Seasonal Whimsey

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Rubenstein, Edible Indy

Photo courtesy of
Jennifer Rubenstein, Edible Indy



There is always some special magic afoot around the time of the winter solstice. Last year I found it at the historic Beltane Ranch, a B&B on a working ranch in Sonoma Valley—the golden light, a crackling fire, smoke mingling with fog, music of birds, and a leaf-bare tree hung with orange persimmons. Soaking it in, I pulled my children toward me for what’s become an enduring mental photograph.

This year, with no travel in store but a sense of whimsy intact, I set off around the East Bay to see what would capture each of my senses.


Seasonal change, in all its polychromatic glory, is always on display at Monterey Market in North Berkeley. Kabocha squash with its knobby, dark-green skin, deep-red pomegranates, bright-orange persimmons, and smooth brown chestnuts—all are currently auditioning for the role of centerpiece at your holiday table.

Needing some festive linens as backdrop for those beauties, I dropped in at Kitchen Table on Locust Street in Walnut Creek. In addition to a full section of kitchenware in a riot of color, I found colorful hand-dipped candles, hand-painted ceramic tableware, artful aprons, plush throws in warm hues, and an amazing array of unique artist-made items.


Photo by Colin Prince

Photo by Colin Prince

This search kept leading to chocolate. At Highwire Coffee Roasters inside Rockridge Market Hall, I found gâté comme des filles chocolats. Made by Alexandra Whisnant, a former Chez Panisse pastry chef, the ethereal hand-dipped confections feature seasonal ingredients found and foraged in the Bay Area.

Wandering through the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market, I came upon The Oakland Chocolate Co., a unique Jamaican-origin-bean-to-bar-to-bonbon manufacturer recently started by former Oakland City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel. With an appointment, you can take your group for a chocolate-tasting seminar at the company’s new tasting room. You’ll learn about their work to help a struggling Jamaican cacao co-op thrive and become a model green operation.

The name “Five Flavors” drew me into an Uptown Oakland herb shop, where I wasn’t expecting to find chocolate. But there I was at a drop spot for Endorfin, an Oakland chocolate maker that offers a community-supported-chocolate subscription. Taking a cue from the CSA (community-supported-agriculture) concept, Endorfin offers a monthly selection of chocolates, locally made with seasonal ingredients. Endorfin founder Brian Wallace leads workshops all over the Bay Area—mostly in the East Bay—where he talks about cacao as part of a “pharmacopeia of ethnobotanicals.”


As a child, I lived briefly in Dublin, Ireland. I can distinctly recall inhaling the aroma of roasting coffee, a particularly inviting scent in colder weather months. On a recent visit to the Kensington Farmers’ Market that memory came flooding back, leading my nose directly to the Catahoula Coffee booth. A frequent winner of the coveted San Francisco Chronicle BayList’s “Best of Bay,” Catahoula roasts a handful of signature blends, guaranteed to please the olfactories.

I will endure a long line any day of the week for the ultimate reward of entering ACME Bread Company’s original retail outlet in Berkeley. Two at a time are invited into the small storefront to take in the aroma of fresh baked bread. Smell the sweet tinge of spice emanating from the Cinnamon Currant Bread or lemon notes rising from the Citrus Almond Brioche. Pain au Levain, Walnut Levain, Olive Bread, Challah, and sour and sweet rustic breads are also available to toss in your bicycle basket.


While carving Hallowe’en pumpkins, I found myself wondering what other artistic things could be done with squash. It turns out a lot, especially with gourds, the pumpkin’s cucurbit cousins. Visit the Caning Shop on Gilman in Berkeley to learn about gourd art and gourd musical instruments. Find the claw-foot tub at the back of the shop, fill it partially with water, set one of the gourd bowls afloat, and strike the gourd with a mallet to discover the wonderfully haunting sound of a gourd water drum.


Brought to you by skilled hands of local artists, the KPFA Crafts Fair has returned to the East Bay after 19 years in San Francisco. Now at Craneway Pavilion in the Richmond Marina (December 20 and 21), it promises to be a sensual wonderland, especially of the tactile. Run your fingers (with permission, of course) over knitted, woven, and felted scarves, vivid textiles, hand-woven Fair Trade baskets, textured pottery, fine wood turnings, hand blown glass, and unique jewelry. It’s all begging to be noticed, touched, and admired.

Seasons cycle back around, and holidays come and go, but adventures like a whimsical scavenger hunt can help you cherish each one.