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Renee-Lucie BenoitEvery year we venture up into the mountains of the Mendocino National Forest to find the perfect wild Christmas tree. People around here jokingly call it Tree Hunting Season. Tree Hunting Season comes right after Deer Hunting Season ends. Like any hunting it's not an easy jaunt down to the local tree lot. As a matter of fact, there is a little bit of peril if you're prepared and a lot of peril if you're not.

My husband volunteers for our county's Search and Rescue team and every once in a while some kid gets separated from the family and spends a cold night until someone can find him or her. A couple years ago my husband was instrumental in finding a little lost boy who went too far with his sled and got lost. The boy discarded his shoes and socks but amazingly his feet didn't freeze in the below freezing weather. The socks helped my husband determine direction of travel and the little boy was found.

The day we went up on the mountain there was snow and the road had thawed and froze a couple times in the space of two days. It was super icy. Now you have to know I'm a Midwestern gal and no stranger to slippery roads. Why, back in the day we never even had snow tires. We just made our way in regular street tires and in extreme weather we finally, grudgingly broke down and put on the chains. In spite of my experience the day we went out I was nervous because instead of ditches next to corn fields we had overlooks thousands of feet down into rugged canyons. The only thoughts that persuaded me that we weren't being super foolish was that my husband was an extremely good driver and that if we slid over the edge we wouldn't roll all the way to the bottom because we'd be lodged next to a big tree.

So we put the truck in 4 wheel and went slow. Put it in low and go slow. We slipped a couple of times on down slopes at curves on the gravel road but we finally made it to the elevation where the prized Red Fir grows. Red fir is also known as Silver Tip. They only grow over 4,600 ft in Northern California and Oregon. Red fir is a cousin to the Noble fir which is popular in tree lots across America. Like the Noble fir the Red fir is a sturdy tree with stiff branches that carry the weight of heavy ornaments and lights very easily. The branches are spaced apart so all your neat ornaments are easy to see and don't get covered up with branches. It's not your classic Tannenbaum but we like it.

Me with our prize! Thank you lovely tree!

Getting our own tree also guarantees that the tree will last for a month or even longer without losing needles all over the place. We also know it's 100% organic and isn't impregnated with preservatives or sprayed green.

While tramping through the forest I also found some amazing pine cones. I'm pretty sure these are from the Sugar Pine which have the biggest cones in North America. I'm still trying to conquer conifer identification. I slow cook these beauties in the oven to melt the pitch and kill any insects and the results are lovely. You could never find something like this in stores without it costing a small fortune!

sugar pine 

Sugar Pine cones

When we got home we found our tree was too tall for our ceiling but that was not a problem. We just cut it from the bottom and from the leftover branches I made three imperfect but homey wreaths. I save the heavy wire forms from wreathes I have bought in the past. I just crammed and stuffed silver tip branches cut to size, added pyracantha berries found on the roadside and voila! three Christmas wreaths, one Christmas tree and one adventure all for the whopping sum of $10.00 and some gas! (By the way, if you use pyracantha and you notice that any of the berries fall off scoop them up right away. They are poisonous to house pets and children. As a matter of fact, unless you're like us and are half hermits you might want to forego pyracantha altogether.)

wreath supplies 



Stuff, stuff, stuff!


The finished wreath

Now we're at home with our lovely tree. I look at my husband and remark "There's a tree in our living room!"  'Tis the season and we hope it's jolly for you!



Renee-Lucie BenoitIt is with great sadness that I tell you that my dear friend and teacher Anna Dearing has passed. You will remember her as my teacher for how to crochet old fashioned rag rugs. I wanted her legacy to live on and I hope I've succeeded somewhat. She was a wonderful person and a great teacher!


This post is dedicated to Anna Dearing b. 1927 in Santa Barbara, CA; d. Nov 25th, 2015 in Elk Creek, CA.

A Churn is Found

Last week the owner of this place that we care-take asked us to do some clean-out of an old storage area. They plan to make the original half underground pantry that has been used for over flow storage of bric a brac into a working cold storage to make Italian vinegars and cheese and store root vegetables. There were a lot of ordinary items and a few extraordinary ones, too. When we uncovered an old butter churn we were very excited. This ranch goes back to when the area was settled in the 1800's. Little by little we are uncovering the fascinating history.

