Sonoma, as part of California, is therefore beautiful. But that doesn’t nearly explain it. Fertile rows of grapevines drape over tan grassy hills that undulate through the landscape. Live oaks dot the hills in dark green puffs and cows graze on far hillsides. In this idyllic place you have some of the world’s best wine, produce, cheese, and bread. Every time I’m there I breathe deeply, sleep well, and reconnect with food.
On the way out of town, we stopped in at Artisan Bakers, so I could taste the highest expression of bread. I restrained my fan-boy picture-taking until we got outside.
Here’s the baguette. I now realize that the perfect cylinder squishy things they sell at the supermarket are not baguettes. AB’s version tapers to a delicate nose at the end, and the crust crackles when you bite in. It requires work and the chew is intense and rewarding. Now I understand. French bread is about texture as much as taste. I’m switching my rustic bread recipe to all bread flour (instead of the bread/AP mix I was using) to get more chewiness. Lesson 1: don’t be afraid of chew!
Next was the French sourdough. We had this after we got back, but the pictures tell half the story. Rich blistering, a massive curled-back ear, and open structure are complimented by a great tang. This is good bread.
The drive into San Francisco was easy and we met up with my good friend for brunch. First stop, though was Liguria Bakery where I got some of their famous focaccia.
Like many legendary places that have become “institutions”, Liguria has almost non-existent signage, nothing in the window but an old mixer, and nothing inside but a few plain white shelves. The woman at the counter might well have been Ma Liguria, and she was all business. I picked from the five items they sold, and she went to the back to get a slab of focaccia. In approximately .25 seconds she got it wrapped in white paper and tied up with twine. Cash only, she said with a serious face. Before we left I peeked into the kitchen and saw a massive brick oven set in the wall like the maw of a steampunk furnace. Piping hung from the ceiling and racks of focaccia sat in trays ready for Ma Liguria to package them up. I suspect that kitchen has not changed one bit in the last fifty years, and in the fifty before that, Ma Liguria grumbled about having to put in electric lights. This is the kind of place you want to buy bread.
Brunch at Tartine was the quintessential San Fran experience. Hipster moms fed their kids gourmet pastry, and my wife, friend, Baby Harbat and I sat at a table on the sidewalk while city traffic rushed by. I consider myself a cinnamon bun connoisseur, and Tartine may be the best. I present to you, the Tartine morning bun.
I reluctantly shared that bun with BH and my wife and showed remarkable restraint. Remarkable.
Our drive back, at the advice of my friend, was on the 280 out of the city. Well, slap me silly and call me Harbat! I had no idea there was a giant forested wilderness butted up against San Francisco. When he said it was one of the best freeway drives in the country, he wasn’t kidding. Strings of narrow lakes and khaki hills are bracketed by thick pine forests that blanket rolling hills that tumble down to the sea. I’ve now found a new favorite way to get to San Francisco.
Our drive down the 101 reinforced that we will never ever drive the 5 again. It was fast when we needed it to be, and if we had to slow there was always something interesting to look at. For instance, around San Miguel and north of San Luis Obispo, we drove past an abandoned building. Then another, its windows dark, roof peeling back like an old sardine tin. One after another, the buildings sat in tall grass. Then we came to an entire campus, rows of houses and administration buildings, tarmac, and…emptiness. A whole military base, left after the Korean War, but it felt as if it were still in that time, waiting for the soldiers to return to cut the grass, whitewash the siding, make the ground rumble with tanks and taxiing aircraft. This was Camp Roberts, and now it is a ghost town beside the highway, staring with hollow eye sockets at cars with families driving by. Now I know where Steven King novels take place, where people come to go mad and converse with specters. I have no doubt there are tunnels and bunkers there strewn with papers, echoing orders long abandoned, steel chairs tipped over never to be righted, punchcard machines waiting patiently and hoping for the Big One so they can relay messages to phalanxes of missiles in the ground in the Dakotas somewhere. And like the vast empty spaces of the eastern Sierras, these spaces call to me too.
The remainder of the drive was a quiet affair, dusk turning into night and, inexplicably, rain as we approached San Diego. Baby Harbat was a saint throughout this long road trip, singing to herself and reading an Elmo book for hours on end. The only thing that caused a problem were the headlights in her face as she tried to sleep at night. We heard her tossing and sighing, so I’ll have to rig up a curtain or have her wear sunglasses after dusk.
I am glad to be out of the car but already miss seeing incredible vistas roll past me. Soon, my wife and I said, we’ll have to make a longer trip to San Francisco to do a real gustatory tour, and I want to go back to the Sierras to walk with Baby Harbat in the high meadows. And maybe I can find someone to go spelunking with me in the haunted empty places of Camp Roberts.