Best ice cream in America not just from a shop

best ice cream AmericaSince Memorial Day is past, I think it’s safe to say we’ve officially entered ice cream season (National Ice Cream Day is July 17) Unless you live in Seattle, in which case, it’s still winter, but never mind. We still have great ice cream.

What makes for acclaim-worthy ice cream? Food writers like me tend to look for an emphasis on local/seasonal ingredients, including dairy. I love high butterfat ice cream, because my feeling is, if I’m going to indulge (I’m also lactose intolerant, so it’s really taking one for the team) I want something insanely creamy and smooth, with a rich, full, mouthfeel. Gummy or chewy ice cream is the hallmark of stabilizers such as guar or xanthan gum. The fewer the ingredients, the better, in my book. Hormone/antibiotic-free cream, milk, eggs; fruit or other flavoring agent(s). That’s it.

Much ado is made of unusual ice cream flavors, and I agree that creativity is welcome, as long as it remains in check. But there’s something to be said about purity, as well. If you can’t make a seriously kickass chocolate or vanilla, you may as well shut your doors.

Below is a round-up of my favorite ice cream shops, farmers market stands, food trucks, and carts (the latter two a growing source of amazing ice cream) across the country. If your travel plans include a visit to one of these cities, be sure to drop by for a dairy or non-dairy fix; most of these places do offer sorbet, or coconut milk or soy substitutes. Some also sell via mail order and at other retail outlets; check each site for details.

1. San Francisco: Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop
When I lived in Berkeley, I used to make special trips into the City just to shop at Bi-Rite Market, a beloved neighborhood grocery in the Mission District that specializes in all things local, organic/sustainable, and handcrafted, from produce to chocolate. When they opened a tiny, adorable creamery across and up the street a few years ago, it was with the same ethos and business practices in mind. Organic milk and cream are sourced from Straus Family Creamery in adjacent Marin County, fruit from nearby family farms. Salted Caramel is a best seller; I’m a slave to Brown Butter Pecan, and Creme Fraiche. Every rich, creamy mouthful is about purity of flavor, but sundaes and new soft-serve flavors are also available.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Barbara L. Hanson]best ice cream americaRunner-up is three-year-old Humphrey Slocombe, also in the Mission. Personally, I can live without Government Cheese, Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), or Foie Gras ice cream, but I can definitely get behind Secret Breakfast (bourbon and corn flakes), Prosciutto (somehow, it makes sense, whereas I just don’t like my diseased goose liver in dairy form), Honey Thyme, and Cucumber Ice Milk. Like Bi-Rite, dairy also comes from Straus, and local food artisans and farmers provide the goods for most of the esoteric to downright freakish flavors. Bottom line: what doesn’t repulse you is good stuff

2. Brooklyn: Van Leeuwen
While in Williamsburg two weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of Van Leeuwen’s famous, butter-yellow ice cream vans (co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen used to be a Good Humor driver). It was tough to decide on a flavor, given the lovely, lyrical sound of the mostly botanical flavors such as ginger, currants and cream, and Earl Gray. I chose palm sugar, which was an ethereal blend of sweet, high-quality dairy Van Leeuwen sources from a farmer he knows in Franklin County, and the caramelly richness of the sugar. Props too, for using all biodegradable materials. Van Leeuwen also has stores in Greenpoint and Boerum Hill. A trusted friend in Brooklyn also highly recommends the Asian-inflected flavors at Sky Ice, a Thai family-owned spot in Park Slope.

3. Chicago: Snookelfritz Ice Cream Artistry
Pastry chef Nancy Silver stands behind her unassuming little stall at Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park, dishing out some of the most spectacular ice cream in the country. Snooklefritz specializes in seasonal ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets using Kilgus Farmstead heavy cream and Meadow Haven organic eggs. The result are creations such as the deeply flavorful maple-candied hickory nut, and heavenly brown sugar and roasted peach ice creams, and a creamy, dreamy Klug Farms blackberry sherbet.

