Homemade jam

Jam is a sweet staple in many households but few people actually make their own! I certainly didn’t for the longest time, thinking the lovely flavor was probably difficult to achieve. Or with my luck the jars would explode. I also had that picture of my grandma pouring wax on the jam in my head, wide orange rubber bands, and whatnot…

But surprise, surprise, in modern reality, making jam is actually quite easy. And once you successfully tried it, you realize that there is a world of flavors out there to experiment with. After that, who would want to go back to the store-bought stuff?!

Apricots at local Farmer’s market

There are just a few things to keep in mind when making jams:

-Flavorful fruit makes flavorful jam, so if you can, go with ripe seasonal selections!
-Because you are not adding a boatload of preservatives, you need to work cleanly.
-Have an oven mitt, a towel, and tongs ready because you are dealing with boiling water, boiling jam, and hot jars!

Sterilize the jars

If you are making jam for immediate use, you do not need to go through this step. But if you plan to enjoy your jam collection for a long time (or share with friends – hint, hint!), sterilizing the jars and equipment is important. This is how I do it:

  1. In a clean pot, bring water to boil.
  2. Select jars and lids and immerse them in the boiling water for a few minutes. Don’t overcrowd the pot; it is better if the items do not touch.
  3. Remove from pot with a jar lifter or tongs with gripping ends.
  4. In the same way, sterilize the ladle and funnel you plan to use.
  5. Put all on a clean towel to dry.

Prepare the fruit

First off, make sure you start with enough fruit! Especially if you have very ripe or cosmetically challenged fruit or fruits with heavy pits, the net weight will be considerably lower than the starting weight!

Whatever fruit you use, make sure to discard any moldy or heavily bruised bits.

Further fruit preparation depends on the variety of fruit. Here are some starting points:
-Blueberries just need a quick wash.
-Wash non-organic strawberries really well. Strawberries belong to the fruits most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues.
-If you do not like the seeds in fruits like blackberries, press them through a sieve.
-Cherries need to be pitted but not peeled.
-Peaches, nectarines, and apricots need to be both pitted and peeled. The best peeling method depends on the level of firmness/ripeness of your fruits. If very firm, just use a vegetable peeler. Another method is to boil the fruits a few seconds and then immediately immerse them in ice water. In very ripe fruits, the peel usually comes off easily with a gentle rub.

Yellow peaches at local Farmer’s market

Weigh the fruit after peeling and pitting to make sure you have the exact quantity needed (in my case that is one kilogram, or about two pounds).

I use a stick blender to puree everything to the desired texture because that’s super quick and easy. However, you can also chop the fruits with a knife and mash them.


The most important thing to achieve when making jam is the jelling of the fruit. That can be reached in two basic ways: natural pectin release and long cooking and reduction (this is what we do for our apple butter – it easily takes 10 hours in the oven), or by using a pectin product.

I love, love, love jams that are not too sweet and that is why my personal preference is to use a German product that allows me to cut back on sugar considerably. It is called Gelfix Extra 2:1 (indicating 2 parts of fruit to 1 part of sugar) by Dr. Oetker. If you like your jam even fruitier, they also make Gelfix Super 3:1! In the Bay Area, it is available in German stores like Gourmet Haus Staudt. However, you can also order the product online. If you don’t have access to Gelfix or if you like your jam sweeter, use a classic pectin product from the grocery aisle. Typically, they work for a 1:1 ratio of fruit and sugar. No matter which product you use, the actual jam-making steps are quite similar.

Make the jam

  1. Mix sugar and the pectin product in the ratio required by the product.
  2. Add it to the prepared fruit puree.
  3. Bring to a boil and let boil as indicated (I boil mine 4 minutes).
  4. Constantly stir as the mixture boils.
  5. If the mixture produces a lot of foam, spoon it off (you can eat it but it’s not good to have it in the jar).
  6. After the designated boiling time, you should feel the jam texture changing. Turn off the heat, and ladle the jam into the prepared jars (careful, hot!)
  7. Close the jars immediately making sure the lid fits perfectly.
  8. Place the jars upside down on a clean towel for 5 minutes. This is also when you will notice if you have a bad lid…
  9. Make labels.
  10. Enjoy!
Summer in a jar

After you have made jam once, it gets faster every time. And think about the next flavors you might like to try. Maybe add alcohol? (Pear and cognac is delicious!) Or experiment with herbs or spices. (I just made peach-mango jam with chili flakes…) Oh, and go for it, mix fruits! There are so many choices!

