Brews and Buffaloes

Micro Brew Safari WestIn a land where Pinot Noir, not Primates is the order of the day, most people who aren’t familiar with Sonoma County and its boundless offerings are stunned when I share that there’s more than grapes flourishing in our golden hills. Like giraffes, rhinos, buffalos, zebras, exotic birds and cheetahs. Yes, all of these animals are living- and thriving- in this region’s best-kept secret: Safari West. Tucked away in the rolling hills of Alexander Valley,  just 15 minutes east of Highway 101, lies a stunning private wildlife preserve. This 400-acre savannah is chocked-full with wild animals–900 to be exact– totaling 90 different African species of mammals and birds, all roaming freely throughout their natural habitat.
reticulated giraffes safari west |
giraff 2 safari west

I was recently given the opportunity to visit this incredible wildlife preserve with some of my friends to experience their Brews and Buffalo Private Safari. And oh man, what an adventure it was! Visiting Safari West was something I had always wanted to do, so needless to say, I was very excited to take this early evening tour… and test drive a new camera lens along the way. Oh, and the fact that this outing also included some of the West Coast’s top micro-brews, well, that guaranteed we were all in for a great time!

safari west park | whiskandmuddler.comFirst, some background on the park. It all started in the early 1970s, on one of the last remaining cattle ranches in Beverly Hills. Peter Lang, son of Otto Lang (Hollywood film director and producer) took inspiration from his father’s work with animals in his 60’s hit TV shows Flipper and Daktari, and began keeping wild animals on the family ranch. When the property sold in 1978, cattle ranches in Beverly Hills had become extinct. So Peter relocated the growing conservation center to some acreage outside Calistoga in Northern California. A few years later, the park expanded yet again to its present location on an old sheep ranch in Santa Rosa. When Peter met his now-wife Nancy, he knew a kindred spirit was found. She holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Biology,  and is the former General Curator of the Avian Conservation Center at the San Francisco Zoological Gardens. Nancy realized the importance of the conservation work Peter was doing and encouraged him to share it with others. So in 1993, Safari West officially opened to the public with tours for children and schools. Today, this twosome has grown the animal care and breeding center into the nation’s largest of the six accredited private zoos by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums).

micro brews 2 safari west |
Our line-up of micro-brews

If you crave a slug of cold beer on a hot day (and who doesn’t?) then this tour is for you. Our expert guide, Nate, drove us around in one of their restored 1950s military Dodge M37 Power Wagons in search of the animals. These machines are not speedy, but they’ll climb over any rocky terrain effortlessly. The easy-going pace of the 3 ½ hour safari allowed for plenty of stops along the way to snap some photos and to receive a briefing from Nate about each animal as we encountered it. Tip: Take advantage of the upper deck seating if you want to get up close and personal with a Reticulated Giraffe. Slobber alert! These gals are known to drool (a lot), so get ready for a very wet welcome! The park’s giraffes know the sight and sound of the vehicles, so they’re very comfortable with you riding right next to them. Giraffes are curious creatures by nature, and honestly, one of my favorite animals and undoubtedly the best camera-hounds on the trip. Look closely across the paddock as you may event spot the baby Masai Giraffe.

nate safari west |

You’d never know it, but Nate just came aboard the Safari West team in December 2015. In a former life, he sold insurance and was a wedding photographer. Now he’s hooked on exotic animals.  In just a short time, he’s become a walking encyclopedia on each species,  spending countless hours out on safari with the seasoned guides to offer visitors the most fun and educational experience possible. Nate’s also a self-proclaimed “hop head”, so go ahead and try to stump him with a question about the delicious local micro-brews he pours; it’s simply not possible. Our libation break happened about midway through the tour, perched atop a hill overlooking the valley and the long-horned Watusi Cattle bred on the property. We tasted six or seven beers from producers like Petaluma Hills Brewing Company, Napa Smith Brewery, Bear Republic Brewing Company, Third Street Ale Works, St. Florian’s Brewing, Heretic Brewing Company and feasted on a generous sampling of charcuterie, cheeses and crackers. We even received a souvenir “Brews and Buffalo” mini beer mug to take home!
watusi cattle safari west |
cheese and charcuterie platter safari west |

