Hill Road

Head north from the town of Sonoma on highway 12 and Sonoma Mountain soon looms to the west across the vineyards. Pacific storms dump great torrents as they crest this ridge, nurturing a band of venerable conifers spread across the steep terrain. At the northern end a long incline rises slowly from the village of Glen Ellen to the last old firs silhouetted against the sky. This is Hill Road.

By 1911 Glen Ellen resident Jack London owned 1,400 acres here. A sailor and world traveler as well as the best-selling author of his time, he found this the most beautiful place on earth and named it, accordingly, Beauty Ranch. In the 1940’s Jack’s widow Charmiane sold off 100 acres at the top of Hill Road to local celebrity sports announcer Ernie Smith for $20,000. The remaining ranch land eventually became a state park, including the ruins of Wolf House, the vast stone mansion London built that burned in 1913 just days before they were to move in. Smith loved it there, but kept his land mainly for camping and summer visits.

Julius Sassenrath was born in 1923 in neighboring Eldridge, essentially the Sonoma Developmental Center, an institution that cared for disabled children. His parents worked there, and though they died when he was just 13, they inspired a career as a respected psychologist and beloved teacher. As two locals I believe he would have known Smith, for he later bought half of Smith’s land and created five home sites--reserving the best for himself. According to online records, Julius divorced, remarried, and built a house there, all in 1985.

By the beginning of 2017 long-time housemate John and I had weathered two harrowing years in Novato, the first with dying alcoholic friend Mike, then a rabid right-wing third roommate. It was truly time to move. Just for fun I widened the search to Sonoma County and saw a place in Glen Ellen on 10 acres. We both loved that area, but it was too expensive and too far away. A month later, the price was reduced.

Got lost and were late when we came to four other cars stuck before a locked gate at the top of Hill Road. The agent was called, a code provided, all got in. The others left in minutes, but John and I saw a home designed for the every need and wish of its builders—a list that closely matched our own. It seems it had been waiting for us. Big rooms, huge closets, tile floors, double fireplace, wood-lined vaulted ceilings, a laundry room big as a second kitchen, a large garage, sunny solarium entry. From inside it felt like a tree house, a viewing platform from which to take in the natural world. And what a world it was.

Perched on a finger of land below the tall trees, a full view of the valley and Mayacamas Mountains through a forest of ancient oaks. Below, a redwood grove on a perfect woodland stream. Mixed oak savannah near the house; above, a trail up through the giant Douglas firs to the top of the hill. Gorgeous scenes out every window, no one looking in. And always, above it all, the peak of Sonoma Mountain in the western sky. The silence, too, was stunning. It was heaven, and it was ours.

Julius’ wife died in 2016. Dad could no longer live alone, the house was in disrepair; family decided it was time for him to leave for a care facility and rent it out. It was as if we’d dropped from the sky into the lap of local aristocracy. These are places cherished by generations of families who long ago managed to secure them. They remain unseen and rarely come to market; thus ensconced, you don’t leave until you have to.

As arrivistes, and especially as renter’s, I expected our neighbors’ skeptical curiosity at best, but while Ernie Smith’s descendants after two years still refer to “where you’re staying”—they can’t quite bring themselves to say we live here—still we were warmly welcomed before we even moved in. I have yet to meet anyone in the county who doesn’t revere Bill and Francine Maffei, prominent in education circles, or Don and Sherry Shone, who owned the two finest markets in the valley. I had once sold product there, and they all bought my fruitcakes. John and I felt as if we’d snuck in through the back door and took the best seats in the house!

At any time of day, in all seasons, in every kind of weather, stunning beauty is the only constant here—remote and wild, even dangerous, but never less beguiling. So there’s no garbage pick-up or cable, no pizza or Chinese food. The internet slows to a crawl every time it rains, and even when it doesn’t. The power goes out, or the water. Squirrels build nests in my pickup. I get stung by a scorpion in my dinner napkin, there’s a rattlesnake coiled on the front steps, a bobcat on the hill.

One dawn I stepped outside to break up a fight between two wild turkeys, necks wrapped like twist-ties, when a mountain lion sprinted up the hill behind them. I believe she once left a deer haunch in the front yard. Then, of course, there’s the Nuns Fire, which came to the edge of our driveway and held us in exile for three weeks. The Shone’s house, too, survived; the Maffei’s burned to the ground.

Despite all that, a perfect day is still one when I never have to leave home. A flock of turkeys roost on our hill and come through each morning, trilling cackles that start my day with what sounds like hysterical laughter. A dozen buzzards can take to our trees for hours, just outside the windows, to preen and sun their wings. There are pileated woodpeckers, herds of deer. Lovely sheep arrived one day, escaping a near-by paddock. It sometimes resembles Rousseau’s “Peaceable Kingdom--” at least the herbivores get along.