And here is a trick I learned from my mom: you can prepare the fruit puree in summer and freeze it! Then if you run low on jam, grab that bag of delicious summer-sweet peaches, and make a new batch in the midst of winter. How cool is that?!

Happy jam-making!

DIY hummingbird nectar

We are wrapping up week two of shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, and it just occurred to me that I owe you a blog post! Yes, I do, and what better moment than now?! I just made some hummingbird feed and thought I would share the recipe with you, because, you know, you may have time on your hands too!

But let’s start with a quick flashback.

One of the best discoveries associated with my move from Germany to California was … we have hummingbirds! As a child I always pictured these flying gems on lush tropical islands rather than in my Silicon Valley backyard. But there they were and I fell in love with them in a heartbeat!

I have always had feeders to attract hummingbirds, but over time, I also started to replace the flowers in my backyard with those attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. That means there are ample food sources available for my flying wildlife now. However, complementing those sources with additional nectar, above all when bloom is low, is a good idea.

Anna’s hummingbird showing some of the iridescent gorget feathers

When I started feeding hummingbirds, I used to buy the red nectar mix available in many stores. Now I know that the red dye in that stuff is extremely unhealthy for the birds and can even kill them 🙁 Thankfully, it is SUPER easy to make your own.

Recipe for hummingbird nectar

All you need is sugar and water and mix in the following ratio:

-1 part refined white sugar
-4 parts of water
(for example: 1/2 cup sugar and 2 cups water)

You can add the sugar to boiling water or add it to cold water and bring to boil. It does not matter, as long as the sugar is well dissolved when done. Then let the nectar cool down before filling the feeder.

Please do NOT use anything else but white refined sugar even though it might seem counter-intuitive! The Audubon Society explains that the iron levels in raw sugars are too high and that honey can promote fungal growth; both can be harmful to the birds.

Hummingbird feed (store-bought or home-made) does not last for a long time before fermenting, above all in summer. Therefore, only make as much nectar as your birds consume in a week or so. Also, don’t just refill an empty feeder, always clean it thoroughly first. If there is black stuff coating the inside of the glass, you may need bleach.

By the way, hummingbirds are not necessarily the only birds visiting a feeder. We have a few sweet-toothed chickadees who often have a sip before heading for the sunflower seeds, and orioles love the sweet stuff as well!

Chestnut-backed chickadee at the hummingbird feeder

What else can you do to attract hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds love, love water features! In summer, ours love to take a shower in our fountain. You also see them hanging out at bubbling pots and sometimes even zipping through lawn sprinklers.

Anna’s hummingbird enjoying the backyard fountain

Our most frequent garden visitors here are Anna’s hummingbirds, but every once in a while a very territorial Rufous or Allen’s hummingbird stops by as well.

Did you know?

It is not unusual for me to get buzzed by a hummer when I am out in THEIR territory. But I don’t mind because I did hear once, that in Native American folklore this hovering in front of your face translates to a blessing. I am not sure if it’s true but I sure like to think so. What I do know is that hummingbirds have always played an important role in the life of tribes. They were and are used in crests and on totems, portrayed as healers or fire-bringers, or considered a sign of luck.

One of the highest mountains in the Bay Area is Mount Umunhum, a sacred mountain to many tribes. While the huge square radar building on its top reminds us of cold war times, the name actually means something much more peaceful: resting place of the hummingbirds (in the Ohlone language).

Beautiful Big Sur (Point Sur to Limekiln State Park)

In my last post, we explored beautiful Highway 1 from Point Lobos to Point Sur. Let’s continue our travel south!

