California’s Coastal Land of Plenty
California’s Year-round Bounty
It’s vaguely unsettling to wander the supermarket aisles in darkest winter and find red tomatoes, green peppers, and yellow squash—ripe reminders that however bleak it is outside, it’s still summer somewhere. So my wife and I planned a road trip along California’s central coast—a breadbasket within America’s breadbasket—and saw it as a pilgrimage to the fields that feed us.
At Lokal, a gourmet hot spot in Carmel Valley, chef Brendan Jones picks his produce fresh from his mother’s garden—a far cry from my home in western Montana, where for most of the year our only fresh produce is unloaded from the bellies of 18-wheelers.
Left: Beet salad at Lokal
Santa Cruz: Organic Home Base
It seemed logical to start our tour in Santa Cruz, home to the University of California’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, ground zero for organic farming in America. Pulling into town, we headed for Pacific Avenue, a leafy strip where buskers peddle art and Greenpeace activists ply passersby for signatures. We found the Café Campesino, a tiny converted information kiosk under shady sycamores where Dina Torres makes fresh tortillas and organic farmhouse Mexican food. Our enchiladas tasted fresh out of a Mexican abuela’s kitchen. We washed them down with organic strawberry juice and watched Santa Cruz amble by. Nobody looked rushed.
Left: Santa Cruz Boardwalk
California Coastal Trail: Sea Lions and Surfers
The carefree vibe sunk in even deeper the next morning, when I took a walk along the cliffs on the California Coastal Trail. Even at sunrise, the trail was busy with bikers, dog walkers, and runners. Retirees sat on the cliff tops and cast shrimp for rockfish. Sea lions barked from under the wharf. Down in the surf, locals paddled longboards out to a break near the lighthouse. In their black wet suits, they looked like cormorants dipping in and out of the waves. I breathed in a lungful of the salty air and felt the Montana winter ebb a little farther out to sea.
Left: The Santa Cruz shore
Monterey: In Search of Salt
In Central California, fresh, local food is so prevalent that you can even source your salt from the bay in which you surf. Robert Kirkland of the Monterey Bay Salt Company got into the business five years ago while surfing with friends. As they straddled their boards and waited for waves, someone pointed out the sea salt crusting on their wet suits, and wondered aloud if anything could be done with it.
Today, Kirkland evaporates about 4,000 pounds of salt per year in five greenhouses from King City to Big Sur. Kirkland sells some of the salt fresh to local chefs. The rest he stores in old Cabernet barrels, or mixes into special blends with dried citrus and wild peppercorns that he forages himself. And word is spreading. Kirkland now sells his salt varieties to Whole Foods stores, as well as to specialty shops in New York City, Japan, and China. The demand is as deep as Monterey Bay.
Left: Robert Kirkland holds his salty bounty
Pacific Grove: Can-do Spirit
In the quaint town of Pacific Grove, we met Todd Champagne, the green-eyed owner of Happy Girl Kitchen, a café off Cannery Row that is now the only working cannery in Monterey County. Anyone who’s ever grown zucchini knows that abundance can be overwhelming. Champagne has the solution: canning. “We do it the way everybody’s grandma did it—in speckled, enamel canning pots,” he says, showing us the kitchen, where the peak-season local produce is preserved in jars of spicy pickled carrots, blood orange marmalades, honeyed pears, quince cordials, and more. There are no carefully guarded trade secrets here—Champagne teaches community canning classes and happily gives away his recipes. “We want to show people what’s possible,” he says. “It’s a better way to get through the winter.”
Left: House-fermented strawberry vinegar at Happy Girl Kitchen
Pacific Grove: Sustainable Seafood
Winter was a distant memory when we sat down for dinner at Passionfish, a Pacific Grove restaurant dedicated to fresh, sustainable seafood. Its owners, Cindy and Ted Walter, were involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program at its inception, helping educate diners about ethical seafood choices. Cindy’s father and grandfather were both fishermen. “My father would tell us they were destroying the ocean, and we wouldn’t be able to fish much longer,” she says. That tide is turning, fortunately, toward smarter regulations and better-informed consumers. The smoked trout ceviche, fried Point Reyes oysters, and king salmon we ate were all proof that sustainable seafood is some of the most delicious, too.
