Pressing my forehead to the small, oval window of the airplane made me feel like a little kid – my eyes wide with wonder as I watched the terrain below change from the stark, red deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, to the rippling, golden peaks of California. Silver lakes flashed in the late afternoon sun, blinding me even at 37,000 ft. If I strained my neck far enough, I could see the distant shadow of the California bay and my final destination of San Jose.
I was on an adventure, the ambassador for Taste of Home magazine on the World Wide Country Tours, Slice of California Tour – a trip that would take me on a culinary journey through the Monterey Bay and Santa Clara Valley regions. I had packed my flowiest dresses and stretchiest pants in anticipation of eating my way through America’s “Salad Bowl.”
As I met my fellow travelers, I knew we’d all be instant friends. There were couples from California, mothers and daughters from Minnesota, and best friends from Utah. There was even a traveler from Gilroy, which would be our home base while traveling. Everyone was excited and ready to eat. Many of the other explorers had been to California before. They shared stories of visits to San Diego, Joshua Tree, and the Mojave Desert. But for me, this region of the country was unknown. I used to think that California was either Los Angeles or San Francisco – there was no middle ground. I had no idea that there was a fertile center, a culinary oasis that was home to every fruit and vegetable you could think of.
Everywhere you looked were fields of peppers, lettuce, and artichokes. Orchards of apples, pears, and gorgeous Blenheim apricots dotted the hillsides. This is the heart of the agricultural movement in America. No wonder the great Alice Waters began the farm to table movement back in the 1990s. Fresh, flavorful produce is ripe for the picking – all you have to do is hold out your hand.
On the first day, our tour bus passed row after row of onions drying in burlap sacks under the California sun. “Those onions were just picked yesterday,” our tour guide said, smiling into the microphone. “They’ll be left there to dry for a few days before being brought in for selling.”
Each day throughout the tour we visited local family owned farms where dedication and hard work were on display. At the 4th-generation family run LJB Farms, Brent Bonino, son and owner of the farm, demonstrated how to roast fresh peppers. Mari and Jim Rossi from B&R Farms shared their world-renowned Blenheim apricots, showing how their family works year round harvesting and drying the delicate fruit. A trip to Ocean Mist Farms educated us on the mysteries of artichokes. Mile after magnificent mile of artichokes stretched out before us. We watched a group of migrant workers work tirelessly, as they moved from row to row, harvesting this curious vegetable. And apples were on display at the Gizdich Ranch, where dedicated workers transformed the apples into juice or baked into warm apple pies.
At every stop we feasted. Smoky roasted peppers marinated in olive oil and spices, plump strawberries so red and so juicy it made your tooth ache, velvety dried apricots paired with creamy artisan cheeses, and pie so flaky, so buttery that you thought your grandma pulled it from the oven. Everything was straight from the ground, so fresh you could still taste the warmth of the sun and the richness from the dirt.
Cooking demonstrations were some of the most anticipated parts of the trip. What could be better than a garlic-themed meal prepared by the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s famous SakaBozzo? Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo entertained and delighted our group with stories of how the met and a rousing rendition of “It’s the Garlic”, sung to the tune of “That’s Amore.” As Sam melted butter for his famous Shrimp Scampi, he looked at us with a smile and said, “How about some garlic?” We cheered as he dumped a spoonful of the favorite flavor into the sauce.
In Pacific Grove, Dorothy McNett spoke about the importance of local, organic cooking. Tucked away in a back room of the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, she showed us how to make chocolate covered cheese with black sea salt, hemp bars, and elderberry salad dressing. Our tour group sat in rapt attention as Nancy whisked and mixed her way through the recipes. Hands shot up in the air whenever someone had a question. “It’s all about keeping it fresh! Only make what you need,” Nancy said, as she called on a curious cook.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was our day in Monterey Bay. We drove up and down Cannery Row and walked along the Old Fisherman’s Warf. As a lover of John Steinbeck, it was exciting to see history unfold before my eyes. The sights along 17 Mile Drive were breathtaking – waves battering against the shore and sea lions basking in the late summer sun. A drive through Pebble Beach boasted multi-million dollar homes and a look at thousand year old cypress trees, their trunks twisting away from the cool ocean spray. “The great movie icon Clint Eastwood lives just up that drive,” Gail, our step-on tour guide said, pointing up a steep hill. Everyone on the bus looked to the left, straining his or her eyes for a glimpse at the movie star’s home.
While enjoying our final meal at the historic Milias Restaurant in Gilroy, California, I realized that this golden state is a place of culinary dreams. “You must come back to California,” Sam Bozzo said to me as he sliced into his brined chicken breast. “You must come back and spend more time here. There’s just so much to explore.”
He’s right. There is so much more – so much more to see, to taste, to experience. And I can’t wait to come back.
If you’re looking to experience a taste of California, be sure to sign up for the next Slice of California tour, coming next year with World Wide Country Tours. It’s an incredible experience, with knowledgeable guides, amazing sights, and delicious food. Be sure to visit World Wide Country Tours for more information, and to see what other tours they have planned.
To Learn More: World Wide Country Tours
I’d love to share my culinary experience with you! Enter our Slice of California Giveaway for a chance to win a delicious prize package filled with decadent chocolate from DeBrito’s Chocolate Factory, roasted almonds from LJB Farms, apple cinnamon pancake mix from Gizdich Ranch, a Monterey travel mug, and more!
Click here to enter our giveaway: Slice of California Giveaway