I am a native of Monterey County, growing up in, quite literally, the place that Steinbeck called the Pastures of Heaven.
I grew up surfing the MoCo coast from Santa Cruz through Big Sur and down to the Hearst Ranch, hunting to the north around the San Luis Reservoir and even having a summer job in high school working in the fields around Salinas as an irrigator. Traveling as a kid to parades in Solvang, backpacking in the Los Padres Wilderness; my family went everywhere around the central coast. The Monterey Peninsula was always an destination that held my imagination tightly because that’s where we’d usually go to dine out and where the fanciest restaurants I could think of were.
Studying at university in Germany gave me a chance to travel all over Europe and awaken in me a nascent interest in everything new, and that included what I could eat. The first memorable meal I ever had outside the US was at 20 years old, with my father, at the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen where we dined outside on marinated herring. I’d never had it; as a kid it had sounded gross (either pickled or it’s what Pondus the Penguin ate) and we both were more than pleasantly surprised that a fish could be so firm, so rich and sweet and sour at the same time. Nothing at all like the snapper or salmon I had known growing up back home.
Still, food wasn’t a central interest of mine until well later, after graduate school, when I went to work in Los Angeles for a huge Japanese transnational trade firm called Mitsui. That offered me not only the opportunity to open my eyes to all that Los Angeles had to offer in terms of food, nothing at all like now-provincial looking Carmel and Monterey, but it gave me an education in just how broad, varied and dynamic one of my favorite cuisines was compared to what I had know before moving there: Japanese food. I also traveled all over the world, getting to try all sorts of cuisines and food cultures in their own environments. Indonesian, Chinese in China, you-name-it. If I could try it, I did.
Over time I began to wonder, if food was so good in all these exotic places, and I was from a place that the people I’d meet overseas considered exotic, what about the food native to the place I’m from? Not the lettuce or artichokes or various row crops it’s so famous for (Salinas! Salad bowl to the world!), or the fried calamari available on just about every pier from Santa Cruz to Carpinteria–but rather how what’s grown or produced there is made, what it eventually becomes and who’s producing it? What’s being done with it and in what ways? What are their stories?
I didn’t get to dwell on that very long, however, as things change, including lives and marriages, and mine did exactly that. Other things took priority.
Years after leaving that company, Los Angeles, and my entire life there behind, I returned in 2008 for love and the woman I would eventually marry. Like me, she loves food, and cooking, but she was a photographer. Over time, it must have rubbed off, and I became one, too. This allowed me to give in to the wanderlust I’ve always had, wondering what’s down every backroad I’ve even seen, and it gave me an excuse to show her the wonderful places that I’d grown up with and never known as a photographer: Big Sur, Point Lobos, and, especially Yosemite.
We also share an interest in wine, especially California wines, and under the dual attraction of photography and wine we made our first trip to Paso Robles, specifically to find a winery called Tablas Creek that had varietals we’d simply never heard of. Vermentino? Picpoul? Tannat? Not only were they exotic, but they were flat out delicious. And, as it turns out, the entire area was overflowing with vineyards and wineries. Not only was the Paso area just as beautiful as Monterey County in its own way, but the wine was amazing, and I’d never heard of it growing up only 60 miles or so north. Driving through Paso as a kid the only things we’d see on the highway on the way to Los Angeles was a huge sign for Meridian, and that was about it. And now it was suddenly like this great, unknown wine civilization. Something totally unexpected. THAT called for more exploration. Wine and photography! We couldn’t think of a better mix, and for the past 8 years, we’ve spent more in in that area than anywhere else, by far.
As it turns out, where great wine is made and sold, complementary artisinal and high-quality foods eventually find their way into the scene, and the two become synergistically greater than the sum of their parts. A new culture is born, and they all compliment each and become inseparable. When I was a boy, Paso Robles was nothing like it is now. The Black Oak diner of old, just off the highway, with its free almond samples, is long gone. Now fine restaurants abound, there’s a cheese shop (or three), olive oil of the highest quality is grown just outside town (and sold in town), and gourmet foods of all sorts are available.
The same thing with Monterey. When I was a kid, it was a working fisherman’s town, complete with off duty soldiers in town on the weekends and an honest-to-god biker bar on the west edge of town. Dive bars were easy to find, and fine dining was to be had over the hill, in Carmel. It’s an utterly different place now, driving overwhelmingly by tourist dollars, the aquarium, and high-profile, high-dollar events, mostly involving either gold or motorsports.
But all these places and the changes that came with them meant a lot more money, and that meant a lot more people providing higher quality services and products to those who came and expected them.
That’s what this blog is all about. I now am in the position to hear those stories from the artisans and craftspeople, from the growers and producers who provide things from wine, to oils, to nuts, crops, cheeses, honey and the list goes on and on–as well as the growing number of restaurants that have adopted the farm-to-table approach that makes use of this bounty. Who are they? What else is there to discover that’s made here, and how do they all come together, promote each other and thrive in each others’ company? Over the years, we’ve come to know several of the most prominent players on the coast for a number of different things, especially wine, but we’ve only scratched the surface.
I intend to eat and drink my way through this glorious Middle Kingdom, California’s central coast, in every way possible, and write about and photograph the entire experience, and I’d love to do it together with you.
Welcome to my Middle Kingdom Feast.