micro-brews 2 safari west |

As the tour name suggests, you’re going to come across buffaloes… and some pretty tough-looking Cape Buffalo at that. These 2,500-pound beasts are known to be one of the most dangerous mammals on the Serengeti. Not to worry, you’re safe with Nate, as he will steer you away from the herd even though they have become accustomed to visitors passing through their habitat. Cape Buffalo are the only mammals in the wild kingdom that will turn an entire herd around (and we’re talking thousands of buffalo here folks) to go back for just one felled animal. No buffalo is left behind. They have a highly acute sense of smell and memory too, so a lion that may have attempted to take down one of their own years previously, will be tracked for hundreds of miles and then killed by the herd. Amazing! Also in store for you:  Zebras, various Antelope such as Gemsbok, Greater Kudu, Wildebeest, Rhinos, Gazelle, and more. Over in the more tame surroundings of the Aviary, you’ll find the brightest Scarlet Ibis you ever did see, along with Blue Crowned Pigeon, Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, Mandarin Ducks and plenty more birds of all shapes, sizes and colors.

cape buffalo safari west |
cape buffalo

When visiting Safari West, be sure to leave plenty of time for the kiddos to walk around and see the Primates and Pink Flamingos too. Overnight guests can bunk down in traditional South African safari tents and fall asleep to the chirps of cockatoos and monkeys while surrounded by herds of African animals. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

The Trading Post Gift Shop offers postcards and mementos of your spectacular journey and if you’re planning a full day at the park, consider the safari-style barbecue lunches and dinners available by reservation-complete with local Sonoma and Napa wines to sip on as well. AAA California rates Safari West as a “must-experience” venue (second only to Disney Land), and Sunset Magazine listed it as one of their top 300 destinations in the Western United States.

From the fun jeep ride and excellent beers and nosh, to the time spent with friends watching in awe as various animals crossed our path, this adventure completely lived up to its expectation…and more. I took heaps more pictures that I didn’t include; otherwise, you’d be reading an even longer post- ha!  Going on this urban safari will allow you to see some of the most spectacular wildlife on the planet, so haul all your camera gear with you, it will be totally worth it!

For all tour packages, pricing and FAQs about the park, visit or email
3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404 | Ph. (707) 579-2551

Disclaimer: this tour was generously provided at no cost as part of a freelance assignment. All photographs, thoughts and opinions are my own.

Date Crumble and Rhubarb Slice

Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice | whiskandmuddler.comOn my recent trip to the desert, I neglected to come home with one very important thing: Dates! As in the wrinkly little fruits which are power-packed with heaps of vitamins, nutrients and fiber and are super low on the GI scale, making them an ideal sweet-treat that’s naturally healthy for you.  Dates, which come from the Date Palm, can be found here in the U.S. in the arid region of Coachella Valley, near Indio, California. They’re actually native to the Persian Gulf where they’ve been cultivated for at least 6,000 years, but they were first brought to Southern California’s desert back in the 1890s. The minimal rainfall in the winter and low humidity/high temperatures in the summer makes them an ideal crop for this environment.  If you’re ever near Palm Springs, Indio, or Thermal, do be sure to check out the various date growers and shops where you can sample all the varieties growing in the region such as Deglet Noor, Barhi, Zahidi and my personal favorite, the Medjool.
Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice |

Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice |

Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice |

So, back to this sticky and delicious Date Crumble and Rhubarb Slice. Even though it’s a bit messy when you slice into it (hence “crumble” and “slice” (defined here)), I promise you, the rich shortbread-base layered with the slightly tart stewed rhubarb is an excellent partner for the subtle sweetness from the date and oat topping. This combination of fruits came about as I need to make some more of my Rhubarb Simple Syrup (a staple in my cocktail arsenal; recipe coming to the blog soon!) and after having strained off all the beautiful pink liquid for the syrup, I was left with a wonderfully thick rhubarb confit. I just simply couldn’t throw it out, and I always have dates in my fridge, so I decided to pair up these two flavors for an homage to the perfect desert-inspired dessert. Enjoy!

