For better or worse, here I am—trapped in paradise. As long as I continue to live in this vital, inimitable spot on the globe,

I will continue to seek out the unique…the delicious…the innovative products, services and traditions of San Luis Obispo County.

Stay posted for a few of my favorite things.

About Me...

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A wanderlust at heart... captivated by the California Central Coast. Join me on my culinary and vino-infused adventures as I explore and discover the regional novelties of San Luis Obispo County that make living here...easy to stay...and hard to leave.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Savor the Central Coast 2011

My preferred definition of savor is simple: the power to excite or interest. This past weekend's four-day event, Savor the Central Coast, presented by Sunset® and the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, provided a milieu for SLO County residents (as well as out-of-towners) to indulge in local radiance. The festivities kicked off Thursday with an opening night reception at Hearst Castle, followed by a day of special events around the county (that included everything from a tour of the Ocean Rose Abalone Farm in Cayucos to a balloon ride over the Paso Robles wine region) that ended with the Sunset Western Wine Awards Gala at Pismo Pier. Saturday evening brought the opportunity to feast on local cuisine while seated on the historic Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo; and in the north part of the county, Paso Robles' City Park lit up the night for diners.

But the weekend’s main eventwhich brought thousands of eager guests to the historic Santa Margarita Ranchafforded the opportunity to sample local indulgences produced by Central Coast purveyors of distinctive, regional specialties found only within the Pacific Coastline’s natural paradise. Spanning the regions of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, over 50 Central Coast wineries (as well as the Sunset Western Wine Award winners from even farther reaching west coast regions); some 20 restaurants and local chefs; several wine associations; four breweries; and a multitude of specialty vendors, artisanal food producers and local farmers, all convened to showcase their bountiful goods.This past weekend, San Luis Obispo County shone.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Ranch in the a.m. and headed for the Central Coast Pavilion, a grandiose tent set up next to the Ranch’s train (a Disneyland coach which transports guests around the scenic acreage). The Pavilion showcased wineries from the Sunset Western Wine Awards; distinguished restaurants such as Lido at Dolphin Bay in Pismo Beach; and many of SLO County’s city organizations. Other vendors dotted the tent’s landscape, including the booth for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival (SLOIFF). As a SLOIFF board member, I delighted in the opportunity to take part in the festivities by helping to promote our March festival’s worthy cause. Sharing a table with SLO Car Free, a unique program that is dedicated to helping traveler’s discover car free, carefree travel to San Luis Obispo County, our organizations were a perfect match. We encouraged passersby to visit SLO in March for our film festival—car free.

After my duties ended in the early p.m., I found myself with an empty stomach and an unfilled wine glass. I was in the right place at the right time for a little (or a lot of!) indulgence. My first savor of the day: a swirl and sip of the rich, divine Rubicon 2007 Cabernet blend (Rutherford, Napa). Other highlights included tangy, refreshing shrimp ceviche nestled on crispy light crackers by Solvang’s Root 46, as well as a hearty steak-topped crostini prepared by the Paso Robles Inn and Steakhouse. Feeling merry after indulging in these tantalizing gobbles, I continued to edge my way through the sizeable crowd to peruse the other festivities, catching a glimpse of Celebrity Chef Cat Cora at her book signing. Then it was time for Battle of the Bay!

This special event was a battle close to home and I eagerly entered the Ranch’s high-timbered barn, whereupon Hearst Ranch Winery splashed my glass with a bit of stainless steel Chardonnay. I then found a seat in front of the warm, inviting Chef Central Seminar Stage, where I watched my family’s long-time friend, Executive Chef Neil Smith (the genius of Windows on the Water in Morro Bay), step up to the challenge to defend his reigning title from last year’s culinary scuffle. Chef Neil and his skillful sous chef, Darrell Jane, took the stage along with their challenger, Chef Shawn Washburn of Shawn’s on Main in Morro Bay (accompanied by his wife, who also doubles as his sous chef). Katie Tamony, Sunset’s Editor-in-Chief, greeted these talented duos, boasting the dubious honor of choosing this year’s winner by tasting all delectable dishes prepared.

With a buzz in the air and a handsome display of local ingredients fit for a foodiealbacore tuna, horn melon, heirloom tomatoes, walnut oil, Morro Bay avocados and oysters—the audience couldn’t wait to see what these culinary masters would rustle up from these indigenous elements within such a short time-span. As preparations were underway, the cameras started rolling and Ms. Tamony and her co-host pressed the chefs-of-the-half-hour for the savory details of their creations, quizzing them all the while for salient details about life in the kitchen. 

