A Little Sweet Comfort for a Cold, Dreary Day

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Homemade Moroccan Hot Chocolate with Piment d’Ville Donuts

Northern California may be my favorite area in America. In a lot of ways, the picturesque Anderson Valley of Mendocino County reminds me of the South of France and Italy. The sun-kissed rocky hills and foggy valley floor are home to thousands of acres of grape vines, small organic farms and herds of goats and sheep. Its bucolic small towns nestled among towering redwoods and craggy coastlines bathed in the golden California sunshine are a photographer’s wet dream.

Like Peter Mayle’s semi-biographical series ‘A Year in Provence’, Mendocino boasts a unique rhythm governed by its own cast of colorful characters. Artists, musicians, farmers, brewers, and vintners mixed with old hippies and pot farmers shape and enrich the colorful tapestry woven by a strong sustainable, organic, and fiercely independent fabric.

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If Boonville is the cultural center of Anderson Valley life, then the Boonville Hotel has to be the incubator where ideas are conceived. I recently spoke with Kendra McEwen about piment d’ville, a sweet, spicy Basque chili (Espelette). “Piment d’ville all started in the kitchen at the Boonville Hotel where Chef Johnny Schmitt had been using piment d’espelette for decades after he discovered it traveling around Southern France.

One day he realized that we may live in the perfect climate to attempt growing the chile ourselves. In 2010 we cultivated a pepper field out back and grew 50 plants just to see if we could do it. We were pleasantly surprised to see that our fresh product was even better than what we had been buying out of France. We renamed our variety piment d’ville in respect of the espelette AOC, and in 2011 we grew 100 plants, then 1000 plants in 2012, 5000 plants in 2013, 10,000 plants in 2014 and this year we will plant 30,000. We grow it because we want to eat it on everything. That’s the real reason. And beyond that, we want to share it with everyone and help all kitchens be equipped with this “third spice” that becomes as invaluable as salt once you’ve tried it. The history of our company is still being written, really, as we’re only in our third year of selling commercially. We are a small town crew of spunky farmers and chefs. We do everything by hand, and we make sure to play just as hard as we work.”

Who doesn’t love a great donut? Just the thought has me fantasizing about those sugary, feathery light, deep-fried puffs rolled in sugar warming my belly and soul. Donuts are pure magic. They transport me back to an earlier time when food could cure all that has gone wrong in life. They are confectionery alchemy at its best; flour, sugar, butter, and eggs transformed into sweet delectable dreams.

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My earliest attempt at cookery began with the filleting of my sister's goldfish at age 2 and cooking my pet rabbits by age 7. Life has been downhill ever since.

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