Peering over the cliff’s edge, the vast Pacific stretches out before me on a picture perfect day. It’s unusually clear for seven a.m. in April. Just north of Bodega but shy of Jenner, this section of the Sonoma Coast undulates in a ragged ribbon of rocky shoreline, prettier than a postcard and dramatic enough to take your breath away. For me, it is one of the most incredible places on earth. But I am biased. I grew up nearby. The significance of being exactly here for this purpose at dawn on Earth Day is not lost on me.
Below, amongst the rocks, with heads capped in beanies, their puffy vests twisting around tidepools as the waves crashed theatrically behind them, a team of foragers hunts for kelp. Among them is Tyler Malek, co-founder of artisanal ice cream company Salt & Straw, and I am on my way to meet him.
“Bringing my team out here is a chance for them to be on the ground to understand the where, how and why we source our ingredients,” Malek tells me. “Because they are part of the experience, they are more excited to describe the flavors in the shops and ultimately sell the product. While it’s a team-building and educational experience, it also instills passion and excitement for the flavors that translates to their interaction with customers in the shops, day to day.”
As part of a seasonal ice cream series in June 2019, Malek teamed up with Heidi Hermann and Forage SF to harvest kelp for an upcoming flavor, North Coast Foraged Trail Mix, which will be offered in the Bay Area ice cream scoop shops. As I scamper around the rocks, snapping shots of the scene, Hermann guides Malek and the group through the flavor profiles of the varieties of the different kelp in the area.
“Working with Heidi was integral to understanding the wide assortment of kelp available to us that day, growing wild up and down the Sonoma Coast. We tasted so many kinds of seaweed with different textures, shapes and sizes, and each with a unique level of salinity too,” says Malek. “In the end, kombu was chosen for the North Coast Foraged Trail Mix due to its abundance, flavor, and our ability to translate it to ice cream.”
Once we harvested enough, the group takes a moment to look around and collectively, silently thank the earth for its abundance and the gifts it gave us that day—what we foraged, the morning sunshine, crisp air, and pristine views.
In developing the June flavor series, Malek was inspired by the great outdoors, which triggered nostalgia for recent camping trips with friends and family—and all the foods that went with it. In the spirit of getting outside during summer, flavors in the series include: Campfire S’mores; Buttermilk Pancakes; Bacon & Eggs; Mushroom Muddy-Buddies; Berries, Beans & BBQ Sauce; and the North Coast Foraged Trail Mix, specific to the Bay Area scoop shops.
In the company of such beloved “third wave” artisanal ice cream makers to emerge recently—those who offer unusual pairings, and often combine savory with sweet—Salt & Straw might be the most zealously adored. The line of customers that accompanies the opening of one of their new scoop shops is the stuff of social media legend, and months after the ribbon is cut, the fervor hasn’t dwindled one iota.
Malek and his team develop the flavors in their Portland, Oregon, test kitchen and along with classic mainstays, offer limited-run menus to coincide with the seasons and pay homage to the local communities in which they set up shop.
I was as excited as anyone to see how North Coast Foraged Trail Mix turned out. So when the dry ice-packed pint arrived shortly before its regional release, I opened it up and dug in. Ice cream for breakfast? All in the name of journalism.
It was so much more than I expected. Huckleberry jam, pecans, dried apricots, dried blueberries, pine nuts, coconut oil, and of course the kombu mingle together in a nuanced, delightful way offset by a creamy base. The balance of sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy is excellent and the combination of flavors is unexpectedly addictive. Not only that, it’s downright gorgeous with thick streaks of huckleberry swirled into bright white, in a richness of hue a painter would be proud of.
As head ice cream maker at Salt & Straw, this is what Malek and his team do—blend adventurous and surprising flavors that wildly exceed expectations. The Salt & Straw Chef Collaboration series of flavors and outtakes—with such combos as Duck Crackling with Cherry Preserves and Ras el Hanout and Pickled Rose Petal Jam by the likes of chefs Traci des Jardin and Renee Erickson—read like a four-star dining menu, complete with buzz-worthy chef attached.
However, the magic ingredient might not be found in the bottom of your ice cream cone. Beyond doling out scoops, founders Tyler and Kim Malek have made a point to develop relationships with local food purveyors, farmers and chefs in each of the unique food locales where they do business. In doing so, they have endeared the Salt & Straw brand to those communities in meaningful ways, bringing their ethos of inclusivity and building camaraderie along the way. For example, prior to opening in San Francisco for the first time, they partnered with La Cocina, a non-profit incubator focused on bringing immigrant women-created food businesses to market. In Portland, they work with elementary schools to develop flavors thought up by the kids through their Ice Cream Inventor Series.
Those who live in Portland know how different the city is from San Francisco and L.A., where Salt & Straw also has locations. Despite the fact that the inhabitants of one region are as food-savvy as the next, each food community is truly unique with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Which is why foraging kombu and learning from Hermann along the Sonoma coast is about so much more than making a wacky ice cream flavor.
It would be easy for Malek to buy some commercial trail mix in bulk created in a lab, dump it into a vanilla base, charge $5 a scoop, and call it a day. But when it comes to developing flavors, easy, cheap and fast are not the ethos of Salt & Straw.
Unique flavors and highest quality ingredients are only one component of the recipe for success at Salt & Straw; a mission to engage with every single person involved in the chain of creation—from Hermann and her kelp-foraging business to the scoopers at each Salt & Straw—is about creating community, making food responsibly, and honoring locality. Fortunately for their guests, what they come up with just happens to taste truly delicious.