No strangers to pressure, the chefs remained unflappable even while answering questions and preparing their meals under constant scrutiny. They dove into the task at hand—knives flayed, ingredients took shape and a flurry of chopping, dicing, tasting, and creating set in motion. Working in an undersized kitchen that housed a refrigerator, petite work surfaces and stoves, the audience soon learned that both chefs shared a common love of a good cheeseburger; Chef Shawn is meticulous and sometimes uses tweezers in his kitchen because he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty; and Chef Neil advises against seating your children in the oyster bar at Windows on the Water on a Saturday night (stressful nights in the kitchen equal colorful language). But Chef Neil kept his cool on the miniscule stage, even when a bowl tumbled over the side, spilling his only red bell peppers on hand, a primary ingredient in the salsa he was assembling. He cooly turned to the fridge to find an alternative element and declared, “What makes a good chef is being able to improvise on the fly.”

And that he did. He and his sous chef continued with their task—eventually bringing out a Kitchenaid mixer to wow the audience with a smooth, carbonated ice-cream that can be made with dry ice in only 30 seconds. Meanwhile, Chef Shawn’s formation of pan-toasted white bread with a hole cut out of the middle (to make room for a quail egg), caught the attention of Ms. Tamony. She sentimentally relayed to the audience that recently she visited her daughter who was away at college, and for the first time ever, her daughter cooked for her. She referred to her daughter's dish as “toad-in-a-hole,” a toasted piece of bread with an egg cooked in the middle.
But time was short and the clock ticked away. The chefs needed to wrap it up and plate their final medleys. In the end, Chef Shawn and his wife produced two enticing dishes: oysters topped with tomato gazpacho, embellished with a walnut, orange vinaigrette and grated horseradish; and their quail egg “toad-in-a-hole” served over a base of avocado cream with lemon juice and mayo, crowned with albacore tartare. In my flurry to take notes, I failed to catch which of these dishes benefitted from the bacon vinaigrette that Chef Shawn’s team concocted. Chefs Neil and Darrel proffered up an impressive four-course dinner: oysters with horn melon salsa and an avocado coconut mousse; slices of heirloom tomatoes nestled in a caprese salad with basil foam and local micro greens; beautifully-seared albacore resting on a bed of beluga lentils and a variety of lovely specialty sauces; and walnut oil ice-cream. Meals fit for a SLO foodie, or anyone else for that matter. But in the end, after letting her taste buds wrangle over these local flavors, Ms. Tamony declared Chef Shawn’s quail egg dish the winner. Toad-in-a-hole will take on new meaning in SLO County. 

In spite of the flurry of vino and culinary activity up to this point, my day wasn’t over yet. My wine glass pulled me in a new direction—toward the vertical rows of small white tents that housed the Central Coast wineries and merchants of exceptional food. Since I knew I would be returning on Sunday, I went easy on my palate, mostly seeking out the familiar by visiting some of SLOIFF’s loyal winery sponsors from years past. Derby Wine Estates, Salisbury Vineyards, St. Hilaire Vineyard, and Claiborne and Churchill lent my glass some lovely sips and then I branched out—searching out the friendly nuances and well-crafted creations of Still Waters Vineyards based on a recommendation. I also stumbled upon the guest wine region—Washington State Wine—and enjoyed discovering some of the Washington appellations and varietals, including an alluring pert blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.   

Upon my return Sunday for more indulgence, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. 
My healthy instincts first led me to one of the seminar/demonstrations areas, from Farmers Market to Meal, where several Central Coast farmers proudly displayed the fruits of their labor and offered up tasty, fresh, wholesome samples of their paradise-grown produce.

I tasted several delicious varietals of Asian pears, a reminder of my unforgettable adventures in Japan, where I first discovered this light, crisp fruit all those years ago.
These vibrant, freshly picked pistachios screamed of color compared to the roasted, salted nuts consumers normally indulge in.
These tart, beastly quince fruits might one day morph into lovely quince paste—a gourmet specialty item.
Who doesn't love nourishing sprouts?

 I wonder what a late Indian summer in SLO County would taste like without these plump beauties.
After exploring this plethora of SLO bounty, my culinary entourage from Pacific Harvest Events awaited. Our small group ascended upon Savor in search of dazzling flavors and splendid tastes.

We slurped oyster shooters in the Central Coast Pavilion, compliments of the City of Morro Bay.

In the Vons Music Stage and Tasting Garden (think beer!), cooked meaty oysters from the Morry Bay Oyster Company, served up with parmesan and spices, went down easy as well.

