Autumn leaves

What is your favorite season?

Mine is hands down autumn or fall, whatever you choose to call it. It always has been. The smell of harvested fields, long peaceful walks through colorful beech forests, shiny horse-chestnuts, flying kites, fresh plum cake, feeding hedgehogs, family day trips into the Lüneburger Heide (Lunenburg Heath) foraging for wild porcini mushrooms, and hiking through colorful huckleberry fields towards stunning glaciers in Norway rank high in my favorite collection of memories growing up. You may say: “Wait, I was there! Autumn meant shorter days, greyness, fog and rain, bad road conditions due to British military exercises, getting stuck behind caravans of tractors, weeks of black fingers after collecting and peeling soaked walnuts, wasps in the pear tree, and the unique smell of the local sugar beet processing plant!”

Horse-chestnuts, a happy sign of autumn

Touché! I guess it must be a case of seeing the glass half full or half empty then 🙂

Autumn colors in California?

Each year when autumn announces itself through a change in the air, a first chill in the morning, and subtle changes in light, my camera gear and I get restless. We itch to go and play with colors!

Visitors and new transplants to California tend to believe that the Golden State has no autumn to write home about. I would argue that it’s a matter of expectations. We certainly don’t have the glorious color palette that leaf peepers pilgrimage to see on the East Coast. However, we sure can serve up some yellows!

Beautiful Eastern Sierra

Where and when to go

In good years, the Eastern Sierra can dish up stunning colors thanks to groves of quaking aspen trees. Populus tremoloides turns golden-yellow in fall, and even orange, when the stars align. And along creeks, cottonwood and willow trees add color. I prefer to stay in Lee Vining or Bridgeport (Mono County), which are easily reachable via Tioga Pass and provide access to hot spots like June Lake Loop, Lundy Canyon, Convict Lake, and McGee Creek. Mammoth Lakes is a bit further but definitely worth visiting as well, especially if you are ready to hit the trails!

To prepare your trip, download the Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide from the Mammoth Lakes or Mono County websites or pick it up in the area.

If you are looking for a destination closer to the Bay Area, head to Lake Tahoe. Fall is the quiet season between summer lake fun and hitting the slopes, and there are some nice trails along the lake that offer fall colors, for example around the Tallac Historic Site. And if you are there, make sure to visit the Taylor Creek Visitor Center and check out a different colorful autumn spectacle: the annual Kokanee salmon run. You might even encounter a bear! One of the best color drives in the area with plenty of aspen groves is through Hope Valley.

Yosemite is not known for its colors but even here you can find color spots courtesy of bigleaf maples, dogwoods, and valley oaks. Of course, everyone’s favorite tree in the park (and a reminder of fall on the East Coast) is the lone sugar maple near Yosemite Chapel.

The wine country offers its very own version of autumn when the vineyards turn color. Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, and Livermore are all easily reachable from the Bay Area and make for a nice road trip … treat yourself with color for the eyes and for the glass!

Lastly, some of the best colors can be found in our cities and on university campuses like Stanford! Last year, I went up Mount Umunhum in late October and it was interesting to see how colorful the valley looked thanks to streets lined with Chinese pistaches and ginkgo trees.

Prepare your trip

Timing is everything when it comes to Eastern Sierra colors. The window to see the aspen trees is usually just a few weeks in September and October when chilly nights and sunny days do their magic. In addition, one storm, and the delicate leaves of entire groves can get knocked down!

A great resource for you planning is John Poimiroo’s California Fall Color website which features excellent reports and photos during the season. Google has a Foliage map which is good to get a quick overview.

Make sure to keep an eye on the weather! In late September, the “white curtain” can come down any moment. It happened to me more than once that I was photographing aspen trees around June Lake in the morning and snow started coming down in the afternoon quickly closing the pass roads back to the Bay Area. If in doubt, get out!

Photography tips

Have you ever photographed autumn trees and been unhappy with the results because the colors did not pop? If so, you are not alone! Here are a few things that help when photographing fall colors. Cloudy skies? It’s your lucky day! Photographing leaves under soft light leads to better color saturation! The reason is that the clouds function as a diffuser and filter the glare from the surface of the leaves. As a result, colors appear more saturated. Just make sure your camera settings factor in the lack of bright light or you end up with blurry photos. When the sun is shining bright, your DSLR’s best friend is a polarizer filter. It has a similar effect to your cloudy skies in that it dials out leaf glare and reflections. As a bonus, it saturizes the blue of the sky at certain angles. If you do not have a polarizer or shoot with a simpler camera, consider the technique of back lighting. Place the tree between yourself and the sun so that the light falls through the leaves. Now, when you take a photo, your subject literally glows. Also experiment with the composition of your photo. Creeks and lakes can add lovely reflections to your scenes and close-ups of leaves or pine cones complement your photos of trees and groves.

Close-up of aspen leaves

Happy leaf peeping!


Beer, brats, and Gemütlichkeit

Every year when the leaves start to change color, the thought of Oktoberfest pops into many people’s minds. And with it the important question: “Where should we go?” Because I am German and hence considered an expert, questions and requests inevitably find their way into my ear or inbox. Case in point, two years ago, my team at work insisted rather convincingly that I should organize an Oktoberfest for them. The fact that as a Northerner I had never ever been to an authentic Oktoberfest, let alone the famous Munich event, was met with slight incredulity and then was shrugged off as easily and quickly as you can say Prost!

Another assumption is that each and every German woman has a wardrobe featuring a Dirndl dress. Here comes another disappointment, I am afraid. When my friends – no matter their nationality – throw an Oktoberfest party in their backyard these days, this German often ends up being the only one without the appropriate outfit. Go figure. (OK, I did have Lederhosen when I was a kid and must confess that I loved those! But how they ended up in a village near Hannover is a story for another day.)