The butter churn was in pretty good condition but we never found a dasher. I had fantasies about making butter in it but, alas, it was not to be. Maybe some time in the future we will find the time to make a new dasher. It wouldn't be hard so you might hear about our efforts in a post.


Not one to be disappointed, however, and especially fortified with resolve because of the Thanksgiving holiday I decided I had to have some homemade butter. I had wanted to make it the old fashioned way but when lack of time and no dasher presented itself I decided to make homemade butter the new fashioned way. I knew it would still have the old fashioned taste. If you've never made butter you might feel intimidated but don't! It's one of the easiest things to do if you have the right equipment. You can make it in about 15 minutes. It's virtually fool-proof!

All you need is a food processor that has a mixing blade (not cutting — it's too straight) and low speed and you'll be in business.

Homemade Butter

2 pints heavy cream (get the best quality you can find; it can be pasteurized; 2 pints make about a lb. of butter)

(opt.) non-iodized salt and/or spices (1 to 2 teaspoons salt per pint; 1 teaspoon works well for me. I don't like things to be over-salted.)

Food processor with mixing blade and low speed

Wooden paddle or big spoon



Put the cream in a clean bowl and let it stand unrefrigerated until it comes to room temperature. Wash your food processor and dry it. Put the cream in the bowl of your processor. (if you want flavored butter like garlic, chives, parsley or other spices you can put it in now or wait until you're paddling the butter. I wait because I  like the liquid that's leftover to be unflavored. It's great on cereal or in coffee or tea and any recipe that asks for low fat milk). Don't overfill your processor bowl. We wouldn't want cream going all over the place.


If you like your butter salty you can also add that now but again you can add the salt during paddling to avoid having salty buttermilk. We're going to have leftover uncultured buttermilk from this process. More about that later.

Turn the processor on to low. The cream will quickly start turning to solid. It shouldn't take more than a couple minutes. If it takes longer or shorter your cream might have been too warm or too cold. Stop the processor when the butter comes away from the sides in solid condition. That is to say, when it looks like butter. Taste it. If it tastes likes butter you're done. If it still tastes milky let it go another minute. Now drain the buttermilk out.


The butter has "come together" and the liquid is buttermilk.

I know people who won't drink buttermilk because (yech) it's buttermilk and must be high fat. These people are victims of misperception. Buttermilk, despite the name, is low fat, delicious and nutritious!

After draining what buttermilk was in the processor bowl empty the butter into a dish that allows you to take a big spoon or paddle and squish the butter over and over to squeeze as much buttermilk out as you can. Buttermilk can make the butter turn sour after a while. Paddle and drain until you have it as drained as you can. If you decant it into a storage bowl you can paddle it some more and use a clean paper towel to soak up the tiny remaining dots of buttermilk. Unless you make a LOT of butter you'll probably use it up way before it can turn sour from not getting all the buttermilk out. So don't stress.


If you think you're going to use it all up within a few days go ahead and refrigerate it as this point. If you make a lot wash it in cold clear water until the water runs clear. This just means put it in a bowl and run clear cold water on it and squish it with a clean spoon or clean wooden paddle. It works. Trust me. Oil and cold water don't mix.


You can also wrap the butter in a couple layers of cheesecloth and with your clean hands squish it to get more buttermilk out. I keep harping on clean this and clean that. It's just that we try to minimize the introduction of bacteria which will make the butter go rancid faster.

Wrap your butter in plastic wrap or an airtight container. Put it in the refrigerator.

Then make some homemade dinner rolls and watch the butter and bread disappear before your very eyes. There! You didn't know you were a magician, too!


Renee-Lucie BenoitOur ranch partners with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to preserve the range land for wildlife grazing. Every year Bob Hammond, who is a Program Manager for the RMEF, comes out for a visit to judge the condition of the forage. Bob is a wealth of natural information and we always look forward to his visits. For example, this year I finally understood the difference between the Digger and Gray Pines through his description.

I'm trying to master the identification of conifers. It's devilishly hard.