Other tantalizing discoveries of the day included a rich herb-topped lamb tagine by Thomas Hill Organics; wild board ragu by Artisan; and Harris Ranch beef bites in bourbon sauce. As we nipped our way through the tents, seeking out the legendary winemaker Kenneth Volk and countless other wineries, we also stopped for an exquisite pairing of Vivant Fine Cheese with Roxo Port Cellars. This plentiful match-up left a few of our members happy yet...forgetful!
After all the treasured tastes and extravagance of the weekend, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend a Riedel Wine Glass Seminar.

If seeing is believing—then so is swirling and sipping. With five of Riedel’s varietal-specific glasses displayed in front of us (which we got to take home!), participants received instructions on how to experience several wines in various shaped glasses and note the difference of each wine in these distinctively-shaped vessels. Based on the premise that each grape varietal has its own set of DNA and molecule capacity that impact the delivery of the wine (by how the wine bounces around the wall of the glass and then up to our senses), we put this theory to the test. The extraordinary aroma of Chardonnay, swirled in a Chardonnay-specific glass, exuded an expressive aroma. But when poured into a plastic cup, the nose fell flat. A Central Coast Pinot Noir, when poured in its rightful glass, exuded a lingering, velvety stink and tasted silky with a smooth, long-lasting finish. But when transferred to a Syrah-specific glass, the lusciousness dissipated on the nose and the alcohol burned the nose and palate a bit. In the Riesling-specific glass, the nuances of the Pinot Noir disappeared even more. We experimented a bit more with another varietal...and at the end of the seminar? Yes, I am now a believer in the varietal-specific vessel.
I am also a believer in exploring the fruits and labors found within my own backyard. Although Savor the Central Coast comes but once a year, my quest to unearth the exciting...the interesting...the savored regional creations of San Luis Obispo County and the greater Central Coast...shall continue each day.
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day 6 in Switzerland

September 29, 2010. Valais, Switzerland. Where grapevines meet the snow.  As my brother drove through this Swiss canton’s astounding Rhône glacial valley, the splendid anomalies of this region stretched high on either side of us. Melding seamlessly, towns and cities scattered the landscape—some lofty and sprawled high; other settlements stretched squat and low—while tiered slopes of vines etched their way up the Alps, causing these giant hills to spill over with 5,100 hectares (12,600 acres) of grapes. 

These breathtaking mountainsides are ultimately responsible for producing 40% of Switzerland’s wine, some of which we explored in the charming town of Sierre at the sleek, stylish Enoteca Wine Bar, housed in the Château de Villa. This 16th century village château is also the domicile for The Wine and Vine museum as well as a restaurant. But it was too early for lunch, so we wholeheartedly started our Valais adventure with wine tasting. We relaxed in the wine bar where vertical-stacked bottles of local goodness stretched endlessly, and an awesome, antiquated grape press lent itself to the unique tasting atmosphere. 

We imbibed in several local varietals, choosing from Enoteca’s featured tasting list of the week. Our first white savor of the day, Laurent Hug Fendant du Valais 2009, yielded a fruity citrus nose, slight acidity, and light bubbles on the tongue. This mildly floral, smooth-drinking Chasselas varietal with an alcohol content of 11.5%, left a lemon finish and proved a pleasing start. Next we explored Chandra Krut Heida 2009 (14% alcohol). Heida is also known as Sauvignon Blanc, and according to the tasting room attendant, Heida is considered the “pearl of Alpine wine.” This wine (14% alcohol) lent itself to a light buttery hue and nose; and a slight, crisp acidity which carried out on the finish. Historically these grapes were only grown at 1,150 meters (3,000 feet) near Visperterminen in Valais (the highest growing vineyard in Europe), but are now more widely grown in different areas of the canton. 

Then we found our glasses thick with dessert wine, Grain Noble Ermitage Tourbillon 2007 (only 12.5% alcohol), which splashed a light orange hue and wafted a nose of mushroom and parsley (never smelled wine quite like this!). The taste of mushroom and honey was thick and sweet and our tasting room attendant informed us the fruity taste was coing. (If you’re unsure of what coing is, keep reading to the end).  He also told us that Ermitage is typically harvested in October, when the mushrooms that grow alongside the slopes with this varietal get taller and favorably alter the quality of these grapes. Valais is favorable to sweet wines and the best plants are found on the steepest slopes, which tend to have excellent ventilation and exaggerate climatic conditions.