4. Seattle: Full Tilt Ice Cream
The city’s most iconoclastic ice cream shop (on my first visit, the ska-punk band Three Dead Whores was playing…at the shop) has opened several locations in the last two years, but the original is in the ethnically diverse, yet-to-gentrify part of South Seattle known as White Center. That accounts for flavors like horchata, Mexican chocolate, ube (purple yam), and bourbon caramel (if you saw the patrons at the open-at-6am tavern next door, you’d understand). Enjoy Memphis King (peanut butter, banana, and chocolate-covered bacon) with a beer pairing while scoping out local art on the walls or playing pinball. Over in hipster-heavy Capitol Hill, Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room does the PacNW justice by offering an intense, almost savory Elysian Stout (the brewery is two blocks away), and a spot-on Stumptown Coffee ice cream. Not as high in butterfat as the other ice creams on this list, but well-made, and full of flavor, using Washington state dairy.
best ice cream america
5. Portland, Oregon: Salt & Straw
“Farm to Cone” is the motto at this new ice cream cart/soon-to-be-storefront in the Alberta Arts District. Think local ingredients, and sophisticated, fun flavors that pack a punch like a lovely pear and blue cheese, honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper, hometown Stumptown Coffee with cocoa nibs, and brown ale with bacon. The 17% butterfat content is courtesy of the herd at Oregon’s 4th generation Lochmead Dairy.

6. Columbus, Ohio: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni’s has a clutch of stores now, but the family-owned original is in Columbus. The Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, and Freisan cows at Ohio’s Snowville Creamery produce high-butterfat milk and cream, which, according to Jeni’s, goes from “cow to our kitchen within 48 hours.” The result are flavors ranging from signature Buckeye State (salty peanut butter with chunks of dark chocolate) and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, to seasonal treats such as Backyard Mint, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, and Strawberry Buttermilk. Down home and delicious.

7. Boston: Toscanini’s
From Burnt Caramel to Grape Nut, Cake Batter, Cardamom Coffee, or Banana sorbet, this wildly popular Cambridge shop is, in the words of a colleague, “consistently original and good.” Equally wonderful is Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, also in Cambridge. It’s attached to the family-owned spice shop: the results are fresh, potent flavors such as Cinnamon, Herbal Chai, French Vanilla, Fresh Rose or Mint, and Bergamot. Five sorbets are available daily, as well.

[Photo credits: bourbon, Flickr user gigaman; bacon, Flickr user miss_rogue]

This eggnog ice cream from Van Leeuwen is admittedly Christmasy-sounding, but just think of it as “custard” ice cream (and a way to subconsciously cool off, while watching this clip). Pair with luscious summer fruit, such as sliced nectarines, cherries, strawberries, or plums.

Van Leeuwen Eggnog Ice Cream Recipe

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

shark finAs a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]shark fin Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimatelyshark fin wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.
shark fin
Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.shark fin

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.
shark fin
As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Top 10 farmers markets in U.S.

There’s an innate pleasure to eating seasonally, especially this time of year, when berries, stonefruit, peppers, corn, and tomatoes are at their peak. Farmers markets are one of the best ways to enjoy these ingredients, not only because they afford the chance to connect with growers, ranchers, fishermen, and food artisans, but also because they’re a window into the soul of a community.

I’ll be the first to admit I can’t afford to buy all of my groceries from my local market, and I get toilet paper and other household essentials from generic grocery chains. In our present era of food-related pretense, being on a first-name basis with your local farmer has become a form of culinary oneupmanship. Forget all that. The best reason to shop local and grower-direct, besides supporting family farms and local food security, is that you have access to fresh food, which is higher in nutrients, and often just tastes better. The bonus is usually a lively scene, with music, cooking demonstrations, tastings, and seasonal events.

Based on my ten years of working at markets in various states, below are my picks for the top ten farmers markets in the nation. I’ve based my criteria on their “green,” growers only (i.e., vendors must sell their own product and adhere to sustainable practices) policies, diversity and quality of product, and community involvement. If a visit to one of these markets isn’t on your Labor Day travel itinerary, not to worry. With over 5,000 markets operating throughout the U.S., there’s sure to be one near you.1. San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market

Top honors go to this thriving market for its gorgeous food displays, Bayside location, and nationally-acclaimed educational programs. Taste olive oil, cheese from Andante Dairy, June Taylor’s heirloom fruit preserves, and Marshall’s Farm Honey, and ogle the exquisite produce from Knoll Tairwa Farm and Dirty Girl Produce. Afterward, stroll the adjoining Ferry Building Marketplace and visit permanent shops from some of the state’s top food artisans.

