Fabled Sunstone Discovered In English Shipwreck

sunstone
A team of French archaeologists believe they have found a sunstone, a strange crystal that was said to help mariners locate the sun even on overcast days.

Some of the medieval Norse Sagas mention this device. In “Rauðúlfs þáttr,” King Olaf asks the hero Sigurður to point out the sun in the middle of a snowstorm. Sigurður points to where it is behind the gray sky. To test him, the king had a follower “fetch the sunstone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’s prediction.”

One recent study suggests the “sunstone” was a double-refracting crystal, which allows light through when the light is polarized in certain directions. They brighten or darken depending on the polarization of the light behind it. Clouds block the sun’s visible light but let through a concentration of polarized light that can be detected by the crystal as it’s moved around. Double-refracting crystals such as cordierite, tourmaline and calcite are common in Scandinavia.

Some scholars have expressed doubts about the sunstone’s existence because “Rauðúlfs þáttr” is a highly allegorical tale full of magical events.

Now it appears the tale may not be all that fantastic after all. Archaeologists from the University of Rennes have been studying finds from a British ship that sunk in 1592 near the island of Alderney in the English Channel. They found a rectangular block of Iceland spar calcite crystal, a type known for its double-refracting properties. The crystal was found next to a pair of dividers that may have been used for navigation.

The researchers suggest that their discovery shows the use of sunstones lasted well beyond the Viking era.

The team’s results appear in the latest issue of the “Proceedings of the Royal Society.”

[Photo courtesy Alderney Society Museum]

Sunken British warship to be raised, mystery solved

British warshipIn 1744, a mighty British warship sank off the Channel Islands, killing more than 1,000 sailors and carrying an estimated £500m worth of gold coins. Now, plans are being made to raise the ship and solve one of seafaring’s greatest mysteries.

“HMS Victory was the mightiest vessel of the 18th Century and the eclectic mix of guns we found on the site will prove essential in further refining our understanding of naval weaponry used during the era,” said Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey Marine Exploration the American salvage company that found the ship and has been chosen to carry out the recovery.

The wreck of the 300 ft HMS Victory was a predecessor of Lord Nelson‘s famous 104-gun flagship, now a floating museum, was found near the Channel Islands in 2008, nearly 65 miles from where it was historically believed to have sunk.

Only a cannon, marked with the crest of King George I, has been recovered so far but the remains of the ship’s hull, an iron ballast, two anchors, a copper kettle and rigging have been spotted on the ocean floor where the ship was laid to rest 300 years ago.

The guns and other reclaimed artifacts will be displayed in British museums, however under British laws of salvage, the salvage company is likely to receive the bulk of any treasure found.

No matter, says Lord Lingfield, a relative of Admiral Sir John Balchin, who was onboard the warship when it sank. “We will have the satisfaction of solving a great maritime mystery that has been part of my family history since the 18th Century.”

Flickr photo by david.nikonvscanon



HMS Victory Restoration Begins

Want a beautiful night sky? Go to the Isle of Sark

beautiful night sky
Few things are as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the sky on a clear, dark night. The problem is, most of us live in cities or towns and the lights blot out all but the brightest stars and planets.

The Isle of Sark, one of the Channel Islands, has decided to become the place to go for skygazers. Early this year it was named the world’s first Dark Sky Island by the International Dark-Sky Association. The little island, with a population of only about 600, decided to put itself on the map by altering their lighting to reduce what astronomers call “light pollution”. It helped that there are no streetlights, cars, or paved roads on Sark.

The Isle of Sark hopes “astro-tourism” will bring the local economy a big boost, especially during the winter. The island has been promoting tourism for some time. Being a small and somewhat remote member of the Channel Islands, it provides an experience most visitors to Europe miss. It offers some rugged hiking, caves, and a beautiful 17th century mansion. The dark skies, however, are what will really give the Isle of Sark a chance to stand out among the tough competition for tourists.

