No trip to Central California is ever complete without visiting several of the great wineries in the Paso Robles region, as well as our favorite little haunt on the Central Coast ... Cambria by the Sea. Two extremes hit me over the course of the weekend, and have gotten me thinking ... no, obsessing about the whole concept of buying locally made products and food. The "locavore" concept is open to interpretation, and true believers commonly impose anywhere from a 100 to 250 mile radius as being considered "local" when buying food products. But regardless of the radius you choose to choose, the idea is that residents of central Oregon shouldn't be buying their berries from Mexico ... they should get them seasonally from the surrounding farming communities. Consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area should be getting all of their fresh products from within Central California's fertile farm and ranch land. If something's out of season and can't be purchased at the Farmer's Market or local Whole Foods or Mollie Stone's, figure out a substitute that's regionally produced, and serve it instead.
We visited several wineries, many of which are regulars for us ... Zin Alley (my very favorite wines, currently), Denner, Jada, Tobin James and Eagle Castle are always on the Paso Robles tour. But we always try to hit a couple new ones, and this trip found us at Dover Canyon and Le Cuvier wineries, and both had some wonderful new wines. It was at one of the new wineries that I spotted a really cool looking gadget, but quickly decided that twenty-two bucks (plus California's current 9.5% sales tax) was too much for such a toy. The gadget was basically a large corkscrew with a foldout bread knife, housed in a beautiful wooden handle, made by one of my favorite knife makers, LamsonSharp. It caught my wife's attention too, and after reading the beautiful description, she bought it for me. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful knife and corkscrew and I'm sure it will get lots of use. I plan to keep it in the car for the next time I find myself at a winery with the need to cut up a baguette of sourdough, slice up some great cheeses, and open a bottle of zinfandel for an impromptu picinic lunch.
Back to the gadget ... Lamsonsharp's home page proudly proclaims "American Made Cutlery and Kitchen Tools since 1837," so I naturally thought I'd be getting another fine American-made product from the nice people at Lamson and Goodnow. One of my very first "good" knives, and one that I still used quite regularly, is a Lamsonsharp Chinese Cleaver, which was a gift from my wife, back in the early 90's. I subsequently picked up 6", 8" and 10" chef's knifes from them as well. While not the work of art that a Shun may be, they're in fact beautiful and reliable knives that any chef would love to own. The inside of the box for what they call a "Batard Folding Picnic Knife" goes into a lot of detail as to how they came up with the design, and of course the quality and tradition of their wonderful knives which are "still manufactured in the USA," according to the description on the box. It appears to be Lamsonsharp's typcially very good quality; the blade works well, the corkscrew's set at a perfect angle, and the wood is gorgeous. But this one's not made in their factory in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts ... if you look closely on the back of the box, and then again on the back of the blade, the small print says "China." I don't like being misled, I don't like our businesses outsourcing to foreign locales, and I'm absolutely sick of virtually everything you buy saying "Made In China" on it.
J.C. Penney's carries a line of blue jeans called the "Great Arizona Jean Company," and you've no doubt guessed that they're also made in China. Virtually everything in front of me as I write this, comes from China. The computer and virtually everything in it, the monitor, Logitech mouse, and even the Microsoft keyboard. Dell speakers ... China, Western Digital hard drive, the lamp in the corner, the printer on the table, the fan across the room ... you get the picture. We've quite simply outsourced our entire commodities production to China. Stetson Hats should come from Texas (they do) and Levi's should come from San Francisco (they now come from China too).
The other "extreme" of our recent getaway, was during another tradition whenever we visit the area ... a trip to Linn's Restaurant. We've been going to Cambria, and therefore to Linn's, for about fifteen years. We actually thought of moving there at one point, but they have a severe chronic water shortage problem, and it's not the easiest place to make a living. But a great place to visit. Linn's is a family run restaurant that features products that predominantly come from the Linn Ranch, which is a couple miles out of town, along meandering Santa Rosa Creek Road, a favorite of local bicyclists. The main restaurant had a pretty catastrophic fire a couple of years ago, which forced them to secure a couple nearby buildings for the retail business. They've rebuilt and improved upon the restaurant, and kept the adjacent buildings for both retail items and fresh and frozen food gems, most of which are either from their own farm or produced in the surrounding areas of San Luis Obispo County. I try to never be "out" of Linn's ollalieberry pies or chicken pot pies, and the latter needed replenishment so I picked up four of them for the freezer. Linn's is the real deal ... honest local products, family owned and operated, staffed by locals, and providing excellent food and food products for anyone lucky enough to frequent the restaurant or retail shops next door.
We're currently living on the San Francisco Peninsula, but our home is in beautiful Bend, Oregon. Both these locales have excellent weekend farmer's markets, as well as top notch grocery stores that strive to carry both local products, and healthy, minimally processed foods. We're fortunate to have markets like Mollie Stone's, Whole Foods, Draeger's, Andronico's and Lunardi's nearby, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Safeways (3 of them within a mile). Bend has the Newport Market and a Wild Oats, which is now owned by Whole Foods so they have similar quality and selection.