2. Union Square Greenmarket, New York

The ultimate urban market boasts everything from Blue Moon’s spanking fresh Atlantic seafood, and artisan cheeses from Cato Corner Farm and Bobolink Dairy, to farmstead maple products and a staggering array of apples and cider from Upstate. Go with ample empty shopping bags; you’ll want souvenirs.

3. Santa Fe Farmers Market, New Mexico

Alongside pristine, high desert-grown produce, you’ll find Native American growers from local pueblos selling grassfed buffalo and heirloom crops descended from 300-year old indigenous seed stock; dried posole, and more varieties of dried chile than you knew existed. Come with an empty stomach, so you have room for tamales, bomber breakfast burritos, or goat milk fudge.

4. Boulder Farmers Market, Colorado

Regional farmers prove that a short growing season can still be spectacular in the form of red sunchokes, fingerling potatoes, maroon heirloom carrots, and peaches to die for from Morton’s Orchards. A kaleidoscope of cut flowers and an adjoining prepared food section make this bustling market a colorful-and delicious- community hot spot.

5. Berkeley Farmers Market, California

Although just 13 miles across the Bay from San Francisco, this revered urban market has a distinct flavor all it’s own. Grab a rustic loaf from Brickmaiden Breads, pâté or charcuterie from Fatted Calf, cheese from Redwood Hill Farm, and some produce, and you have the ultimate picnic.

6. Dane County Farmers Market, Madison, Wisconsin

Even in frigid winters, this college town market keeps on, providing hearty fare such as artisan brats and sausages, rabbit, delicate Fantôme Farm chevre, honey, and sweet, Northern European-style baked goods. This time of year, expect an abundance of produce, including cherries, elderberries, foraged hickory nuts, and other wild foods.

7. Seattle “U-District” Market

Seattle’s most popular neighborhood market is “farmers only,” meaning it’s limited to food products. It hosts over 50 regional growers who gather to sell free-range eggs, hard cider, hazelnuts, a multitude of berries, foraged mushrooms and other wild foods, goat meat, fresh and smoked salmon, and native geoduck clams.

8. Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, Washington DC

Credited with teaching Washingtonians to add produce to their agendas, this immesely popular, yearround market offers a regular “Chef in Market” program, and sells everything from ice cream and handcrafted soap to meat, seafood, pasta, and cow, goat, and sheep’s milk cheeses. Most of the product comes from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and is grown, raised, or caught within a 150-mile radius.


9. Austin Farmers Market, Texas

This beloved market is limited to local (within 150 miles) farms, and boasts a distinct Southwestern flavor. Pick up Creole pralines, pecans, heirloom zipper, cream, black-eyed, and purple peas, then dive into locally made empanadas and Oaxacan and Cuban food.

10. Kapiolani Community College (KCC) Farmers Market, Honolulu, Hawaii

Co-sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at KCC, Oahu’s most thriving market requires growers to be in attendance, and provides locals and tourists with a real taste of the islands. Purchase grassfinished beef from Haleiwa’s North Shore Cattle Company, farm-raised moi (a tasty, white-fleshed fish once reserved for Hawaiian royalty), Molokai purple sweet potatoes, vanilla beans grown by the Big Island’s Hawaiian Vanilla Co., and produce like taro, lilikoi (passion fruit), and guava. Finish up with a plate lunch of kalua pig and lau lau, and prepare to tackle a hike on nearby Diamond Head to burn off the calories.

Berkeley diary: The way of the tortoise

I’m sitting at Berkeley’s Caffe Strada on a sun-washed April morning, surrounded by the clamor of students and espresso machines. In front of me, a trio of young men is conferring earnestly in Korean and English over biology textbooks; to my right two women — one clearly American, the other fervently French — are planning their weekend en francais; and behind me what must be a hot-button seminar is unfolding in a flurry of flying hands and impassioned outbursts in Spanish and Ingles.

A week ago I sat at this same table, cloudy and clouded, recalling an afternoon almost a decade before when I stood on a hilltop in Umm Qais, Jordan, looking out over Syria, Israel, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. I remembered thinking how indistinguishably the landscape of one country flowed into the other, and how confounding it was that people raised in such similar environments, confronting so many of the same challenges of soil and climate, could be so intractably divided.

“Intractable divisions,” I wrote in my journal, “delineate our world still.”

