Done so much, seen so much, eaten so much, drunk so much since last post, hard to know where to start.
How about some of the amazing wildlife we’ve seen?
So, in vaguely chronological order: mule deer and a bald eagle, from the window of the California Zephyr, the train that took us on an amazing 25 hour journey from Denver, through the snowy Rockies and mud deserts of Utah, to Truckee; en route I enjoyed Pale Ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the Californian operation that’s one of the US’s biggest craft brewers.
A red-tailed hawk skimming low over our heads in a frosty meadow in south Tahoe; we saw bear prints in the woods nearby, before arriving back at our friend Cameron’s street to see a black bear and her cub just over the street. In Tahoe, I drank Moose Drool from Montana.
Then Great Basin’s Icky IPA, named after Nevada’s official state fossil the ichthyosaur (delicious, but served too cold as usual, so I had to warm it in the sun); “Distinct not extinct”.
We also visited The Brewery at Lake Tahoe brewpub and sampling all nine of their delicious wares.
I also ate a serious cinnamon bun from Sugar Pine Bakery to give me a sugary-carb hit before we went and lost money on the blackjack (aka 21) tables in a casino over the Nevada state line and got our money’s worth from a House of the Dead III machine.
Lake to sea
After a few fabulous days in Tahoe, we continued our westward journey, towards the California coast. As Cameron drove us towards her hometown of Carmel, we saw our first coyotes. I know these are pretty common in the western US, and considered a nuisance by many, but Brits like me get excited about such large fauna as we killed off such impressive animals as bears, wolves and lynx centuries ago. Plus, well, I love foxes, and coyotes are their big canine cousins: real survivors.
In Carmel we saw hundreds of cormorants and pelicans (again, common there but pretty exotic for us), as well as my first ever (sea) otters, all during a walk on the glorious Point Lobos. The latter were especially engaging – six or so, all snoozing in the kelp beds, floating on their backs and holding hands.
In Carmel, I drank sundry beers, including Laguinitas Little Sumpin’ Wild Ale, which was strong (8.8%) and pleasingly, crisply bitter; Brother Thelonius from North Coast Brewing, a strong (9.4%) dark ale, reminiscent of slightly charred toffee apples; and Devotion Ale from The Lost Abbey, a sweet blonde; amongst others.
We also tried to visit Post No Bills in Sand City, but were too early. Phooey, thwarted!
Somewhere we did visit, however, was Big Sur. This is a really special area that reminded me a bit of one of my fave places: the north of New Zealand’s South Island. Both have a rugged beauty, partially shaped by humanity but mostly defined by ocean and forest. On a hike in Andrew Molera State Park we saw more red-tailed hawks as well as another iconic American raptor, the turkey vulture.
Beforehand, I’d fuelled up with the biggest, most amorphous almond croissant ever, from Big Sur Bakery. It was mighty good with a filling that was more crunchy than the usual almond paste.
They had some great beers though, including the wonderfully named Eye of the Hawk from Mendocino brewing, another strong (8%) ale, this time coppery and warmly malty.
Later on, we even fitted in a quick visit to Big Sur Taphouse, in the same stretch as the bakery.
Pictures on the walls and a flag were Italian, but we drank local beers before buying some bottles from the amazing selection in the general store next door. Jeez, I wish British corner shops had such enthusiasm with their beer stock.
Oh, and I know I’m straying even further from my remit, but an honorable mention to Lula’s Chocolates for their Dark California Toffee: toffee, coated in dark choc, sprinkled with almonds. Best chocolate we had, and we we’ve been sampling a lot.
A bigger city
We’re now back in the big city, San Francisco, having said goodbye to Cameron, our ever-generous California host, on Wednesday night. We drove up via Santa Cruz, having a quick stop at the likeable Companion Bakeshop (handsome piles of breads, cookie far too earnest and 1980s-Cranks, tomato and onion tartlet underseasoned and soggy bottomed).
As Cameron and I met at the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, it was fitting that our final dinner together was at Chez Panisse, the restaurant founded by Alice Waters, who also set up the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the Academy.
I must admit the food couldn’t quite live up to the hype (things rarely do), but I did have an excellent beer as an aperitivo: Proportional Response from The Rare Barrel. This brewery – also in Berkeley, like the restaurant – specialises in oak-aged sour beers. I usually loathe oakiness in wine, but this stuff was great – smoothly sharp, acidly mellow.
Having seen a few photos recently in which my 40-something-not-getting-enough-exercise-belly is coming along nicely (tall skinny man with a beergut – never a good look), I managed to go a day with our bread, cakes or ale yesterday (almost – had a cookie), but we did have a great walk around the city.
I’m loving California, but I do struggle with a car-oriented lifestyle; I just love to walk around and SF is a perfect place to do that. Cameron’s mum had kindly given us tickets for the de Young Museum’s David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition. The show was largely about Hockney returning to his native Yorkshire after 25 years living in California and as such provided a perfect connection between dear, soggy, verdant old England and this magnificent state.
We’ve got a few more days in SF now, before heading to NZ. I meant to get up early this morning and go to the much-praised Tartine, but I suspect we’re too late now as I’ve been doing this blog, having the usual fight juggling three devices and trying to sort all the pics and links.
We’ll see what the next few days hold. Sadly, I was way too late to get on a tour at Anchor Steam Brewery (thwarted again). Shame really, as I’m really keen to ask a US craft brewer about the whole issue of serving their brews at fridge temperature (4C, or 39F) compared to “cellar temperature” (8-10C, 46-50F).