As I move through a house that effortlessly accommodates everything I want or need to do in a day, the ever-changing landscapes of color, shadow and light on mountains, clouds, trees, moss and lichen play outside every window. I hike our hill or stream daily in total solitude, a seasonal cavalcade of wildflowers, mushrooms, spent feathers, Mike’s handsome old dog Koda sniffing, digging, and racing ahead, completely free.

The owners understand we are long-term tenants. We put our potted plants in the ground. I re-dug the neglected gardens, landscaped the front yard and had a ball clearing brush and dead trees. I got a chain saw. I planted bulbs. Every day of the last two years I have been acutely aware of the privilege it is to dwell in what is essentially a private state park, and the obligation to cherish each moment. How many hundreds of times have we said to each other, “I can’t believe we live here.”

Then, in January, Julius died. All his heirs see here is scorpions, snakes and dollar signs. We will be evicted when our lease is up May first. The house will be sold. In hindsight we should have seen it coming, but that doesn’t mean we would have passed up the chance to live here. As a renter I am entitled to neither my sadness nor my disappointment, not even, really, to surprise. I want to stay here the rest of my life, but we’ve been given 60 days. Well, Francine Maffei had ten minutes to leave. Mr. London never even got to move in.

I am not prone to “what-if’s.” Had anything in my life been any different I never would have landed here. The hard numbers are that 5,300 homes in Sonoma County were lost in the fires, and though 2,200 souls have given up and left, more than any California county, still we are competing with thousands of displaced others. Our search so far has been grim, but nothing can help but be less from here, as I leap once more to the next log--and not as spry as I used to be. Our only salvation would be for the new owner to rent it back to us, a notion beyond the reach of even dreams.

Paradise never lasts. The Wolf House ruins, less than half a mile away, are mute testament to that. But we knew it, we lived it, and will always remember, long after these gates close behind us for the last time. I think of Edith Piaf, “Je ne regrette rien.” There is nothing I regret. What can I say? The Maffei’s have rebuilt and are moving back in this month. The bulbs should be lovely this spring.

Robert Lambert
Glen Ellen, CA
March 3, 2019

What A Fungi!

This property continues to deliver amazing surprises - over the course of 2 days one of our many dead madrone trees sprouted the most beautiful bracket fungi I’ve ever seen...

Fungi Fungi Fungi Fungi

Strange Fungi

Strange Fungi

This bracket fungi showed up on an old oak next to the driveway—I’ve never seen anything like it and looked online but couldn’t find anything similar, the bracket with that huge poof on top, really remarkable. There was an old one on the tree when we got here, all darkened; I heard a loud POP while I was out there one day and it had exploded, pieces of it were all over the ground...!

The Colnik Latch

The Colnik Latch

Nearly 50 years ago a fire gutted an East Side mansion in Milwaukee, taking the life of its reclusive elderly occupant. Long forgotten at the time of her death, she had been one of the first female architects in the country, had a successful career and had designed the home where she died.

Free-lance salvagers descended on the property to save what would surely have been destroyed in those days—there were reports of antique dealers throwing Chinese tapestries out the attic windows, of carved fireplace surrounds and stained glass. My brother stopped by and came away with this latch forged by noted Milwaukee metalworker Cyril Colnik.

The Austrian had arrived in the late 1800’s and for many years furnished fences, gates, lamps and balustrades for the mansions of the city’s Guilded Age elite—a staircase for a brewing magnate took 3 years. He was known for his fluid, natural forms and life-like detail.

The latch lay in a box at the farm all these years, until my brother had to replace the screen door on the front porch this summer. He finally had a place to use it. Cyril’s curled acanthus leaf latch once more opens into a much loved home.

Cyril Colnik latch

Answers to Customer Questions

1. I bought a bottle of your superb lime syrup about 4 months ago & put it in the fridge as you recommend after opening. I had not finished it all nor used it for a while but noticed recently that it developed considerable cloudy precipitation. Is this sugar precipitating out? I gave it a brief period in the microwave and it largely disappeared.

I'd like to buy some more of your syrups & other products but have some other questions first: What is the "refrigerator life" of your syrups? You say you use corn syrup in your syrups. Is this the high fructose type? Do you recommend refrigerating your marmalades too after opening? Thank you.

Good questions all. The refrigeration I recommend is to be safe--say, someone who stores a half-used bottle over his stove for 3 years, then wonders why if anything happens. Most of the citrus syrups contain enough citric acid that they will not go bad in the short term, say 4 to 6 weeks, if left out. Some customers do not refrigerate them at all. I keep a jar of stray syrups out for my tea and it never gets moldy on top, which is all that would happen anyway, but I use it daily.

I sometimes keep syrups refrigerated for years. They can, as you observed, crystalize, but as you also figured out, this is easily remedied by heating in the microwave, just as you would crystalized honey. They can be brought back repeatedly by this method with no loss of flavor or quality. If it's not clear, go a few seconds more.

