4pm on a Saturday
Solvang is a little town in Southern California that pretends to be in Denmark. It was founded around 1900 by Danish immigrants who liked sunshine more than snow, but apparently still wanted windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.This is made “apparent” because if you go there today what you will find is windmills, wooden shoes, and Hans Christian Andersen.
Most people would describe it as cute more than quaint, and in concept it is simply odd- but in execution it is surprising in its level of commitment to a theme. It isn’t like there is just a main street with similar facade, the imitation game goes multiple blocks long and deep.They have bakeries and gift shops, a town square with a scaled reproduction of Copenhagen’s round tower, a mermaid statue, and a museum dedicated to Mr. Christensen and his fairy tales.
All of that is fine. Very nice. Whatever.
Th real reason to go there is because this place called the Succulent Cafe has hands down the best charcuterie and cheese platter I have ever experienced.
Go there. Eat it. Wear some clogs, have two blonde braids, read about a princess and a pea, or show up on a Harley, any of those things… just make sure you have what they call the 4+4 for $44. (four cheeses, four meats, and a whole bunch of great little nuts, peppers, spreads, jams, olives, etc.)
So there is this “thing” called the California Cheese Trail. I imagined it as a sort of cheddar brick road leading to a wizard who can instantly age Gouda. It isn’t. It is much more like the string of California Missions that the Spanish set up, except instead of Catholic churches and priests, it is herds and artisans. I should note that both are beautiful and have use for tasteless wafers.
It was raining when we arrived at Harley Farms outside Pescadero. We had never heard of Pescadero either. The rain was fortunate for us as it served to scare away all the people with sense and other places to be, so we had the place all to ourselves. If you want the place all to yourself you may have to plan ahead. Like a year in advance. The place is all booked from now till forever.
There is a reason why.
The first reason is that these animals make great cheese. It is the kind of cheese that inspires a bunch of poor planning lunks to quickly buy a Styrofoam gas station cooler to try to preserve this beautiful food through a long weekend. The goat cheese/chocolate cheesecake did not go in the cooler. We ate it before we left the parking lot.
The second reason to go is the dining. The party wasn’t for us and they wouldn’t tell us what they were serving that night. In fact, they never tell anyone what they will be serving. The surprise is part of the experience. It is a new menu every night (which is hard to fact check if they never tell you in advance what they are serving) and if the food is only half as good as the fromage, it will be worth it.
But again, the place is booked from now till forever so good luck.
Wine isn’t just a beverage, or even an industry, it is a country. It is of course those other things too, but since that first day a zillion years ago when someone decided to drink a bottle of spoiled grape juice the whole world has been spending inordinate amounts of time and real estate on grapes.
Half way between San Diego and Riverside is Southern California’s version of Tuscany. Or maybe its another version of Sonoma, or Napa, wherever it is like, it is called Temecula and I went there.
I spent three days at the Carter Estates and didn’t drink a drop of wine. I did however guzzle about a gallon of root beer and ate my weight in cheese. But I was not alone and there were plenty of others to make sure the wine didn’t go to waste.
Any place that has that much cheese is great with me, and the idea that it might be the sort of place where an ascot could be worn made me a fan.
An ascot. In real life.
Wine helps people do all sorts of things.
Like fly in hot air balloons. It was more than a hundred years ago that some French folks broke humans free from Terra firma, and since that time we have developed other things like airplanes and the ability to steer. Yet somehow people still climb into combustible unsteerable baskets and go up into the sky.
There was of course some swirling and sniffing, lots of toasting and nibbling, but most of all, there was an ascot.
The Ferry building in San Francisco is in some ways, exactly what it sounds like. You can ketch the Ferry to Sausalito there, or if you are like me, you can catch lunch.
Crowded, yet surprisingly sterile, the hungry masses are provided a wealth of options. Tacos, burgers, and bears Oh my. I did see tacos and burgers, I got carried away with the bears bit, ya know, alliteration and all. With so many choices one can pretty much do as they please, and what pleased me, pleased me in a big way.
I did not know that other word but it did not matter. It may just be a stall in a glorified food court, but in the case of Boccalone, the glory was well deserved. I have not been to any other food court vendor that had a locker in which it was aging its own meat. Besides, any place that can stay in business only doing one simple thing (salting pig parts), is likely doing it rather well. They are doing it well.
Having obtained a pile of prosciutto carried like a snow cone I walked around the corner for part two of lunch. Cheese. Good cheese.
Faux western kitsch normally repels me like a cattle prod, but this bucking bronco logo-ed shop had aged Gouda in the isles. Aged Gouda fixes everything. So does brie, Gruyere, and Stilton. The Cowgirl Creamery is better than their logo shtick implies.
There was a line full of the lunch crowd standing at their window and I joined them. The chalk board told me I had my choice of brie and apple, ham and Swiss, or any variation of cheese and bread. I went with a grilled cheese and fig jam.
Before moving to Philadelphia I had never heard of the Main line. To this day I have never been to a real country club. Before last night I had never visited a custom clothier nor talked with anyone who actually lived in the Rittenhouse part of town.
I felt myself lucky not just to have been invited, but to have found street parking, thereby avoiding the high costs of the lot. I paused at the elevator to straighten my pocket square, these were people I was sure would notice such things and I was unsure how many little missteps would move me from not belonging, to being legitimately not welcome.