Of course this isn’t the only remote spot with dark skies. Twelve years ago I visited Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Like the Isle of Sark, there was no public lighting or cars. In fact, there was no electricity at all. At night it was so dark I needed a flashlight to keep from getting lost on my way to the outhouse. The starry sky was the most brilliant I’ve ever seen and I’ve never forgotten it. Has anyone out there been to Isla del Sol more recently? Is it still that dark at night?

Photo courtesy Forest Wander, which has lots of beautiful free nature photography.

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

favorite summer foodsAah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]favorite summer foods2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.
favorite summer foods
4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).
favorite summer foods
6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.
favorite summer foods
If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

How to Grow Tomatoes on Your Patio

California’s Santa Cruz Island: sea kayaking and…sushi?

My dinner lay spread out beneath me in every direction, plainly visible in the crystalline waters. The rocky inlets and kelp forests of Central California’s eight Channel Islands are home to what is considered to be some of the finest uni, or sea urchin, in the world. To better see them in their natural habitat, I was sea kayaking off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles offshore of the Santa Barbara Channel.

I’d decided on a day trip with Ventura-based outfitter, Island Packers. Confession: I grew up 30 miles south of the quiet coastal community (which is an hour’s drive from LA), but I’d never before visited the islands. It’s just one of those things on my to-do list that kept getting pushed aside, until a friend invited me to join him on a paddle.

Part of the Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz is the state’s largest island and a popular hiking, paddling, and camping destination. Seventy-six-percent of Santa Cruz is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, with the remaining 24-percent managed by the National Park Service. Along with nearby Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel islands, it’s a starkly beautiful place of desolate hills, wind-stunted Native Island Oaks, white sand beaches, tidepools and fossil beds, and rocky cliffs. Santa Cruz is also a popular whale watching destination, famed for its massive sea caves, which can be explored by kayak.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mikebaird]


The Channel Islands were first inhabited by the Chumash Indians, whose archaeological remains date back over 10,000 years. In the last two hundred years, the islands have variously been used by fur traders, fishermen, and the military (poor San Miguel was a bomb testing site that still has the odd live mine unearthed by the relentless wind). In the late 19th century, cattle, horse, and sheep ranching became island industries.

Today, the islands are essentially deserted except for some research facilities, and a handful of primitive campgrounds. There are no stores so campers must pack in all essentials, including drinking water. Campground reservations and a nominal fee are required on all five islands; Santa Rosa permits seasonal beach camping for experienced paddlers and boaters. Even if you’re just day hiking, be sure to bring layers, as the weather is unpredictable.

The Channel Islands are known as North America’s Galapagos. They’re home to over 2,000 species of bird, plant, animal, and marine life, 145 of which are found nowhere else on earth (including the island fox, and an endemic scrub jay). The waters host a variety of sea urchin species, including Strongylocentrotus franciscanus, the red sea urchin. Another confession: I’m not so much a fan of uni, which I find overpowering, as I am of sustainable marine resource management. I’m also fascinated by seeing any ingredient in its raw state. Combined with my love of sea kayaking, a Channel Islands uni expedition was irresistible.

Highly prized for their flavorful roe (which are actually the egg-producing gonads), red urchins are harvested commercially by divers for the domestic and international market. Purple urchins also proliferate in the Channel Islands, but their smaller size makes them undesirable for commercial use. Appearance-wise, uni resemble jaundiced cat tongues (really), and they have an intense, briny flavor revered by seafood aficionados for its pure, unadulterated ocean essence.

Uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin roe; sushi is the culinary form most familiar to Americans. Another classic way to enjoy uni is smeared on toasted bread, which is how I’ve eaten it on the Chilean island of Chiloe – another spot famed for sea urchin. In Southern Italy, uni, or ricci di mare, is sold as a street food, to be scooped onto bread, or tossed in pasta or risotto, while the French use them in custards or delicate sauces, as well as raw for street food. Uni used to be primarily an export product, sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but since the 1990’s, the domestic market has been the most profitable. In Santa Barbara, you’ll find local uni, when available, at Arigato, and The Hungry Cat (convieniently, my two favorite local restaurants).