It turns out there is NO difference between Digger and Gray. They are the same. Digger is just what they used to call the Gray pine. We have a lot of Gray pines on our property along with the Blue Oak and Manzanita. If we ever have to move I'm going to miss the abundance of well seasoned Blue Oak to burn in our wood stove.

Bob also told us how to take those Gray pine cones and make something lovely with them. He told us how to make them naturally shiny (and kill insects that may be sheltering in the cone). So when the weather was good and dry this past weekend we went for a walk along the creek where all the Gray pine trees were and we collected a lot of cones. He said pick the ones that are reddish brown. Leave behind the weathered gray ones. When you get home set your oven to the lowest temperature it will go (200 degrees will be fine), line a cookie sheet with newspaper or tin foil and slowly bake the cones for a long time. (It might take you all day but you can turn the oven off and start again if you need to.) As they bake, turn them every 15 minutes or so. A nice plus is that it will make your kitchen smell very nice. What will happen is that the heat will melt the sap and it will drip over the cones making them naturally shiny. Make sure the oven is set low. If it's too high it is possible that you could set your oven on fire! It is pitch after all! After a few hours remove them from the oven to cool and you'll have beautiful shiny pine cones that are insect-free.

graypine cones 

Before:  I'm wearing gloves because of the sap and the sharp ends.

This technique works with cones of all sizes.


After: The one on the left has a lovely patina. See how the un-baked one is not as shiny?

I'm going to put them on the mantle at Christmas or in a center piece on our Thanksgiving table. What will you do with them?


Renee-Lucie BenoitWe live in Northern California. There are olive trees all over the place. We even live close to one of the premier olive oil producers anywhere, Lucero in Corning. Corning is the center of olive growing in Northern California. To prove the point we have 15 Mission olive trees on our property alone. I thought about making our own olive oil a while back so I went over to Lucero to find out how to do it. I came away with feeling overwhelmed by the whole process. I felt as though we'd wind up doing a heck of a lot of work and then have grubby olive oil to show for it. Grubby means infested with insects. It's a style. It's just not my style. So it just didn't seem worth it. I now realize why cold press extra virgin olive oil is so expensive. It takes a crazy amount of work to produce it!

This year we have another bumper crop of olives. So instead of pressing oil I thought why not try curing the dang things? I asked around to some local people and came up with a process that might work so I'm going to try it. I'm going to try salt-cured ripe olives. Let's see how I do.

Here's what I was told to do by my neighbor.

Salt-Cured Ripe Olives — Part One


1 lb of hand-picked ripe Mission olives (Mission olives are small and full of oil so they are the best variety to use for this process or so I am told. Thankfully that's the kind we have.)

2 lbs of non-iodized salt (I used kosher salt)

small box

cheese cloth

Cover the bottom of a thick cardboard or wooden box with burlap or cheesecloth. In a bowl, mix together equal weights of non-iodized salt and olives. (For example, one pound of olives to one pound of salt.) Spread the olives and salt evenly in the box. Pour an additional layer of non-iodized salt over everything so that nearly all of the olives are covered. This will probably be an additional pound of salt. Place the box outdoors in the shade or somewhere safe so any liquid that oozes from it will not stain the surface underneath. Stir the salt-covered olives well with a wooden spoon once a week for four weeks, or until the olives are cured. Bite into one to see how it tastes to know if they're cured like you want them. They are supposed to taste slightly bitter.

Salt-Cured Ripe Olives — Part Two

Once your olives are cured the way you like them remove them from the salt. Dip the olives in a large pot of boiling water for a few seconds; then drain in a colander and stop the cooking with cold tap water. Spread them on paper towels and let them dry for a few hours or overnight. Coat the olives you wish to eat within a few days with fruity olive oil (rub them with your fingers to distribute the oil) and keep them in the refrigerator in a tightly capped jar.

if you have any leftovers you can mix them at a ratio of two parts olives to one part non-iodized salt by weight and keep them refrigerated. They won't keep more than a month.

In about 4 weeks I will write a post about how they turned out and what I learned.

Good luck to me!