Little Sur River

Andrew Molera State Park

After crossing the Little Sur River and passing the Point Sur Lighthouse and Naval Facility, we reach Andrew Molera State Park, a less developed park with great hiking trails and beachcombing opportunities. A seasonal pedestrian bridge allows visitors to cross the Big Sur River. Check the website for more info. Andrew Molera also hosts the Ventana Wildlife Society’s Discovery Center, where you can learn all about the successful reintroduction of the stunning California condor.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Our next stop, after passing an area brimming with campgrounds and cabins along the Big Sur River, is Big Sur’s most popular park and camping destination, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Hike under the redwoods, take a summer dip in the river, or have a coffee or icecream in front of the fireplace of the Big Sur Lodge (accessible without entrance fee).


If you prefer ocean views over rustic charm, drive on to famous Nepenthe restaurant, which sits high on a cliff and has great views from inside and outside seats. This is also a great stop to purchase locally crafted gifts like Big Sur jade jewelry, books, and photography. The parking lot can get very crowded on summer weekends!

Soon after Nepenthe is another interesting stop: the Henry Miller Memorial Library, both an eclectic bookstore and event center.

Henry Miller Memorial Library

California condors

Driving southward, we are now entering condor country. Look out for these awesome vultures with a wingspan of up to 10 ft. soaring high above the mountains or sitting on cliffs on the side of the road. How do you know it is a condor and not a turkey vulture? The upper part of the condor wings around the head is white, the bottom part is black. The pattern is the opposite for turkey vultures. In addition, most of the condors carry radio trackers and numbers for identification. (I will write in more detail about the condors in a future post.)

Out of the fog, two condors appeared

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

As you drive through the awe-inspiring landscape that is Big Sur, you will see little pullouts here and there with a couple cars parked. Most of these are near trailheads, but no area is more crowded on weekends during the tourist season than that for McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This incredible 80-foot fall is one of just two in California that empty directly onto a beach. The beach is not accessible but the view from the easily-walked Overlook Trail is well worth it!

Afternoon light at McWay Falls

Limekiln State Park

Compared to this busy park, Limekiln State Park is usually calm and peaceful, even though this little park has much to offer: walk under towering redwoods with the burbling sound of Limekiln Creek in your ears, check out the historic kilns, hike to the cascading Limekiln Falls, or enjoy the rocky beach. What’s not to like?!

Limekiln Creek

We have now traveled approximately 55 miles from Carmel, but who is counting?! The third and final part of this post will soon take us all the way to San Simeon and Cambria.

Historic adobes

Coming from Europe, where building age is often described in hundreds or thousands of years, it took me a while to appreciate the historic buildings of the West Coast … but no worries, by now, I am a fan.

Like so many of us, I first fell in love with the Spanish or California Missions along El Camino Real – I might even write a post about them soon! Recently though, my interest has turned to the less-appreciated building type called adobe.

Luís María Peralta Adobe

The oldest building in San Jose, and its most famous adobe, is the Luís María Peralta Adobe. Manuel González, an Apache Indian, is believed to have built it for his family in 1797, after arriving with the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition. González died in 1804 and four years later the adobe went to Luís María Peralta, giving it the name used today. Peralta was a sergeant in the Spanish Army, commissioner of the Pueblo de San José, and owner of Rancho San Antonio of the East Bay.

Luís María Peralta Adobe with Horno (oven)

González chose the north-west corner of the new Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe to build his home. It still remains in its original location today, but now the Peralta finds itself in the middle of bustling San Pedro Square, where it provides the background for concerts, good meals, and fun drinks with friends.

Morning coffee with a view

It is currently open for school program tours only.

Click here to find out more about San Jose’s oldest building.

Roberto Adobe

The only other adobe extant in San Jose is the Roberto Adobe. It is the lesser-known of the pair and only recently opened its doors to the public. The Roberto Adobe was built around 1836 by Native American Roberto Balermino. Roberto grew up with his Ohlone-speaking parents from the Tamien triblet on the Rancheria San Juan Bautista, part of which is now Willow Glen. Both he and his father worked for the padres of Mission Santa Clara and cultivated the land known as Rancho de los Coches (Ranch of the Pigs). In 1836, he petitioned to have the land granted to him. 8 years later, the Mexican governor finally granted him 2,219 acres.

Map downloaded from Sanjoseca.gov

By 1844, Spaniard Antonio Maria Suñol was living on Rancho los Coches with his family. He acquired Rancho los Coches from Roberto in 1847 as part of a debt repayment, and built a brick house adjoining the adobe. It was the first brick house to be completed in Alta California. Roberto’s family was still living in the adobe at that time, and Suñol allowed them to live out their lives there.