Farmer's markets are a great way to keep your money local, while getting genuinely healthy foods from nearby growers. And everything just seems fresher when it's displayed in a packing box, fresh from the ground or off a tree from a relatively close farm. Weather permitting, the Belmont and San Carlos markets are operational every weekend. Bend's market is seasonal, since the snow and very cold weather precludes them from holding the weekly sales outside in a parking lot, or next to Mirror Pond, which often freezes over in the winter.
We took a trek into San Francisco on a recent Saturday, and they also have a weekly farmer's market right on the Embarcadero, in front of the recently revamped Ferry Building shops. So it's possible to buy locally and be guranteed of fresh product, quite literally in the heart of the City's financial and tourist district. The one glaring difference in shopping here, vs. down the Peninsula or in Bend, is the parking meters that want 3.50 an hour. San Francisco should be encouraging vs. discouraging this business via these outrageous parking fees. There are no meters in Bend, and we cherish the fact. No sales tax either, while I'm on the subject. But there are actually farmer's markets all over the City, and I'm sure they don't all gouge you for parking. Worth some research, and I found the information's readily available on the Internet.
It's likely that either your town or one close by has a weekly farmer's market, and I highly encourage the reader to check it out. This is where you'll find the freshest products available, grown locally on a non corporate-size farm, with minimal pesticides, available for you and your family. The lemons aren't waxed, the lettuce and celery don't spend half a day soaking in water to make them appear prettier than they actually are, and the tomatoes are fresh off the vine. Carrots are sweeter, tomatoes tastier with less of the acidic quality they pick up in Mexican hot houses, and lemons and oranges smell like the first day of spring.
Another interesting thing I've noticed with both farmer's markets and some (not all) of the products at higher end markets, is that there's not a huge difference in prices. Sure, you can pick up fresh strawberries at Draeger's in January, but you'll pay five bucks for them. But wait 'til they're fresh and in season, and they're likely to be very close to what Safeway gets for them. I'm fond of fresh, bulk grains, and while it's always a good idea to do your homework and find the best combination of quality and price, these can also be purchased from the specialty stores at a substantial savings over the boxed varieties that your local Safeway offers. I saved over a dollar a pound on the quinoa I picked up in bulk from Mollie Stone's, over Safeway's packaged and processed variety. I don't mind doing the rinsing ... don't process my food in an attempt to save me time or energy in the kitchen. It's like frozen orange juice ... there's nothing wrong with it, but sometimes you just want fresh squeezed, and don't mind spending ten minutes doing it.
I'm trying my best to buy locally, or at the very least ... the freshest possible products. The more I read about corn vs. grass-fed beef, pesticides, and the measures taken to make your food look fresh, the less I want to eat it. And the factory farms and ranches that are subsidized by the government in the same way the banks and insurance companies have been because they're too big to fail, could stand a reality check and a re-thinking of how they do business. Bigger isn't better, small farms and ranches need a fighting chance.
The winery I noted above as my favorite, Zin Alley, produces two zinfandels, a syrah, a port, and a dessert wine on a small ten-acre hillside vineyard off Highway 46 in Paso Robles. Continuing east on 46 and then turning north on 101, you'll notice vineyards for as far as you can see, on both sides of the highway. These are the corporate vineyards which commonly contribute to the production of a good many of the large producers' case totals. This wasn't the case a decade ago, but the region's caught on and now the big corporate wineries have everything in sight planted with grapes of every variety. Not a bad thing, but I like the idea that Frank and Connie Nerelli dry farm and pick their grapes, and process them in oak barrels right in the tasting room. Frank produces around 500 cases a year ... small change compared to what the Gallo's and Mondavi's turn out, but this is the way he likes to do business. The wines are incredible, the hospitality is overwhelming, and they don't gouge you for the tastings or the wines. It's an honest business, and it shows ... year after year. This is the type of business I like dealing with and supporting, and will continue to do so.
As a final footnote ... We have friends who had a house outside of Vail, and we were fortunate enough to be invited to be their guests many times. I don't ski, but this is a skier's paradise in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, and the local communities have some of the best shopping and restaurants I've ever seen. Sweet Basil is one of the top 10 places I've eaten in my life, and we made it a point to eat there on every trip. Their chocolate martinis and infused vodkas alone, are enough to keep the bar packed every night. One of the most fun shops in the little village of Vail is Scotch on the Rockies. They carry a nice variety of clothing, blankets and throws, and home products, all from Scotland. Or so I thought. On one of our last trips, I saw and bought a great navy blue pullover windbreaker from the little store, and it's become my "go to" jacket for cool evening walks along the Deschutes River. And so it was with a degree of fascination, verging on sheer amazement, that the first time I consulted the tag on the collar for washing instructions for my blue windbreaker from Scotland, it read "Made In USA."