Carmel: Farmers, Fishermen and Foragers
We found perhaps the most memorable meal of the trip farther down the coast at Pacific’s Edge, a restaurant perched on a cliff in Carmel with a glass wall that ensures every table an ocean view. Chef Matt Bolton says he couldn’t have found a better place to cook. Bolton sources his ingredients from local farmers, fishermen, and foragers. He buys his fish straight off the boat. And he buys wild leeks, miner’s lettuce, and mushrooms from a secretive forager who lives off the grid in Big Sur.
Big Sur: Esalen’s Garden Varieties
The value of fresh, local food isn’t reserved for the individual diner, as I discovered at Esalen Institute, a Big Sur landmark set between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the sea. Esalen has offered retreats and workshops exploring “human potential” since 1962. A three-acre farm and garden helps feed its community—300 people at any given time. Apprentices and staff tend the fields, beginning their day at 7 a.m. with meditation and stretching in the flower garden. The Institute calls it “relational agriculture,” where nurturing oneself is as important as cultivating the fields.
Left: Volunteer farmhand Ian Peric at Esalen Institute
The Country's Salad Bowl
Happy farmers make for happy harvests, and it’s Esalen chef Phillip Burrus’s good fortune to turn those harvests into meals. Burrus relishes cooking with ingredients picked a stone’s throw from his kitchen. The lettuce is still warm from the sun when it hits his cutting board; this is as close as farm and table get. “It’s pretty much paradise,” Burrus says. “It’s easy to do here. We’re in the epicenter. This is the salad bowl of the whole country.”
Left: Esalen’s three acres of farmland
Santa Cruz: Sweet Community
When we circled back to Santa Cruz at the end of our trip, I realized Central California’s local food movement is a celebration of community, too. Great food happens when chefs, farmers, winemakers, butchers, and bakers all know each other. These relationships are the driving force behind two local restaurateurs, Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis. Baker and Davis started four years ago with The Penny Ice Creamery, a from-scratch ice-cream parlor that blends inspired flavors like crème fraîche rhubarb with local, organic ingredients. “We wanted to make a space where people wanted to spend time—a community hub,” Baker says.
Left: The Penny Ice Creamery
Picnics and Endless Summer
Baker and Davis later opened The Picnic Basket on the waterfront, which serves up gourmet salads and sandwiches on local Companion Bakeshop bread, with El Salchichero meats and house-made mayonnaise. They just opened Assembly, a farm-to-table restaurant on Pacific Avenue. Elk antler chandeliers hang above communal tables that underline their philosophy: Great food brings people together. “This is our idea for a place where we hope Santa Cruz will gather,” Baker says.
As we sat down at Assembly for our last meal in California, it was clearly working. While we ate kale-and-kraut salads and perfect plates of salmon, the restaurant filled with families, couples, and friends young and old. The food was so fresh, the chatter so contented, and the evening air so clear and warm that it hardly seemed possible that winter could exist anywhere.
Left: The Picnic Basket restaurant
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
Darling House Bed and Breakfast: Tranquility rules at this sprawling century-old Mission Revival--style house with seven guest rooms set amid fruit trees and rose gardens overlooking the ocean. The Pacific Room has a telescope for spying passing ships and whales. Rates start at $185; 831-458-1958 or darlinghouse.com
Dream Inn: A beloved landmark, this comfortable, retro-chic hotel rises above Cowell's Beach and boasts an ocean view for each of its 165 rooms. Its attached restaurant, Aquarius, serves up fine seafood so close to the beach that the waves practically lap at your feet. Rates start at $269; 831-426-4330 or www.jdvhotels.com
Where to stay in Carmel Valley
Bernardus Lodge and Spa: You'll be met with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc when you arrive at this 57-room resort with the intimacy of a private estate. Seven acres of grapes separate the lodge from the road—they're part of Bernardus Winery, which has a tasting room in nearby Carmel Valley Village and crafts an excellent Bordeaux-style wine. Rates start at $455; 831-658-3400 or bernarduslodge.com
Where to Stay in Big Sur
Ventana Inn: This luxurious 18-and-older resort on 243 acres of forest, meadow, and coastline is the perfect place for some grown-up pampering. Guests unwind in one of Big Sur's best settings. Rates start at $650; 831-667-2331 or ventanainn.com.
Big Sur River Inn: There aren't many frills to this road-side hotel, but its grassy lawn alone makes it worth the stay. Grab a Californian IPA from the bar and cool your feet in the shallow Big Sur River, shaded by a canopy of trees and serenaded by birdsong. Rates start at $130; 831-667-2700 or bigsurriverinn.com.
Left: Ventana Inn