Upstairs I walked into a scene that was everything I could have hoped it would be. Central casting had picked the people, dressed them perfectly, chosen soft music, and decorated with the perfect balance of manliness and style. I should stop there before I slide too deeply into cliche’ and flowery adjectives that undermine themselves. It was wonderful. no, I should say they were wonderful.
My pants were cut just a little too long, they brush the floor when I stand. My shirt sleeves were just a little too short and the cuffs were hidden by my jacket. No one looked. Everyone I met talked too, not at, me. Not only was my point in attending not questioned, but I was engaged in real conversation. I was made to feel welcome.
Now hands down I was out of my league. I met an old money man named after a Norse God whose vocabulary and combination of words was so naturally deliberate that I was forced to actually think to keep up. I met a silver haired man who was so smooth in manner and style that it appeared I was watching a movie, but he was real. And I met Michael Muscarella, the clothier himself, and he made me want to schedule a return appointment.
I have no tangible reason to schedule a return appointment. I can’t afford, nor do I really need new clothes. I just met the man so I could have nothing of great importance to discuss with him. But he made we want to go back again. It could be the vintage prints of Philadelphia on his office walls. It could be the unfinished story about when he worked for Ralph Lauren. Or it could just be that he and his wife treated me like a person of value, when i was just a looky-loo kicking tires with no intention to buy… and they knew it. They all did. I even shared my own unfinished hypothesis with another party goer, of how it was a natural progression for the attendees of football games to slide from suit and tie to jerseys with another man’s name on the back. He took me seriously, as I did he, mostly because I saw he wore football shaped cuff-links.
I went out of curiosity, and for the cheese, then found I was enjoying myself. Perhaps I was enjoying myself too much. I was up till 1:20 am finishing up a precis’ on Thelin’s “A History of American Higher Education.”
If one is in Philadelphia and finds oneself imitating Rocky Balboa by jogging through the 9th St. Italian Market, one should stop in at Di Bruno Bros.
I have done so on many occasion, finding myself fascinated by the stacks of cheese, walls of curvy bottles, and lots of labels with words I can’t pronounce. Now I have occasionally found myself at a function where a fine cheese platter is presented and after first looking around to make sure no one was paying attention, sampled it ignorant of the proper form in doing so, and been delighted by the treat, but then disappointed by not knowing what I had just ingested and therefore unable to repeat the pleasure.
What to do?
Upon entering DiBruno Bros., and any other purveyor of fine cheeses, I have found myself met with enough choices in enough languages to paralyze an experienced socialite let alone a teetotaling bleu collar man like myself.
On one such occasion I brought my ever wise wife along, and she spotted a sign. It may have been a simple piece of computer paper but for me it was a sign from on high, and it read, “Ask about private cheese tasting”. Now normally such a thing would strike me as to bourgeoisie for me but in the presence of the Mrs. I felt bolstered and actually asked. The answer to my query was a pleasant surprise.
I was given the card of Hunter Fike, along with the tale that a flat $100 would get myself and 7 others, the shop all to ourselves for 2 hours, in which time we could sample everything in the place and be guided along the way by two professional cheese mongers.
Our cast congregated at 6pm on a Thursday evening, not quite sure what to expect. Now I must add that not only was our bunch completely inexperienced in the world we were about to step into, but there was not a drinker among us, which I’m sure made us completely foreign to our tour guides as well. The tastings are a BYOB event so we came prepared with our own bottles of Sparkling cider, Grape juice, and of course some Kala Ginger Ale.
With our class assembled, Mr. Fike began our tour of the age old arts indigenous to Austria, France, Holland… and Vermont.
Without boring you with all the details of our culinary extravaganza, be it assured, this was a night to remember. The Staff was not only knowledgable, but amiable. They took us through goat milk Moulis Chevre, to sheep’s milk Manchego Dehesa, and on past Fleur D’ Aunis to Colston Bassett Stilton.
I will not pretend I know anything about the names I just listed; but I don’t have to. The helpful folks at Di Bruno Bros. sent me home with a list and description of everything we tasted, in the order we tasted them, as well as a small “doggy bag” to take home to the Mrs. for inspiring our outing.
While I could never have memorized all that we learned that night, we will never forget a couple items that merit a mention.
There is on the shelves a bottle of balsamic that bears a $300 price tag. You will not find it on their website, but you will find it as the subject of legends. The vinegar is so precious that the bottle itself was designed by Ferrari. It comes with a small, measured cup, to ensure that one who is bold enough to purchase it, is not so bold as to imbibe it too quickly.
In Spain there lives a hog descended from the wild boar. This beast, distinguished by its black hooves, feeds on the lush grass while young, and while it ages, so do the oak trees, and in its twilight, the animal eats solely the fallen acorn.
Then we eat the pig.
I now know how to enjoy cheese as a dessert, a new concept for me. I now have a cheat sheet that will allow me to replicate this edible escapade. I also now know I am a sucker for a peppercorn and not really a fan of Strathdon Blue.
I was pleased to take home a fine little bottle of a drinking cherry vinegar, thanks in part to the 10% discount one enjoys on any purchase that evening.
Thank you to the guys at Di Bruno Bros., thanks to a great group of lactose tolerant men, and thank heavens my wife read that sign!
Once inside you will find all sorts of varieties leaning more toward sharp cheddar mixed with bacon or jalapeno than brie and gouda. What they do, they do well. They also pack their own sausage, cure beef, and in a cooler you find a wide variety of Amish jerky.