Renee-Lucie BenoitMy paternal grandmother Daisy was not a great cook. For example, she took her green beans, added fat back and boiled them to death. Store bought white bread was her preference and I don't remember a single recipe of hers that I would want to replicate or pass on. Except one. Her onion confit was to die for. She actually called it onion "com-pote" (she was from Kentucky) but the slow braising actually made it technically a confit so that's what I would have called it. When she passed I was taken by surprise and upon investigation it was found that her meager recipe box had disappeared.

So years went by and it seemed that the onion "com-pote" recipe was lost. Then we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Lynn Duncan and her husband Robert. Lynn puts on the most outrageously good Thanks giving dinner and everybody who attends looks forward to it year after year. Her table is gorgeous with antiques and homey touches. Lynn is an artist as well as phenomenal cook. She makes mica lampshades that are exquisite and if I could afford one I would have several.

Lynn makes onion confit that tastes the way I remember my grandmother's tasted and she was kind enough to share the recipe with me. In the way of any good cook she does not have the recipe in minute detail and she always says you can substitute this or that and in that way the recipe is organic and flexible. See what you can think of to make it your own.

I offer it here. The basic recipe. It goes with everything. Turkey, stuffing, yams, you name it. It's even good on homemade bread.


Lynn Duncan's Onion Confit

1 pound pearl onions peeled (frozen pearl onions can be used. Defrost them and dry them off)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

3-4 tablespoons brown or white sugar

2-3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 bay leaf

2 parsley sprigs

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 to 2 cups water

salt and pepper to taste

Put onions in a pan with the vinegar, oil, sugar, tomato paste, herbs, raisins, salt and pepper to taste and 1/2 cup of water. You will add water as needed as the onions cook down.


Bring to a boil and simmer very gently covered for 45 minutes or until the onions are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. It might take up to 1-1/2 hours depending on how liquid-y the onions are. Add water as needed until the onions begin to caramelize. Then simmer uncovered until the desired color is reached. It should be a nice dark brown. Stir frequently to prevent burning. When finished remove the bay leaf and parsley and check the seasoning. Serve at room temperature.


Renee-Lucie BenoitA few minutes ago as I was sitting and writing at my computer I heard the familiar Ack Ack and I knew that our guineas were close by. I called out to Marty, "I think we have some visitors!" and sure enough there they were crowding our front step peering in some sort of demented Guinea way. I looked at them and said to myself, "You know if I come to greet you that you will fly away in an instant!"

guineas on the steps

Our Guineas on the door steps of our ranch house.

Why do they peer? I don't know. Maybe good ole fashioned curiosity.  I do know one thing: Guineas have personality and then some! When they see us they immediately come over. Then a few feet from us they stop as a unit and stare. It's like they're saying, "Jeepers, do we really want to get that close?" If we decide to greet them and come closer they turn around and start Ack Ack Ack-ing and run away.  What are you thinking, little birdie? They're curious but they have a safe zone bubble into which one does not intrude.

Our little Guinea experiment has been a continuing success. They have not driven anyone stark raving bonkers with their unbelievably loud squawking. But they have picked clean any and all insects that come in their way which is a good thing and a bad. The good thing is recently we had spate of perfectly awful stink bugs and sure enough the Guineas came over and took care of them.


Peeee-you! Do these guys stick when they get upset!

We've only had one mishap. Maybe. We think we have lost one Guinea. One day "it" was there (I have no idea how to tell the gender by the way) and the next day "it" was not. Nary a feather. Nary a clue. We posited that "it" might be a hen and nesting somewhere but days have gone by and "it" has not been seen with the little rag tag bunch. We did observe that one seemed to be hanging around a bit away from the group for days leading up to the disappearance. Was it sick? It didn't look sick. Did it get taken by a coyote or owl? We may never know.

In the mean time the Guineas stay in their area for the most part which is just what we wanted them to do. I think making them stay in the big coop near their eventual domain was key. We made them stay in there while we fed and watered them for 5 weeks. Then we let them out and placed water and feed containers in strategic nearby places so they would find the area attractive. And they do, so it's good!

Now when they come over to our house, which is a pretty long distance from the main house, all I have to do is kind of herd them back in the general direction and in about two shakes of a lambs tail they'll take off in a unit and fly all the way back to the main house without stopping.

