Notice that beautiful red hue! *That* is a real sausage.

These sausages were a mesmerizing explosion of flavor. They had tremendous depth and richness, just the right amount of spiciness, and the smokiness from the grilling added another layer of deliciousness. Finding good grilled sausage quickly became a "thing" for us in Slovakia, and a butcher shop in Lucenec (the biggest town near Terezia's parents' village) had the only sausage that rivaled those that we had in Perugia. Other sausages in Slovakia ranged from good to great (there were some duds, of course), and nearly all of them put to shame that thing that Americans erroneously think of as sausage.

So, being health conscious (most of the time), Terezia and I don't eat sausage often, but we're nevertheless trying to understand why nearly all American sausage sucks so hard, and we're on a quest to find something here that's even half as good as good Slovak sausage.

At any rate, Terezia knew of a gourmet butcher shop on the peninsula called Dittmer's, and she figured if anyone had the real thing, it might be them. (Yes, we've tried Berkeley Bowl and all the obvious places where you'd expect to find such a thing in this area - and no dice.) She talked to the guy at the counter about what she was looking for, and he sold her several recommendations: some kind of German bratwurst, spicy Italian, and Cajun.

The verdict?

The German sausage was scarcely more interesting than a decent hot dog.

The spicy Italian was spicy, but still had that one-dimensional flavor that plagues sausage in America.

The Cajun was the only thing that sort of hinted at the greatness of Slovak sausage, but it was still very far off the mark. It was also spicier than the spicy Italian.

And this was the best that Dittmer's could come up with? Seriously?

Seems like further proof that people here have zero concept of what good sausage is.

Terezia thinks that most American sausages are lacking in fat. Good sausage has to have plenty of fat. It enriches the flavor, and when you're grilling a fatty Slovak sausage, that thing sizzles and crackles like mad. Most of these American sausages seem to stay on the dry side and barely ooze out much of anything when on the grill.

Most American sausages seem to be quite a bit leaner. Californians are generally more health conscious than Slovaks when it comes to food, but when you want truly good sausage, you're not going to find it if you're looking for something healthier. I mean, that's why we only eat good sausage a few times a year.

The Cajun sausage was fattier, and that's probably partly why it was a little better than the others.

And of course, importantly, Slovak sausages are made form pork; none of this lean, American, turkey, chicken, or beef junk.

Another crucial component to good Slovak sausage: the blend of spices, especially paprika. And Terezia says the ground up spices and herbs are better when they're fresh. If you use packets of spices ground in some food plant and purchased in the grocery store, the flavors won't pop as much.

Now, exactly what that blend of spices consists of beyond paprika, Terezia and I are kind of in the dark. When we went to her uncle's pig slaughtering back in 2011, we got to help make the sausages, but her uncle used only packaged spices that he bought from the grocery store, and I swear that possibly because of that, his sausages weren't quite as good as the best varieties we had. (But they were still tasty; and he made hurky, which is a sausage stuffed with a mixture of the pig's ground innards and rice. We'd love it if you could find hurky in the US.)

Terezia also believes that Americans are grinding their sausages too finely, and that could perhaps wring out some of the flavor, like they're being overworked or something.

We also noticed that the lining of most American sausages doesn't quite have the same thickness or snap to it that Slovak sausages have. Good Slovak sausages also tend to have a beautiful reddish hue, which we've not really seen in American sausages.

So, we're still trying to work out all the reasons why, but American sausages continue to seriously disappoint compared to the orgasmically tasty real deal in Slovakia.

At any rate, hopefully we'll be back at the Eel River again before too long.