I recalled a scheme I’d dreamed up a few years ago: I’d called it The 1000 Dinners Project. The idea was that we would bring 500 families from Iran to the United States and 500 families from the U.S. to Iran. Each family would spend the day with a host family, going to the market to select the food for the evening’s dinner, then preparing that dinner in the host family’s home and finally sitting down together to enjoy it.During the course of the day they would learn about the ingredients and routines of each other’s everyday lives; they’d share concerns and dreams and hopefully little jokes as well. And slowly, slivering cracks would appear in the stereotyped images each had brought to their encounter, and by the end of the day they would have formed a bond, however frail and fledgling, with someone who had once been branded the “enemy.” And some of them, at least, would return to their villages and towns and tell their friends, relatives and neighbors that those foreign people were not so foreign after all, and seeds of tolerance and peace would be planted.

Of course, it was impractically hard to organize and fund this dream, and it fell by the way.

But on a deeper level, that dream has inspired and defined my life as a traveler and as a travel writer. For the past quarter-century I have been dedicated to the proposition that travel seeds understanding, and that understanding nurtures open-mindedness and compassion — and that these pave the pathway to peace and progress. As a wandering pilgrim, I have come to worship in the church of insatiable inquiry and unconditioned kindness.

Still, last week I looked at the world’s headlines and wondered: Are we really learning anything? Are we any closer to the catechism of kindness than before?

Then in the ensuing days my wife and I attended the screening in Berkeley of a wondrously moving documentary called The Miracle of the Colored Light, by Japanese filmmaker Fumiko Irie; Irie-san had flown from Japan to attend the screening and graciously opened her heart to the audience afterwards, answering questions in Japanese and English. David Farley flew to Oakland from New York and we dined a block from my house in culinary Italy, savoring authentic salumi, porchetta and arancini at a corner eatery called Adesso. I toured Canada in San Francisco at a conference with more than 100 enthusiastic travel folks who had convened to convey the riches of their country, from Newfoundland to the Yukon. I edited dispatches that took me to France and Nepal, and read tales of food adventures sent from Syria, Mexico, the Netherlands, Morocco, the Philippines, Sweden, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Japan, Wales, and the Micronesian island of Fais. And I taught a writing workshop where students were shaping life-changing journeys in Brazil, India, Germany, and other far-flung places.

Now I sit at the Strada reflecting on this gloriously global week and realize, once again, that the world is interwoven all around and through me in a way that would have been unimaginable even a half-century ago. I look around this sunny cafe and see tangible evidence that the world is growing closer. It’s just that when change is tectonic, molecular, you have to be attuned to the slightest movements.

I open my journal and write: “Hard as it sometimes may be to discern from the headlines, I have to believe that humanity is evolving, plodding tortoise-like across the Galapagos of time, toward some enlightened end. Step by step, we lumber, a moving film here, a bridging encounter there, seeds of goodwill and understanding borne around the globe. The end is not in sight, but on this April day, I’ve found renewal of spirit to keep plodding on the way.”

Cafe du Monde: Savoring Berkeley’s Caffe Strada

For many years I have been talking — dreaming — about writing a book called Café du Monde. The book would be a collection off some two dozen essays, each one set in a different café around the world. The underlying notion would be my long-held (and repeatedly confirmed, latte by latte, croissant by flaky croissant) belief that spending a few hours in a café and really closely observing, absorbing, the small world there can inimitably illuminate the larger world around it. My plan would be to choose one great café in two dozen locations – Paris, Tokyo, Venice, Cairo, Istanbul, for example – and plant myself there for a few hours over a few days, and watch and listen and write. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

So it seemed appropriate to make my Gadling debut with a piece about a café. And I couldn’t think of a better café to begin with — and in — than the Caffe Strada in Berkeley, right across from the UC Berkeley campus at the corner of College and Bancroft avenues.

The Strada is appropriate partly because it’s one of my favorite cafes in the world, and especially because it’s the very place where I sat and composed ninety percent of my book Travel Writing, a how-to guide in which I tried to compress everything I’d learned in a quarter century as a travel writer and editor. When I was writing that book, I came here three or four days a week, installed myself at a table, fanned notes and journals around me, and climbed the mountain of my manuscript, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.