Uni is generally considered a sustainable industry because there are size regulations, permit restrictions, and limits on how many days a week harvest is permitted, depending upon the season. Red urchins range from tideline to depths up to 90 feet, subsisting entirely on bottom-growing kelp; the quality of their roe is entirely dependent upon the quantity and health of the aquatic plants, and it’s in the best interest of divers harvesting uni to be selective. Channel Islands uni are prized because of the high quality of the kelp, which is rich in nutrients due to the convergence of the region’s warm and cold waters. Grade A uni possess fatty, or creamy, bright yellow roe, while Grade B uni are more of a brown or orange color. The lowest grade roe have a grainy texture and brown roe.

Central California‘s coast is the nation’s leading source of uni, and it’s become one of the state’s most important fisheries. Though regulated (and currently only open to commercial harvest), not all sea urchin fisheries are sustainable. Human factors, in addition to climate and water temperatures (which affect the kelp cycle) are reasons you might not always find uni at your local sushi bar. Sea otter migration is another factor, and a source of much industry controversy.

While the Santa Barbara/Channel Islands fishery doesn’t have otters, the animals have, in the last decade, moved farther south-the result of coastal development and pollution, and increasing human populations. They’re a protected species, and a key part of the food chain. By nature, they’re grazers (they also don’t feed at depths below 60 feet), snacking upon sea urchins and crustaceans as they swim. Bits of food fall to the ocean floor as they eat, which in turn provides sustenance for lower-food chain bottom feeders. In some fisheries, otters, combined with overfishing, have caused sea urchin and shellfish populations to dwindle.The Channel Island fishery has instituted strict harvest regulations to sustain a healthy sea urchin population, but if otters move into the area, that could change.

The big picture, however, is that consumers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs need to continue to seek out seafood that is sourced in an ecologically responsible manner, from well-managed fisheries. How you eat your uni is up to you, but if you’d like to see them in their pristine natural state first, take a paddle around one of the Channel Islands.

For boat departures, click here.

The Santa Barbara Fish Market, located at the Harbor, sells live and processed uni. It’s adjacent to the Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor, held 7am to 11am. Local guys sell their catch straight off their boats; even if you just go to look, it’s a great little slice of local industry that not many tourists get a chance to see.

Spaghetti with Clams and Uni

The following recipe is from an uni article written by Los Angeles Times editor Russ Parsons. For information on how to purchase seafood from well-managed fisheries, click here to view Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” list.

Serves 6

salt
2 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
dash crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 lb. spaghetti
1 c. white wine
2 lbs. small clams in shell (Manila type)
2 (2-ounce) trays sea urchins
Italian parsley, leaves only, left whole

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Taste a bit of sea urchin. If it seems bitter, add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the skillet. Cook until the garlic is soft but not yet golden, 2 to 3 minutes. When the garlic has softened, add the white wine to the skillet and raise the heat to high. Cook until the wine has reduced by about half, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the clams and 1 ½ trays of sea urchins, reserving the best ones for garnish. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until the clams are all open, about 5 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, add the spaghetti to the boiling water. Cook until it is just short of al dente, soft but with a thin thread of crunch in the center, about 7 minutes.
When the clams have opened, remove the skillet from the heat and stir to break up as much of the sea urchins as possible. They should blend into the sauce.

When the spaghetti is done, drain it, reserving one-half cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti and the reserved cooking water to the sauce and place it over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce has slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary. Divide among 6 heated pasta bowls and garnish with the reserved sea urchin and several leaves of parsley. Serve immediately.

[Photo credits: sea kayak, Flickr user mikebaird; uni, Flickr user rick; Scorpion Bay, Flickr user Brian Dunlay; seagull, Flickr user KyleChx; sea urchin, Flickr user mecredis]