After an early start yesterday I had a lazy morning today. I took the mountain road from Suisun Valley over to Napa, driving through olive groves, vineyards and pasture with the smell of wild sage and eucalyptus in the air. It was quite breathtaking. First stop of the day was the Oxbow Public Market in Napa – I’d come to see Fatted Calf, a butchery and charcuterie store. It’s probably the most polished of all the stores that I’ve visited to date with an impressive display case of fresh pork cuts and every kind of pork product you can think of. Aaron the store manager gave me a tour and a brief look at the production area in the back where an army of workers were producing sausages.
The larger Public Market building behind the store had an incredible array of produce stores and eateries. However, my favourite stall by far was a culinary antique store called Heritage Artifacts that specialised in some serious kitchenalia. They had the most wonderful collection of knives, I particularly liked some modern ones by Oregon based blacksmith Michael Hemmer. The stall also stocked a fantastic magazine called Meatpaper – it’s billed as The Journal of Meat Culture. If you like meat and appreciate good photojournalism this is the mag for you, I shall definitely be seeking it out.
As I knew I’d be in Napa I’d tried to make a reservation at the famed French Laundry, which is a few miles away in Yountville. Everyone on the trip had told me “it’s super hard to get a reservation”. They only allow bookings three months in advance, I’d noted the dates in my diary, but although I was sat at my computer poised and ready for the strike of midnight, Open Table didn’t make me one of the lucky few. For those unfamiliar with The French Laundry, it’s one of the leading restaurants in the States, back in 2003 and in 2004 it was rated as the number one restaurant in the world (loosing its crown to Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in 2005). I wanted to know about their charcuterie program – they’re famed for seeking out the best produce from across the US to use in their kitchens. Heath Putnam who I’d met in Seattle had sold his very first Mangalitsa pig to them, and Shane who I met yesterday now supplies them with Mangalitsa. I’d contacted the head of the charcuterie program prior to the trip, but I’d picked the worst timing. He’s currently in London helping set up a French Laundry pop-up restaurant in Harrods. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement.
If I couldn’t eat at the French Laundry then I’d have to choose the next best thing – Bouchon, a French Bistro style restaurant a few doors down, and another restaurant from the Thomas Keller Group. I ordered the charcuterie platter, which looked stunning. It consisted of a Salame Gentile, Salame Rosa, Chorizo and a Pate with Bayonne Ham. The pate was the real stand out item for me, it was delicious and had a real burst of fiery flavour from the green peppercorns dotted throughout it. Of the salumi, the Rosa was my favourite, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. My main of Lamb with crispy polenta, wild mushrooms and chard was delicious – I even moped up the sauce with some bread (you can take the boy out of Wales). Pudding was a trio of chocolate bouchons with one of the best ice creams I’ve ever tasted.
Although I couldn’t eat at the French Laundry, I thought I should at least take a walk to see the restaurant. The restaurant is on the edge of Yountville – the town is chocolate box perfect. It’s what a retirement town would look like if Disney were the architects. The restaurant itself is quite unassuming – I’d actually passed it and had to double back to see where it was.What really made my day was the extensive kitchen garden they had across the road from the restaurant. It’s an incredible plot of land, wedged between the main road through Yountville and the highway. I don’t know whether the garden supplies enough food for the whole restaurant throughout the year, but it has an incredible array of vegetable varieties. I spent a good hour wandering through the garden, and it took a huge amount of will power not to pick one of the strawberries (the sign specifically said they were not to be eaten).As I sat on the bench on the edge of the garden looking out to the vineyard covered hills in the distance it reminded me of home. Seven years ago we fenced off an acre of field to make a garden. One freezing February my father and I planted an orchard, and we’ve added a shed, polytunnel and a privy since. There have been some catastrophes along the way when AWOL cattle have broken in, destroying fruit trees and eating crops, but for the most part the place is thriving. The garden is no longer my domain, when my parents moved close by it became the domain of my ‘Head Gardener’ or Dad as I prefer to call him.