We found evidence of this local excellence in our final tasting which proved my personal favorite varietal of the day: Petite Arvine. Valais is famous for this white varietal, a delicate grape linked to grapes from Italy’s Val d’Aosta and neighboring France. It ripens late and gives rise to both dry and sweet wines. Our taste of this honeyed wine, Régence-Balavaud Petite Arvine de Vétroz 2009 (14.4% alcohol), misled us on the nose—a heavy, syrupy sweetness incorrectly led us to believe this was another dessert wine.  But after a gentle taste, the honey sugariness acquiesced and morphed to a dry, slightly acidic lemon finish. We were given some pieces of bread to eat alongside with this Valais specialty varietal, and the wine then tasted creamier and thicker, almost as if the creaminess of the wine melted on our tongues.

After this lovely acquaintance with Valais whites, our palates whimpered a bit for red and our stomachs cried for nourishment. We then found our way to the establishment’s restaurant—Le Restaurant du Château de Villa—where we ordered a half bottle of Soleil D’Or Humagne Rouge 2008 (13.5% alcohol). Our waiter served up cornichons with pickled onions and thick, dense dark slices of bread laden with walnuts (which according to my brother, reminisced of the German-style bread found in the neighboring Swiss-German region of Switzerland).

But back to the wine. The Humagne Rouge filled our glasses blood-red, like Cabernet Sauvignon. The inviting nose of exotic spice, mushrooms, cherries, and a raisinesque perfume gave way to a pleasant taste of mushrooms with a spicy, earthy quality. This wine paired well with the local specialty that we each ordered up for lunch—a savory plate of charcuterie (paper thin slices of local dried meats such as salami, bacon, and dried beef). The meat brought out the spicy pepper qualities of the wine; a match made in Valais heaven in this awe-inspiring valley nestled in the southwestern region of Switzerland. 

Since Valais is also home to the infamous Matterhorn, after lunch we took a road less traveled and climbed high into the Alps until we reached the ski town of Zinal. This lesser-known ski destination on the opposite side of Zermott (where the Matterhorn lies) boasts an altitude of 1,670 meters (5,479 feet) and the highest mountains peak at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). No wonder snow topped these high jagged monsters, even in September. 

A gondola ride transported us to spectacular views at 2,144 meters (7,034 feet), but sadly, my brother informed me that the awesome white glaciers surrounding this valley are expected to diminish within the next 25 years due to global warming. But we still reveled in our surroundings, snapping pictures of the smidge of the Matterhorn that we could see (look for the shadow in the picture below that resembles Darth Vader). The air smelled clean and we soaked up the brisk mountain sky. The surrounding serrated white-topped views that jutted into the sky like sharp tooth-like peaks in the off-season...left us feeling as if we had the entire mountain range to ourselves. 

Although we were tired at the end of the day and still had to drive home, we remarked that, “at least we got our drinking done early in the morning.” 

Thank goodness.

In the ski resort of Zinal, giant cragged formations surround charming Swiss chalets.
We happened upon a box of coing, lying outside a shop in Zinal.
Another grand discovery was Petite Arvine; exclusive to Valais and a wine well done.
But our glimpse of the ominous Matterhorn reigned supreme.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day 5 in Switzerland

September 28, 2010. Our palates seized the day. Up early and on the road, a two-and-a-half hour drive transported my brother and I from the French speaking region of Switzerland…through the massive Jura Mountain Range…to the flat, foggy farmlands of eastern France. Our destination? Beaune. The capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne) wines. Intending to immerse ourselves in one of France’s famous wine-producing regions, we held fast to our raison d'être for this long daytrip—a search for vin de Bourgogne (namely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two most widely produced Burgundy varietals) and remarkable French gastronomie. We found both. 

Upon our arrival in Beaune, I immediately sensed the deep-rooted history of this medieval municipality, once home to the Dukes of Burgundy. Glimpses of lofty stone walls that once surrounded the small fortressed city added to the mystique, as did charming French homes, shops and restaurants that encircled this municipality. Our first sortie was Alain Hess fromager, a delightful cheese and wine shop located in the center of Beaune (and highly recommended by my brother from a previous trip). I picked up some of their specialty mustards to bring back home (including a tangy basil Dijon variety by Edmond Fallot) and my brother snatched up a creamy, naturally sweet cow's milk cheese, bejeweled with plump, golden sweet raisins: Régale de Bourgogne.