Date Crumble and Rhubarb Slice
Yields one 14″x 4.5″ tart/ approx 8-10 slices | Date Crumble and Rhubarb Slice PDF

Rhubarb Confit | yields 1 1/2 cups
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
20-25 stalks of rhubarb (fresh or frozen) chopped, approx 2- 2 1/2 cups (liquid measure)

Combine sugar and water in a medium pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add in rhubarb pieces and simmer until they are fully-cooked and it becomes a thick puree, approximately 15-20 minutes.  Press confit through a fine strainer three times to ensure all liquid is removed. *Save liquid for use in drinks and cocktails. Set mixture aside to cool.

Shortbread Base
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour pan; set aside. Sift flour and salt into a bowl of a food processor. Add in sugar and butter. Pulse just until a loose dough forms. Press into pan until it reaches half way up the sides. Depending on the size of pan you use, there may be some dough left over. Bake at 350F for 25-35 minutes or until top is light golden brown and based is fully baked through. Set aside to cool.

Date Crumble Topping
1 cup quick rolled oats
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
12 large dates, pitted and finely chopped, approx. 1 cup (dry measure)

Combine oats, flour, sugar, and salt into a large bowl. Mix in the butter with your fingers until there are no large pieces remaining. Add in dates and mix to combine. Crumble will look like large granola clusters.

To assemble:
Preheat oven to 350F. Spread cooled Rhubarb Confit over the cooled Shortbread Base, leaving a 1/4 inch border around all sides. Top with Date Crumble to cover the entire pan. Bake at 350F for 35-40 minutes, checking at 30 minutes to ensure it is not over-browning. Cool for at least 20 minutes. To serve, use a serrated knife to cut into 2-inch slices. Top with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice |

Date and Rhubarb Crumble Slice |

where to buy: patterned bowl used for rhubarb and dates | Tart pan | Medjool Dates. Not sponsored, just things I like and use :>)

Caper, Shallot and Lemon Schmear

Who doesn’t love a good schmear on their bagel?
Capers, Shallots and Lemon Schmear |

Or maybe a better question would be– what kind of schmear (a.k.a. cream cheese spread) is the ultimate for your bagel? With Easter brunch menu-planning in the works for everyone over the next few weeks, thought I’d share my favorite toppings, as well as offer you my Caper, Shallot and Lemon Schmear. It’s the simplest, easiest and *tastiest* of bagel spreads you can serve up at your next brunch or holiday breakfast gathering. It’s so good…it’s sure to be a hole in one (so bad,  I know).

I have to confess something first: I’m really picky about what I put on my bagels, as well as the order in which it all gets piled on. I know, I know, most people are more concerned with the actual quality or baking method of the bagel itself (you smart folks you!), but me–meh, not so much. My only requirement is that it’s a super thin bagel, like this one here, or if I can’t get my hands on one of those, I’ll take a regular size bagel and cut it into thirds. I’d rather put more of the filling in my mouth than the bread-y part. Ok, so there’s one more requisite in that it’s got to be an “everything” bagel– or at least an onion or poppy seed–c’mon, it’s got to have some kind of flavor to it. And I’m going to toast it anyway, so as long as it doesn’t taste like cardboard, I’m pretty much set.