They're nesting in the olive trees next to the chickens so we know they feel kinship with the chickens. So we're going to modify the chicken pen so they can go in the chicken run under the roof during inclement weather. We're going to build a guinea jungle gym.

Guineas rock!



Renee-Lucie Benoit


My dad Art, on the right, with his friend Howard and a deer he bagged in Iowa.

My dad Art got interested in bow hunting as a kid in Ohio. My grandmother Daisy reported that he would don a native American headdress and, clutching his little bow and arrow, he would go to sleep. He was also very interested in collecting arrowheads and tomahawks that could be found in the plowed fields. I would go with him and he helped me find my own artifacts. When it was getting close to deer season my dad would take me out to the dried up corn fields at night and we'd scan the fields for deer sign in the dark. We'd usually see deer in the headlights, literally, as they ate the leftover corn from the fields. They were getting grain fed and they were going to be tasty!

My dad was born 1922 near Warren, Ohio. His dad was a French Canadien from the western part of Quebec on the Ontario River. They were all outdoorsmen of necessity. As a child in the depression hunting was a way to get by. After graduating from high school he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew troop transport planes and towed gliders into France. When the war was over he went back to the life he loved.

My dad's first bow was a 62-inch recurve he bought for $30. At first, he was only interested in shooting at targets. He joined the Isaac Walton League in our home town of Marshalltown, Iowa. They had an archery range and great fish fries every Saturday night. After practicing with his bow for a year he started thinking seriously about hunting deer for the first time since he was a kid.

That was at a time when many hunters looked at bow hunting as a novelty. Real deer hunters used rifles! He got in good with a local farmer Mr. Polley and he and his buddies went out and built a rudimentary deer shack where they would go in and get warm after they'd been sitting in their deer stands for hours with no deer showing up. We also had great chili cook offs at the deer shack. My dad also took me bushwhacking through the woods in the dark scouting deer trails and sign and this way I learned to navigate the woods without feeling afraid.

The first year he didn't get a deer, but the second year, on November 22, 1959, he got a 6 point buck. It was hard to get a deer with a bow and arrow. My dad said, "You have to aim perfectly and likely as not the deer will flinch at the sound of the string. It will flinch just enough that you will miss. It is also hard to hold the (recurve) bow still enough until your shot is perfect and if your muscles aren't in tip top shape you will shake. Wind can also work against you or branches in the trees or brush can get between you and the deer and knock your arrow off course. The deer has a definite advantage with old fashioned bow hunting."


Practice is of utmost importance.

My dad also made his own arrows. He'd be down in the workshop smelling up the air with stinky hot glue and I'd go down and watch him. He always used wood for the shaft.

He said, "I really prefer wood and I have used several types of wood. I like the feel of wood and I like the smell of wood." He got turkey feathers from a friend who was a turkey hunter. His friend saved the left wings for fletching. My dad would split the quill with a knife and grind it down with his sander.

I'm not sure whether he used a broad head arrowhead or field points. He's not around to ask now so that part will have to be a mystery. I think I remember field points. I do know that as a side hobby he experimented and eventually got pretty good at napping obsidian and flint. His hands would have little cuts all over them, from the sharp edges of the napping even when he used the deer hide to protect his hand. To my knowledge he never used his hand-napped arrowheads. But he always marveled at how skilled the native Americans were at creating quality equipment. He said, "Their living depended on them doing it right so that's what they did."

Although he never forgot his first deer, the most memorable one was also his best. It was memorable due to the length of time he watched it as it slowly approached him where he was hidden. The deer was browsing the corn in the field. My dad said "I could just barely keep my cool as I watched a big 8-point buck for half a mile slowly make his way toward me. I was set up at the edge of a big field in a big tree and I couldn't tell if he would come all the way or if he would slip off into the woods. I watched him with my binoculars for almost an hour. It was really hard on my nerves. When it got within 30 yards, I took the shot. I was proud of myself that day." Unfortunately, the picture of this buck is lost.

For several years, my dad hunted from a permanent deer stand on a farm owned by the Polley family. I went back there recently and I could not honestly recognize the old place. We rode the farm horses there and then there were the days of deer hunting. I can still see it all in my mind's eye.

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