Then our growling stomachs and hunger for the pursuit of culinary genius led us to another favorite of his (also in the town’s center): a restaurant aptly named Ma Cuisine. Upon entering this neat bistro, the region’s well-known wineries came to life; branded wine boxes, methodically constructed into cabinets and tables, creatively embellished this charming abode in its entirety. The menu and wine list also brought the terrain and local produce to light and we ordered an earthy-nosed, tart-cherry-tasting Pinot Noir—Domaine Faiveley Mercury Clos Des Myglands 2008

We casually sipped and savored the essence of Burgundy terroir while snacking on olives drenched in rich olive oil as we tore into rustic, dense, spongy French bread. My first course of Saumon Tiede arrived, sparingly topped with dill and gently seized by a bed of fresh tomato tartare underneath. Fresh salad greens with nourishing fennel and olive oil also adorned my plate; I ate every last bite.

My next course—Queue de Cabilland heu le d’ollive—a light, white fish sprinkled with chopped dill and enveloped by an underlying rich, sweet ratatouille, was suitably accompanied by tender green beans, cauliflower and mashed potatoes. My brother dined on tender seared scallops and lightly-dressed greens. Our lunch spanned over an hour, allowing ample time for the wine to open up beautifully.
We ended our afternoon repast with dessert—two soft cheeses smothered and mixed with sugar. Délicieux.
Our journey for an unforgettable meal did not disappoint. 

With our palates warmed, we sauntered a few blocks in in the cold fog to find La P’Tite  Cave, an intriguing dungeonesque-like wine tasting shop. Open for business during the early afternoon (a rarity in France—many shops close for two hours during lunchtime), we ducked our heads and entered this hole-in-the-stone-walled wine grotto. The friendly proprietor greeted us (she remembered my brother from a previous visit) and set about choosing our flight of Pinot Noir. We moved into the cavernous tasting room and she graciously poured five different wines, providing us with a range of vintages and Pinot from various appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOCs). These wines, made from grapes grown in different appellations of the region, consistently reminisced of a deep, rich earthiness; embodying the clay soils so prized in this famous area. Before we left, she happily chatted about the local territory, giving us a great tip for the day: 2005 was a great year for Burgundy grapes due to the high number of sunny days. 

With this piece of advice in mind, we set off for our final adventure of the day.  Heading to the tourist office, we found our English-speaking guide from Safari Tours and joined a small, diverse crowd of wine tasters from around the globe.  We hopped on a van for a visit to the village of Meursault, located just eight kilometers south of Beaune.  On our way to this magnificent destination, our guide drove through the low-sloping Burgundy hills, transporting us past small twisted gnarly vines, speckled with amber and yellow shades of autumn, and provided us with note-worthy tidbits about the area. This foggy region does without a lot of sun throughout the year, and the symmetrical rows of pygmy-sized trees we saw lining the hills produce smaller grapes that ensure bigger flavor. With the harvest in full swing, laborers hand-clipped fat bunches of these treasured dark-purple Pinot grapes, hauling in their bountiful clusters by hand in buckets. Hard work, I’m sure. 

We continued our drive through this terroir-conscious region, our tour guide explaining that France doesn’t allow vineyards to be irrigated. This can result in outrageous economic variance in the price-point of Burgundy vineyards. He pointed out vines growing on a hill where the land sells for as much as $1,000,000 Euros per hectare (about 2.5 acres); then to some vines below growing on flat terrain that only go for about $35,000 Euros for the same amount of acreage because there is no drainage in the clay soil, resulting in too much water. Another local nuance to consider is the varying soil content. Certain villages like Pommard yield stronger flavored wine due to higher amounts of iron oxide in the soil. 

We drove through these iron-rich hillsides, past the charming villages of Pommard and Vornay, before arriving at our final destination of Château de Meursault. This stunning domain, which owns 60 hectares of vineyards in surrounding villages, also houses a diverse collection of art which we viewed on our way down to the complex room of cellars that lie beneath the chateau. After submerging ourselves in the depths of the dark, dank cellar, we walked along stone floors and ducked under archways to pass thousands of naked, dusty wine bottles that lined the cellar walls. We made our way through the barrel room, home to 800 barrels of dregs; their magenta bellies stretched endlessly. Then we finally found our way to the tasting rooms.

Sipping our way through three shadowy rooms, we tasted a variety of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and at the end of the day, 2005 trumped. I took home a bottle of Chardonnay: Domaine du Chateau de Meursault Mersault 1er Cru 2005; and a lovely bottle of Pinot: Domaine du Chateau de Meursault Beaune-Cent-Vignes Premier Cru 2005. These clean, well-balanced, ripe souvenirs, brimming with the subtleties of the local terrain and exuding degrees of rare sunshine, were worth transporting back to the U.S.
At the end of the day, even though our palates were worn, we were better for the experience. We drove; we ate; we tasted, and we learned. The Burgundy hillsides and local terroir came to life for usbottled into magnificence. A day seized and well done.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.
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