Bagels with this pastrami-style smoked salmon are one of my most favorite breakfast foods, heck make that a favorite lunch, dinner or any-time snack too! But, my biggest pet peeve if ordering ‘Bagels and Lox’ in restaurants is 1) they give me a huge bagel with very little spread, so already there’s too much of a bread-thing going on 2) they overdo the veggies and skimp on the main attraction 3) all the condiments like the capers, onions, etc are so precariously perched on top, that the minute I go to bite into it, everything comes tumbling down into a heap. Not good my friends, not good at all.

So my remedy for this dilemma is to get all the traditional condiments inside the spread- yep, move’m out of the way from the get-go, so that I can enjoy the salmon part without fear of a landslide happening. Plus, there’s a much better distribution of ingredients that way. I can add whatever I like to get just the right amount of tang (capers), a hint of sharpness (shallots) and the lemon zest adds a nice sweetness too oddly enough. So down goes the spread first, followed by the salmon and then I finish it off with a bit more lemon zest for some color and added flavor. And that’s it. I keep it pretty darn simple (other than my neurotic bagel fetish above- ha!), but you get the idea.
Capers, Shallots and Lemon Schmear |

Capers, Shallots and Lemon Schmear |
Capers, Shallots and Lemon Schmear |

Caper, Shallot and Lemon Schmear
yields 1 cup | Caper, Shallot and Lemon Schmear PDF

8 ounces cream cheese, softened (1 silver pouch)
3 tablespoons capers with liquid, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
1 large shallot, finely diced
salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Stir to incorporate. For maximum flavor, chill 1-2 hours (or overnight) before serving to allow all the ingredients to infuse into the cream cheese. Serve on a toasted bagel with pastrami-style smoked salmon or lox….or even fresh veggies for a vegetarian alternative.

Down To The Desert

Sunshine and palm trees- what could be better!
palm springs |

A few weeks ago, I made a bit of an impromptu trip down to Palm Springs. It had been raining here in Sonoma County for days and days….and days, so I decided to shake the wet weather, get out of dodge and find some sun pronto! I grabbed my good friend Miss LJ, loaded up the car and off we went! It’s about a 7.5-hour drive from the Bay Area to Palm Springs (which isn’t too bad I s’pose when you’re desperate for sunshine!) and we all know that road trips are where adventures begin, right?

By going in early February, we took advantage of the cooler winter weather (by Palm Springs standards, mind you) and begun to explore the surrounding areas as soon as we arrived. Day time temps were 65-72F– which was perfect actually. Blue skies graced us each day and there was very little tourism traffic to slow us down.

Here are just a couple of the amazing places we visited that week–each one a must-see when you’re visiting ‘The Desert’:

Down To The Desert | Palm Springs |

Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve, Coachella Valley. You’ve never seen such huge palm trees in all of your life! Seriously. These magnificent pillars are ginormous. The Preserve provides direct access to an amazing collection of rare trees via several easy walking trails and offers some incredible desert landscapes along the way. We started out at the visitor center so we could learn a little about what we were going to see. Then we headed out on the McCallum trail for a 2.5-mile trek to McCallum Pond. I had no idea palm trees could even grow this big, so this visit was a real treat. I took a picture of the entrance sign, as it best explains how and why the Preserve was created. [click photo to enlarge for reading]

Our hike to McCallum Pond:

Look how small the picnickers below are in comparison to the palm trees- crazy!
down to the desert | palm springs |

To visit:
The Preserve gates are open from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from May through September and from 7:00 am to 5:00 p.m. October through April. Closed in the summer from June 1 through August 31, but the preserve remains open for hiking and picnicking year-round. The Visitor Center hours are dependent on the availability of Volunteer staffing.
Call Visitor Center to confirm the current hours of operation  | 760.343.2733

