PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID ROYAL
Carmel Valley couple hunts, gathers and farms to create a self-sufficient life
When Cristin DeVine and Peter Fonken look out over the golden hills of Carmel Valley, they see not just the beauty that is there, but also a wealth of edible native plants that sustain them.
Between foraging from the wild and growing their own food at home, they’ve made a sacred commitment to living off the land. It takes some time and energy, but as DeVine puts it, “This is what we do for fun.” That involves evenings cracking acorns by hand, shelling beans and pitting cherries—whatever needs to be done, depending on the season.
It’s a lifestyle that seems straight out of centuries past, although 21st-century conveniences—such as having a freezer—make it easier to preserve what they grow. But many of the techniques they employ are as old as humankind, like hand-grinding corn kernels and fermenting vegetables.
On a recent summer afternoon, they prepared a seasonal lunch feast that mingled the bounty of their homestead with wildcrafted dishes. The married couple spends a lot of time playing with their food, making it look as special as it tastes. “We want to honor our food and make it beautiful,” DeVine says.
A licensed marriage and family therapist, DeVine says she and Fonken, who works for the Bureau of Land Management, both have been interested in wild foods since their youth. DeVine lived in Alaska in her 20s, where she fell in love with an indigenous Alaskan, and from him and his family learned to hunt and prepare game. Fonken learned to hunt as a boy, and has studied the plants and animals around him ever since. “I grew up eating acorns in Michigan—I started a long time ago,” he says.
“There’s nothing hard about foraged foods, but there’s also nothing fast about it. It takes time and labor.”
When they became a couple and moved to Carmel Valley 10 years ago, their mutual interest and appreciation for foraging and growing food shifted into high gear, and they agree that each of them inspires the other to do more and do better.
The pandemic, too, has kicked it up a notch. DeVine is now leading the majority of her counseling sessions remotely, giving her more time at home to be out in their gardens or tending their 15 chickens. Preserving, whether by freezing, canning, drying or fermenting, is a full-time obsession. But it’s all necessary to preserve the bounty that would otherwise go to waste.
Wild foods also need to be processed. DeVine and Fonken gather acorns from valley oaks, and nuts from bay laurel trees. Acorns are soaked in water for a week or two, ground and soaked again, to leach out toxins. Bay laurel nuts are roasted and ground, and can be used for a hot coffee-like beverage or in desserts, where they taste like earthy chocolate. DeVine calls it “California cacao.” At other times of the year, they pick huckleberries and fern fiddleheads, along with wild herbs and greens, like miner’s lettuce.
“There’s nothing hard about foraged foods, but there’s also nothing fast about it,” says Fonken. “It takes time and labor.”
The two are constantly learning new things about foraging as well as finding inspiration from others, such as their friend Shane Peterson, co-author of The Farmhouse Culture Guide to Fermenting, and from articles in Edible Monterey Bay, where they’ve gleaned tips on preparing acorns. Their hope is to host farm-to-forage pop-up dinners with Peterson someday, to fund projects and training for Native American communities.
DeVine and Fonken have divided their sloping property into multiple gardens, each with a particular purpose, and fenced it to keep out deer and other critters. There are a berry and olive tree garden, a small dryfarmed fruit orchard, and a larger vegetable and herb garden that Fonken calls “the food jungle.” It offers the unusual (Inca berries and gigante beans, for instance) as well as more standard items.
This garden in particular is unruly, with squash vines curling around the base of cornstalks, dill going to seed and green grapes hanging low around a gabled gate. But for all its wild appearance, it is prolific and full of surprises. Some of it was planted intentionally, and some of it just came up on its own, no doubt from seeds left over from last year.
Letting vegetables live out their natural lives is part of the couple’s philosophy, with the cycle of growth, harvest and reseeding inherent in what they view as a way to live in harmony with the natural world.
They also save seeds from year to year, like Fonken’s treasured Navajo corn that he’s been replanting for a quarter century. They compost everything they can and use rainwater stored in two tanks to irrigate via a gravity-fed drip system.
Eggs from the chickens and honey from three beehives help supplement the wealth of fruits and vegetables, a flood of homegrown food that all comes from their one acre. As they serve up a wide assortment of dishes for lunch, which includes a delicious lime-honey-rosemary drink, a fermented “taco bar” vegetable medley, beet-painted deviled eggs on a bed of nasturtium blossoms, refried beans made from heirloom pintos and tortillas made from that Navajo corn, it’s obvious that this food makes them happy.
DeVine notes the health benefits of eating this way, too. Eating nutrient-dense wild foods enhances one’s personal microbiome, as does homegrown organic produce. Add to that the stress-relieving benefits of working in the soil, and it makes for better physical and emotional health, she says: “There’s something about the meditation of being in flow with the planting and tending of the garden. It keeps us in a beautiful rhythm.”
Fonken says that his family had gardens when he was growing up, and there’s something about knowing where his nourishment comes from that lessens his stress level. “When I could grow my own food, I could relax,” he says.
“It’s a whole lifestyle in harmony and balance with the land,” adds DeVine. “We have purpose and a focus. There’s a deeper sense of meaning.”
Acorn Olive Oil Cake With Honey Orange Blossom Syrup
RECIPE: Courtesy Cristin DeVine and Peter Fonken
PHOTOGRAPHY: David Royal
Fall is prime time for gathering acorns, if you’re so inclined to try your hand at making acorn flour for use in baked items.
MAKING ACORN FLOUR
All acorns have edible nuts, but tannin levels in them vary widely. In the Carmel Valley area, valley oaks boast some of the largest nuts but have lower tannin content, making harvesting and processing easier.
Collect mature, brown acorns that have fallen on the ground. Discard any with wormholes. Leave enough acorns to share with the local wildlife.
Using a nutcracker, shell acorns. Place the nutmeats in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped.
Soak chopped acorns in a food-grade 5-gallon bucket, and cover completely with water. Drain and change water twice a day for 1–2 weeks. Avoid pouring out any ne powder that gathers on top of the coarser nuts as this is a valuable part of the our.
Taste for bitterness (tannins) after 1 week. Continue soaking and rinsing until the bitterness is gone. This process can be speeded up with more frequent water changes or by rinsing the acorns in steadily running water.
Drain acorns completely once the bitterness is gone, and spread on dehydrator trays or oven rack at 125–130° F.
Dehydrate until completely dry. Place nuts in food processor and grind to fine flour.
Acorn our can be stored in an airtight container in the freezer until ready for use. Unshelled acorns can also be stored in the freezer for up to a year. —Cristin DeVine