Friday, 6 June 2008

California: destination food and drink

“Welcome to California: Land of Wine and Food” reads the state’s tourist advertising campaign. And for once it’s no exaggeration.

If any region in the US lives up to such a title – simple yet proud - then it has to be the Golden State. It may not be the meatiest swath of the US, but Salinas is known as the “salad bowl of the nation” and the Central Valley as the “nation’s fruit basket”. Note, too, that it’s “wine” before “food” in the tag, after all 90 per cent of America’s wine is produced there at more than 2,700 wineries.

What’s more, global culinary trends start there. Take farmers’ markets, independent farms and gardens growing specialty produce, eco-gastronomy and Slow Food. California has led the way, too, in producing an abundant range of affordable organic, locally grown produce.

California Cuisine comprises two key ingredients. The dynamic, ethnic diversity in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, with their international cuisine and world-class chefs, work side by side with the region’s agricultural producers. (Gordon Ramsay will have to be on his best seasonal behaviour when he expands his restaurant empire to LA in June.)

Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse is considered the pioneer of this fusion of world cooking styles with the freshest local ingredients.

“When my friends and I opened Chez Panisse in 1971 we thought of ourselves as agents of seduction whose mission it was to change the way people ate,” says Waters.

“We soon discovered that the best tasting food came from local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishermen who were committed to sound and sustainable practices.”

Given the favourable climate – both literal and political - some restaurants even grow their own produce. The Parkway Grill in Pasadena has its own organic herb and vegetable garden, and at Zazu, a gourmet roadhouse restaurant in Santa Rosa, plenty of the menu comes fresh from the adjoining farm.

In typically enlightened Californian fashion, this concern to connect the pleasure of eating out with support of the local agricultural community has spawned a new West Coast concept: “locavores”. The aim is to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius of where one lives or is staying.

“It’s simple: we all realise that virtually anything can grow in California and we have a whole culture built around growing, buying and eating it,” says Napa Valley vintner Pat Kuleto of Kuleto Estate Winery.

To get a taste of locavore living, Market Foray tours in Santa Barbara show culinary tourists how to shop, buy and eat like a true local (

Otherwise, check out the piles of freshly unearthed vegetables at Wednesday’s giant farmers’ market in Santa Monica. Or the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a sprawling showcase for seasonal food and specialist cheeses, chocolates, breads, olive oils and wines. Break for lunch at Charles Phan’s nouveau-Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door, whose menu makes artful use of the market’s bounty.

In fact, San Francisco has more Pan-Asian cafés than you can shake a chopstick at, plus destination eateries like The French Laundry, Jewish delis and some of the best Italian restaurants in the States. Just for fun, try celebrity spotting - between mouthfuls of an organic bison burger with rocket and homemade peach relish - at the Hollywood farmers’ market on Sundays.

Out on the road in the surrounding counties it’s not hard to find the idyllic landscape portrayed in the movie Sideways, filmed in Santa Barbara County: roadside stalls piled high with peaches the size of baseballs, bucolic farm-to-fork banqueting in the fields of a vineyard toasted with a glass of one of California’s big reds.

Over the years, food capitals have sprouted up across the state each known for different specialties: Garlic in Gilroy (there’s a festival in July); raw milk dairy produce and artisan cheeses in Tulare, including Bill Boersma’s award-winning Bravo Farms Cheddars; artichokes in Castroville; honeybees in Palo Cedro and horseradish in Tulelake.

Brilliant yellow mustard plants bloom each year between poppies and grape vines in Napa Valley’s vineyards, signalling the start of the annual Mustard Festival (; while Stockton hosts an Asparagus Festival in April (, and San Francisco Bay celebrates its Zinfandel Festival in January.

California has optimum wine-growing conditions. “The Mediterranean climate brings a coolness from the ocean while the interior has steady warm weather which consistently ripens grapes; at least eight or nine years out of ten you have a shot at making some of the best wine you’ve ever made,” says Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards at Cupertino.

Napa Valley, some 50 miles to the north of San Francisco, and Sonoma Valley bordering the ocean stretch of Northern California, are just two of the state’s numerous wine regions. As a rule of thumb – to which there are exceptions – the smaller producers often offer more character, memorable wines and less generic tasting bars than their corporate counterparts that line the wine trail highways.

The ivy-clad Hess Collection in Napa combines a winery with a
modern art museum built by the Swiss multimillionaire Donald Hess. Visitors can browse works by Frank Stella and Francis Bacon interspersed with views of fermentation tanks. If the art is depressingly expensive console yourself with a $10 tasting of four wines. The mountain cabarnets excel.

Go to the “Land of Wine and Food” and you probably will, as Governor Arnie propounds at the end of the promotional video, “be back”. If only to visit the restaurant or taste the vintage that you didn’t get round to on a first visit.

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1 comment:

kudzu said...

The French Laundry is not in San Francisco, it's in Napa -- an often traffic-clogged long drive from there and open only to those whose tenacity earns a reservation. See its site for details!