29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Road
Thousand Palms, California 92276
760.343.2733 | | #coachellapreserve

untitled-40Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage

Think of the gorgeous, pink-hued estate built on over 200 acres as the Camp David of the West if you will. It encompasses a 25,000 sq ft private residence (with a pink roof no less), three guest houses, an 18-hole golf course, 11 lakes and a  17,000 sq ft Visitor Center with sprawling gardens.  From the time homeowners Walter and Leonore Annenberg (publishing moguls, philanthropists and diplomats) commissioned legendary mid-century modern architect A. Quincy Jones to build an oasis in the desert, Sunnylands was destined for greatness.  The private residence built in the mid-1960’s was at the time, a radical departure from traditional residential design. Jones’ use of exposed trellises, steel beams and coffered ceilings created a completely new and bold style of modernist construction, centered around “bringing the outside in”. This core ideal later became the foundation for a style known as California Mid-Century Modern architecture. The Annenbergs envisioned this desert retreat as a place of solitude and relaxation where their family could escape the frigid winters of Philadelphia.

down to the desert | palm springs |
Sunnylands Visitor Center
down to the desert | palm springs |
Interior of Sunnylands Visitor Center

The expansive gardens, colorized in various shades of pink and yellow at the request of Leonore Annenberg, aptly convey her passion for living in reflection of nature’s palate. Geometric patterns involving 50 species of more than 49,000 individual plants were masterfully formed by Landscape Architect James Burnett. Each plant grouping is located within the garden to echo the home’s clean lines and the methodical symmetry of the modernist movement. Native and drought-tolerant plants, indigenous mountain trees like the Palo Verde Tree Parkinsonia (commonly called ‘Desert Museum’) and a variety of interesting cacti like the squat Golden Barrels or columnar San Pedro and Fencepost species can be found throughout the gardens.

The estate is self-contained within pink Mexican lava stone walls and boasts a world-class golf course designed by U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner, Dick Wilson. He cleverly crafted 18 holes into nine greens, making this unique course a favorite of golf icons such as Floyd, Watson, Trevino and Palmer; not to mention celebrities of the era, along with past (and sitting) US Presidents, as well as heads of state from across the globe.

Sunnylands, in all its splendor, is far more than just a home however. It has been- and still is today- a very important venue for strategic political and corporate summits. A place where world and business leaders can quietly gather, without a lot of fanfare, to discuss critical matters of state business in a secluded and informal setting. Numerous state dinners have taken place at Sunnylands over the years in the less-structured form of a convivial cocktail party, set a midst an extensive and impressive collection of art and sculpture which can be found lining the halls surrounding the Annenberg’s main living room. Political alliances have been established here, oftentimes during a round of golf and several historic treaties were signed at the home. Sunnylands is not only of cultural significance, but it has played a major role in key political negotiations too. It’s a place where two world leaders who’ve taken a casual stroll through the gardens–jackets off and shirt-sleeves rolled up–accomplished far more than any board room meeting in D.C. could have ever achieved.

down to the desert | palm springs |
photo courtesy Lori-Jo Martin | no filter, just some stunning desert light

I was so impressed with this iconic landmark –I simply can’t wait until the next time I can visit. And if you’re a fan of mid-century architecture like I am, then this destination should definitely be on your list.
down to the desert | palm springs |

To visit:
Sunnylands Center & Gardens 
37977 Bob Hope Drive 
Rancho Mirage, CA 922 | 760.202.2222 | On IG @sunnylands

The Center and Gardens is open Thursday- Sunday from 9am-4pm, no appointment needed. Be sure to watch the short video in the media room as it will give you a wonderful overview of Sunnylands and life of the Annenbergs. There’s also a charming café on site for a coffee or a light snack, along with a gift shop featuring Sunnylands memorabilia and trinkets with a MCM style.

The Historic House Tour is the only way you can see the residence up close and personal. Tickets are a bit hard to come by, given the popularity of the home, but follow the link and then call on the specified day to secure a pair. 

Looking for more activities and excursions for Palm Springs area? Get in touch with Visit Palm Springs for a complete listing of all attractions | On IG @visitpalmsprings