In order to explain the fact that the Oktoberfest is a Southern thing, we need a bit of history and context.

A local, royal event

The origins of Munich’s Oktoberfest go back to the royal wedding of Kronprinz Ludwig and princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend horse races, performances, and a parade on a field outside the city gates. It was named Theresienwiese (Theresa’s meadow) to honor the princess, a name that is still used today. In 1811, the celebrations were repeated and thus began the tradition of the legendary Oktoberfest.

Ever wondered why Oktoberfest deco features a lot of white and blue? Check the Bavarian flag with coat of arms.

For the longest time and due to these origins, the Oktoberfest was a truly Bavarian event, unlike some religious or harvest festivals that had more of a national character. However, this has changed! Today, the Oktoberfest is an international phenomenon. Not only do millions of people travel from across the globe to visit Munich and consume millions of liters of beer in the famous festival tents, but the idea of the Oktoberfest took a firm hold in all corners of the world. First, they were organized by German immigrant communities, which is why in the US you find many in the original places of German settlement (New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Germantown, etc.). But these days, you don’t need Germans to throw a beer party! People everywhere are perfectly happy to adopt popular festivals and just make them their own. Consider Halloween – that one is making its way around the world as we speak.

Bay Area festivities

If you want to experience an Oktoberfest in the Bay Area (and beyond), you have plenty of choices. As a matter of fact, there are so many, I haven’t tried and tested them all yet. But here is a (very incomplete) list to get you started. And note, despite the name, Oktoberfests mostly happen in September, some even in August. Nomen is not always omen.

The biggest event in our area with tent, music, and all is the Oktoberfest by the Bay in San Francisco. Check it out here:

The oldest German restaurant on the West Coast, Schroeder’s in San Francisco, is holding its 125th edition of their Oktoberfest this year. Wow! The event is free but you can buy tokens in advance.

Some other sizeable parties happen in Redwood City, Mountain View, and Monterey

There are outdoor Oktoberfests that are based on the idea of your typical summer Art & Wine festival. One of these is the Oktoberfest in Campbell:

There are parties happening in breweries like Das Brew,, or wineries like Schug And of course, the German American Chamber of Commerce has one too

If food is your focus, check out the Oktoberfests held or organized on weekends by our many fine German restaurants. Here are just some examples:

Ludwig’s German Table (San Jose):
Teske’s Germania (San Jose):
Tyrolean Inn (Ben Lomond):
Speisekammer (Alameda):

So there you have it, our part of California is ripe with choices. And even if you are traveling, there is probably an Oktoberfest happening near you right now, including in places where you might least expect them. How do I know? A few years ago, I was staying with my folks at the historic Camp Richardson resort on the peaceful shores of Lake Tahoe, when I was rudely awakened at 5AM by beer kegs being rolled down a truck ramp…

So throw on your garb (or not) and head over to the nearest tent for beer and oom-pah music!

A toast!

Now all you need to know is how to toast in German! For a casual toast like cheers, try Prosit or the shorter Prost! If you want to be a tad more elegant, make it a Zum Wohl (pronounced like “tsoom vohl”, which means to your health)!

Oh, and the Oktoberfest I cooked up for my team was a success. Just in case you wondered 🙂

What are your favorite Oktoberfest memories or places? Please feel free to share in the comments.

The curious case of cake

On my first-ever birthday in the United States, a kind soul baked me a cake. I will never forget the look she had on her face when she put it in front of me; it was a strange mix of pride and happy expectation. Whole-heartedly I thanked her for the lovely gesture (your typical Germans love homemade goods, in case you were wondering), all the while thinking: “Why is she looking at me like this?!” We cut the cake and started eating. After a moment of silence, the person behind the cake asked, “And?” I had already thanked her, but in the German spirit of Doppelt hält besser (literally twice holds better), I added another “That’s very nice, thank you.” Curiously, this still did not seem to be satisfying. But why? Finally, she asked with the slightest hint of exasperation, “Don’t you recognize it? It’s German chocolate cake!” Chewing on a piece of the sweet dark cake, the first thought my brain produced as a response was “Why would a German cake contain coconut? That makes no sense!”

Since my first encounter with German chocolate cake in a millennium long since passed, our paths have crossed many times. I have even spotted the curious cake on an Oktoberfest menu once. Finally, a few years ago, my own partner in crime solved the mystery for me.

The story goes like this… In 1852, a man named Samuel German invented a new type of baking chocolate for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. The company generously named it after him, using the rather possessive title Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

A century or so later (some things take time!), a Texan homemaker sent a recipe using the afore-mentioned chocolate to The Dallas Morning News. She named it German’s chocolate cake. The recipe was an immediate success, and the sweet concoction became one of the most recognized and popular cakes in America.

Somewhere during its tour of fame, the name lost its possessive form and morphed from German’s chocolate cake to German chocolate cake, confusing the sweet hell out of people to this day.

So there you have it. German chocolate cake is not German at all! My brain was right! If you are looking for an actual chocolate cake from Germany, try the famous Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cake), although most of the so-called Black Forest cakes I have tried here were merely a faint echo of the real deal, using pie cherries instead of sour cherries, skipping the alcohol, and replacing real whipped cream with some sugary knockoff. I only know of one place in the Bay Area so far where it tastes pretty authentic and that is Esther’s German Bakery.

Another favorite of mine is the Herrentorte (literally Gentlemen’s cake), a decadent multi-layer cake covered in dark chocolate. Yum! Did I pique your interest? Then I have to disappoint you because I have yet to find that one here in the Bay Area!

Looks like it is time to bake. And maybe, just maybe, I will share a recipe in one of my future posts… 🙂

Guten Appetit!