Roberto Adobe with Suñol House and Heritage Fig Tree in the background

Today, the Roberto Adobe and the Suñol House are owned by the non-profit California Pioneers of Santa Clara County and house a free museum. Houses and garden can be visited on Saturdays from 12-2pm.

Inside of the Roberto Adobe

Find out more about the Roberto Adobe here.

A taste of adobes farther afield

While only two adobes survived in San Jose, there are others not too far away. Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz has the Bolcoff Adobe from 1840 (which can only be admired from the outside). The Jose Maria Alviso Adobe is located in Milpitas. It was built by José Maria de Jesus Alviso in 1835 or 1837 (depending on the source) and is the only remaining example of the Monterey Colonial style of architecture in the Santa Clara Valley. The Berryessa Adobe in Santa Clara was built in the late 1840s by Juan Chrisostomo Galindo, one of the first colonists to come to the Santa Clara Valley with the de Anza Expedition, just like Manuel González. According to local lore the building was once a mission jail for unruly Indian field hands. Don Francisco Sanchez, owner of Rancho San Pedro, built the Sanchez Adobe in Pacifica between 1842 and 1846. The Alvarado Adobe is a museum open to the public. It is the former home of Juan Alvarado, the governor of Mexican Alta California and is located in San Pablo. The Petaluma Adobe served as the center of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s 66,000-acre (100 square miles) working ranch from 1836 to 1846. Made from adobe brick and redwood, its design is typical of Hispanic Architecture. The Francisco Solano Alviso Adobe is located in Alameda County near Dublin and was erected in 1844-46 by Francisco Solano Alviso. It was the first adobe house to be built in the Pleasanton Valley.

Bolcoff Adobe, Wilder Ranch State Park

Of course, there are great examples of adobe architecture in San Juan Bautista and Monterey as well. Since they are part of greater historic plazas, we will talk about them in another post.

Have you visited one of our adobes? Which one is your favorite?

The Bard in the park

Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors: from story-telling around bonfires on your favorite beach to camping under towering redwoods. But summer is also the time when the art community comes out in full force. From now till fall, art shows happen almost every weekend in main streets around the Bay Area, and many cities offer free concerts in parks and school grounds. But today, we’ll look at a quieter, less commonly known art treasure: Shakespeare in the Park.

Free performances

The first time I came across free Shakespeare was a few decades ago in Golden Gate Park. A crowd had gathered in one of the big meadows and I thought to myself: “This looks gemütlich, let’s see what might be going on.” My friendly neighbors offered me a spot on their blanket and a glass of wine, and so it began. Little did I know then that Shakespeare in the Park is a tradition, and one not limited to San Francisco.

Below are some places where you can see Shakespeare performed for free. Of course, there are many, many more places all around the Bay Area, where you can enjoy his works on the beach or in the forest with a ticket (and a glass?) in hand!

Silicon Valley Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Willow Glen’s Bramhall Park, San Jose

Bramhall Park, Willow Glen

Silicon Valley Shakespeare chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their free 2019 play (the photo is from a prior season).

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

Amador Valley Community Park, Pleasanton
Memorial Park, Cupertino (enjoy English poetry mixed with the sound of local ducks 🙂
Grounds of Sequoia High School, Redwood City
Main Post Parade Ground Lawn, Presidio, San Francisco
Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, McLaren Park, San Francisco

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival brings you As You Like It this year. They play in different parks from June to September.

Vallejo Shakespeare in the Park

Hanns Park Amphitheater, Vallejo
Rithet Park, Crockett
Susanan Park, Martinez
Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, Oakland

Vallejo Shakespeare in the Park will perform Henry V from July to August at several East Bay locations.


Like many other free programs, free Shakespeare depends on donations. If your wallet allows for it, please drop a few bills in the hat at the end of the evening. Some of the companies also offer merchandise like shirts and sweaters.

This is Northern California and it tends to get cold after sundown. Plan accordingly (or buy that sweater!)

Food can be purchased at booths or food trucks at some of the festivals, but do not count on it. Bring your own picnic. That’s half of the fun anyways!