The corn syrup in the syrups is not high-fructose, but if you are concerned about corn syrup in general I suggest reading food authority Marion Nesbett's article on the subject, the most balanced, considered, and definitive parsing of this controversy:

Like all jams, the marmalade should be refrigerated. It can, if kept a long time, crystalize as well, but the same procedure noted above will work for them as well.

My Best,
Robert Lambert

2. Hello - I placed the order below via your website. I didn't see an option in the checkout area to not have the invoice not included, but if it's possible to do that I'd appreciate it -- the order is a gift.
thanks, AB

I took care of that, A! If I see that the Bill To and Ship To are different names, I automatically assume it's a gift and only include that part of the receipt, inside a card, so they'll know who it's from. Thank you for your order!

My Best,
Robert Lambert

3. I'd like to suggest that you consider using compostable vegetable-based 'peanuts' for packing instead of styrofoam ones.
Happy Holidays, AB

Thanks for the suggestion! I know everything about the styro is negative, except for the fact that it works. The starch varieties compress readily against the weight of a heavy object when the box is shaken as it is in shipping, and the product is soon rattling around in the box and subject to breakage. Since the things I'm shipping are glass, liquid and expensive, experience has proved that being well separated and secured with material that keeps its shape is the only way I can be sure they will safely reach their destination--and more ecologically sound than sending it twice, I think. You note I do now use the paper grass on top, but only after the bases have been secured with the peanuts.

Have a Happy New Year!!
My Best,
Robert Lambert

4. To my surprise, the Vintage 2011 Dark Fruitcake didn't get opened this holiday. How long will it keep?
Thanks, R

How long can you wait? It all depends on your appetite! ;-) I've kept one as long as 7 years and it was better than when I made it - so what I'm saying is it's up to you! I've heard of them kept as long as 25 years. Don't freeze it, just refrigerate but make sure it's in a second zip seal bag to keep it moist. I the case of a loooong hibernation, it might require an extra splash of Jack Daniels. Who wouldn't?

My Best,
Robert Lambert

5. I came across your website and wow, your products look amazing! I am also an artisan jam maker, but in the west of Ireland. We don't get all the beautiful fruits you get. I try not to use anything that is not local, with the exception of lemons and oranges. We get oranges, blood oranges if we are lucky and once a year Seville oranges. One type of lemon and one type of lime!

10 years ago a butternut squash was unheard of! I grew up in Africa, and let me tell you it took a lot to get my head around the lack of choice in the fresh produce section when I moved to Ireland. It is much better now, but still not near what there is in your part of the world or even in the rest of Europe. Ahh well I digress.

I was browsing through your website and came across this picture... please will you tell me where you got this sieve or what it is called so I can look online to find one. I use a small normal sieve and oh this would make life so much easier!

Raspberry Champagne Jelly

I make a lot of elderberry jam, and let me tell you this would be a Godsend!

I laughed too hard when I read your bit about pectin! I get asked that question... UMMMM you need pectin to set, and if a fruit does not have enough pectin to set, then you will have syrup, not jam! I also make my own pectin with the orange seeds, but make a lot with reduced apple juice from my apple trees in the garden. I freeze it in muffin tins, then put the frozen pectin muffins into zip lock bags. I have read a bit about a pectin called pomona's pectin, have you used it? It is not available here in Ireland, but I have been thinking about getting some to experiment with.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, look forward to hearing from you.
Regards M

So funny that I’d read this upon returning from visiting my parents in Wisconsin over the holidays. Even the all-seeing internet can’t bring you that amazing device - I designed it with my 92-year old Dad, and he built it! This visit I had him build a rack for my 2-piece jar rims, I re-use them for my boiling water baths, always wanted an orderly place to keep them when not in use - and now I’ve got it! He made my bottle filler as well. I know, I’m very lucky. I’ve forwarded your message to him. He will love this. Here’s a shot of him cutting the plugs to hold the columns in place for the new piece, on his lathe - and it was 23 degrees in the garage!

Robert Lambert Dad

Yes the pan strainer does make life so much easier. Ideal for all kinds of berries, and if I take out the fine screen to prep small plums, it lets the skin & guts thru but holds back just the pits—heaven! One thing you’ll never find is the screen, though, just fine enough to hold back every last raspberry seed. It’s a very large piece of fine industrial stainless mesh screen for instruments, from one of Dad’s last business contacts. Not something one can go out and buy. I have a nephew who’s the manager of a chemical plant near Boston, and he couldn’t get us any.

Besides the pectin I make, I use a French citrus-derived import that is available only to the trade, and wildly expensive, but worth it.

Delightful to hear from you! Mom says Dad’s not got much to do this time of year, perhaps we can coax him back into the shop! ;-)

My Best,
Robert Lambert

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