The Strada was the perfect setting for such an endeavor. The cafe’s L-shaped terrace wraps around the corner of Bancroft and College. On cool days I’d sit on the Bancroft side, paralleling the campus, where twenty-some tables are set under a high ceiling graced by a fanciful, globe-lamped wooden chandelier for inspiration and two powerful heat lamps for warmth. On really cold days I’d park myself at one of the dozen indoor tables, where classical music fills the air. And on sun-warmed days like today, I’d sit on the College-side terrace, under the flowering boughs of plum trees, whose white petals drift down like snowflakes on this late February morning.

Inside, the Strada is simple and spare. In a space roughly 60 feet by 40 feet, a friendly foursome presides behind a cedilla-shaped counter. Wooden panels mounted on the wall behind the main counter serve as menu, showing a standard selection of coffees and teas, milk, hot chocolate, cider and the specialty I always order: the Strada biancha mocha, a creamy confection that injects just the right mind-jolting mix of caffeine and sugar. This main area, where orders are taken and cash handed over (no credit cards, please), displays croissants, scones, pastries and madeleines, with baskets of apples, bananas and fruit cups for the health-conscious. More ambitious concoctions – chocolate and carrot cakes, banana cream pie, cheesecake – are showcased on the left. If you’d prefer more substantial fare, there’s a ham and cheese croissant. That’s it – no fancy sandwiches or salads. One doesn’t stop at the Strada for the food.

The Strada is an extension of the university without being the university. That’s why it was the perfect place to write a guide to travel writing – a profession that essentially brings the classroom into the world and transcribes the lessons of the world-as-classroom.

Or at least, I don’t. I come here because I love the cafe’s convivial community of students, professors, and professionals – plus the quartet of people I have come to think of as “the residents,” who seem to be here whenever I come, whatever the hour or weather. I come here because at this very moment in one corner a tweedy professor is lecturing on archeology while six students scribble intently in their notebooks, and in another an editor for a school publication is summarizing the fine points of editing for a new copy editor. I come here because at 10 am gaggles of undergrads are huddling over tea and laptops preparing group reports, teaching assistants are dissecting papers with earnest English majors, professors are breaking bagels with colleagues, and sweet, slow-paced couples are perusing the Times over steaming lattes.

An hour ago, students paraded past on their way to class, spanning the spectrum from just-got-out-of-the-shower to never-made-it-to-bed. An hour or two from now, cops and postal workers will gobble croissants on coffee breaks, and city maintenance workers will devour danishes and crack jokes. Members of fraternities and sororities will evaluate anxious pledges, jotting notes in ring binders; foreign students will cluster with their compatriots, creating a mellifluous music of French, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian and Korean; awkward seniors in suits and ties will interview for internships; and club leaders will commandeer tables to sell their groups to prospective members.

The Strada is an extension of the university without being the university. That’s why it was the perfect place to write a guide to travel writing – a profession that essentially brings the classroom into the world and transcribes the lessons of the world-as-classroom. The atmosphere of intense inquiry still sizzles here just as it does on the campus across the street, but the Strada is also a bridge to the town beyond the gown, a place where office workers stop by for an americano on their way to work and suburban spouses bring their kids for cupcakes and lemonade in the afternoon. Sealing its appeal, the Strada spans coasts too, commingling east coast intellectualism with west coast hedonism – two poles that are integral to my own Connecticut-meets-California make-up.

Over the years, the Strada has come to feel like a second home to me. I like the way the terrace’s leafy boughs filter the sunlight; I like the comforting cosmopolitan chatter, the combination of marble bundt cake and biancha mocha, the easy mix of old and young. I like the staffers who always have a smile. And on a springy day in February, I like luxuriating under the plum petals reading Paul Theroux and Peter Hessler, tapping on my laptop, and occasionally glancing up to watch the unceasing stream of students surging by in sweatshirts and blue jeans, t-shirts and thigh-high skirts. They hug and laugh and banter about classes, parties, what they did for dinner last night, where they’re going for spring break. The air is infused with their innocent energy.

I love the optimism that pervades this place, an optimism I still associate with Berkeley as a whole, even in this cynical age. I sit on this sun-dappled stage and think: There is so much still to be learned, so many adventures still to come. The world looms large.

On a fine February day, the possibilities bloom like plum blossoms on the terrace at the Strada cafe.