Blankets and low chairs are always allowed. Do check the performance websites for rules on taller chairs though.

Here are some more tips from the SF Shakespeare Festival site:

Now go and grab that blanket, because “nothing will come of nothing!”

An apple a day

During my recent trip to Germany I visited the Alte Land, a beautiful sleepy region near Hamburg. This marshland stretch along the river Elbe is famous for its half-timbered houses and endless orchards. It is also Northern Europe’s biggest contiguous fruit-producing area, and apple harvest was in full swing. Farm stands offered a wide variety of apples and related products like apple spirits or freshly baked cakes. Even my bed-and-breakfast was on the bandwagon and offered delicious cold-pressed apple juice from the neighboring farm.

Apple orchard near Hamburg

Where can we go to get our fix of fresh apples in the extended Bay Area, you might ask? While wine has largely taken over areas that used to be producing cherries and apples, there are still some great places to discover.

Please note that some of these farms mentioned below do not allow dogs or outside food. Make sure to check their websites before you go. I am planning to visit at least one of the farms this weekend 🙂

Apple picking from Watsonville to Sebastopol

My favorite place to pick apples is just north of Davenport at Swanton Pacific Ranch. This little u-pick orchard operated by Cal Poly University has a nice variety of apples (some of which are unusual) and a low-key vibe. During some visits, we have had the place to ourselves; during others, we enjoyed seeing families with little kids picking apples and then picnicking on the property. Since this is not a big orchard, the picking season often ends earlier than in other locations. I believe this might be the last weekend to go, but best to check their website.

Apples at Swanton Pacific Ranch

A popular place to visit is Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville. Gizdich has a lot to offer (and is therefore sometimes quite crowded), from their famous fresh pies to jams to freshly pressed juices, an antiques shop, nice picnic grounds, and u-pick opportunities. Check their website for more information.

Apple orchard at Gizdich Ranch

Other orchards in the Watsonville area are Clearview Organic Orchards and Live Earth Farm. Clearview’s season of weekend apple picking usually goes till the end of October. This friendly family farm also offer squashes, local honey, lavender, apple butter, and baked goods on the premises. Find more information here. Live Earth Farm is an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. They have special weekends dedicated to specific varietal picking. Check their schedule for the next apple picking dates. They have a nice farm stand on the premises and currently also a pumpkin patch.

Farm stand at Clearview Orchards

One of the original fruit areas of Northern California was located around Sebastopol. While a lot of the original orchards have been converted to vineyards, there are some reminders – like the annual Apple Blossom Festival and Gravenstein Apple Fair – that this once was a prime apple-growing region. Here are some farms you can visit while in the area: Gabriel Farm (membership is required for this CSA, please check their website) and Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch (long picking season, picnic tables, award-winning juice).

More apple-y stuff

My favorite, favorite, favorite apple is the Cox Orange Pippin. We even planted a tree in our backyard despite the fact that San Jose has nowhere near the climate this apple likes. This year, the little tree delighted us for the first time ever with not the usual 2 apples but some 30 or so! In the end, we still only got 2 because a mob of irreverent squirrels looted the tree long before harvest time. They just gnawed their way through the netting… There is ONE farm I know of that sells Cox Orange and that unfortunately is a bit of a drive up north. But whenever I am up in Anderson Valley, I make sure to stop at the Gowan’s Oak Tree farm stand. This 100+ year old farm along Highway 128 offers an incredible variety of apples as well as cider, peaches, and plums. This is not a u-pick destination. Also in Philo and close to Gowan is The Apple Farm. Here you can peruse the farm stand but also rent cottages or book one of their Stay & Cook packages.

Liquid apples

Finally, if you prefer to drink your apples, check out The Cider Junction in San Jose. Opened exactly a year ago by a fellow German from Hanover, this bistro has 26 rotating hard ciders from California and select countries on tap and offers 30 more in bottles or cans (they also have a few beers on tap). The best thing to do at the Junction is choose a flight and let your taste buds experience different fruits, regions, and alcohol levels! Just be aware that hard cider tends to go to your head, so make sure to pair it with some food. The Cider Junction offers a simple but tasty menu to make sure you are covered.

The Cider Junction