Almonds, apricots, artichokes, aubergine, avocados, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, daikon, dates, figs, garlic, grapes, kale, kiwis, limes, melons, nectarines, olives, peaches, pears, peppers, plums, pomegranates, raspberries, rice, spinach, tomatoes, and walnuts. This isn’t even a definitive list of what grows in the state of California. At least half of the fruit produced in the United States is grown in California, and they’re not far behind in their production of vegetables.
There are few richer places to take a culinary trip than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Californians care about their food. They care about organic, local and seasonal food, and it could be argued that the renaissance of the farm to fork food movement had its beginnings here thanks to local champions like Alice Waters. Indeed, the oldest Slow Food chapter in USA is in San Francisco.
I visit in late May, and I’m repeatedly told it’s the worst weather they’ve had in ages. It’s overcast and it even rains. Truth be told, I’m as happy as the locals to see the rain here; the state has been suffering the worst drought for a century. The implications of this to farmers and growers around the state had started to make news around the world.
And so, even though I packed my sunglasses, I’m happy to arrive in a muggy, overcast San Francisco with rain on the horizon. As I wait by the baggage reclaim carousel at SFO Airport, I wonder how many genuine tech geniuses I am sharing the air with at that moment. Probably at least two.
EMBARCADERO AND NORTH BEACH
The Ferry Building
My first sight of San Francisco are the hills to the south of the city, with houses squeezed together, taking up every inch of this precious real estate, rolling over the horizon. Soon after The Golden Gate Bridge itself rolls into view. I’m driven into the city, past the AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants (that’s baseball, you guys), under The Oakland Bay Bridge and straight to The Ferry Building.
The Ferry Building is a landmark of the Embarcadero area of the city that can be seen from the other end of Market Street, the main street that cuts through the city’s downtown area. From 10am to 2pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and from 8am on Saturdays, its famous farmers’ market takes advantage of the California weather and sets up stalls outside in the front and back of the plaza. The market has been run by the Centre for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) since 1993, and the sellers I visit proudly pin a ‘We grow what we sell’ sign on their stalls. It’s a joyful thing to see a market stocked entirely with such a variety of local produce; organic cherries, golden beetroots, fresh fava beans (broad beans to you and me), fuzzy peaches, bright blueberries, and local almonds.
The interior of The Ferry Building was renovated in 2003 and reopened fully stocked with a gourmet marketplace. Its skylight roof lets the California sun spill into this high-ceilinged space, which is not unlike Victorian-era markets in our own city. It’s one long hallway dotted with permanent food and craft stalls on either side. I spend two hours in here; sure, it’s a bit touristy and stuffed with people, but it allows me to get an introductory tour of some of the legends of The Bay Area food scene that I’ve been reading about. I become pally with one of the cheesemongers at The Cowgirl Creamery counter after I help him pronounce ‘Coolea’ cheese, one of a handful of Irish cheeses stocked in the store which is heaving with wheels of cheese from around the US and the rest of the world. The Cowgirl Creamery was set up in the ’90s by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith in Port Reyes, just north of San Francisco. Both are well-decorated veterans of The Bay Area’s food scene; Peggy worked at Chez Panisse for 17 years and Sue co-owned Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. They started making their own cheese and became famed for their buttery brie-style Mt. Tam cheese, which is what I drop my dollars on at The Ferry Building.
I get in the long line at Blue Bottle Coffee’s counter. This coffee roaster started with a stall at the Old Oakland Farmers Market in 2002, manned by founder and CEO of the company James Freeman. Today, Freeman’s coffee empire includes over twenty cafés in The Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. There are beans to buy and milk cartons of iced coffee to take home with you. After 15 minutes in line, I get a perfect milky coffee from their counter at The Ferry Building. I wish I could phonetically spell the barista’s gas pronunciation of the name ‘Efa’ which was written on my coffee cup – I was trying to make it easy for them.
Also at The Ferry Building, you can also pick up goodies from Dandelion Chocolate and Acme Bread If you’re only in The City for a short visit, spending some time here on a market day would leave you with a taster of California produce and a glimpse into the spirit of The Bay Area food scene.
The Mission, The Castro and Haight-Ashbury
Hitchcock fans will recognise the exterior of Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s oldest surviving structure founded in 1776. In fact, if you’ve seen Vertigo you’ll recognise a lot of the hilly streets of San Francisco. The skyline still resembles what you can see in the 1958 film. Walking from the fine arts de Young Museum in the Golden Gate Park back over to The Castro, I stop at a high point in the undulating 17th Street, partly because I’m wheezing after walking up a particularly steep slope of this street but mostly because of the view out over the Eureka Valley area of the city. I can see past The Ferry Building out onto The Bay, the financial area’s skyscrapers and just ahead of me, the giant rainbow flag at the intersection of Market and Castro flies proudly over Harvey Milk’s old stomping ground.
I sit at the counter in nopalito on 9th Street near Golden Gate Park, leaning over to get a view of the eight chefs at work making fresh tortillas, searing fish and chopping cilantro (coriander to you and me). My Tacos de Pescado al Pastor is an $11 plate of fish marinated in an ancho chile adobo sauce, served seared with segments of orange with a tomatillo and morita chilli salsa, all on top of the loveliest tortillas I’ve ever tasted. nopalito, an organic Mexican food eatery, was born when the Head Chef at their parent restaurant Nopa, Laurence Jossel, tasted some of the staff meals that chefs Jose Ramos and Gonzalo Guzman were cooking up.
Right at the top of my list of food places to visit is Tartine Bakery, founded by pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and her husband Chad Robertson in 2002. Robertson is a baker whose loaves are so respected that the brilliant food writer Michael Pollan took an apprenticeship with him while researching 2013’s Cooked. Katie Sanderson (chef at The Fumbally and Dillisk) worked at Bar Tartine, the sister café to Tartine Bakery, for two months in 2014, after Dillisk’s summer stint finished up. ‘Even as guests to the restaurant you get the sense that there is a lot going on in the kitchen; a lot of work with oils, ferments, powders, homemade drinks, vinegars and cheese. To work in Bar Tartine means that there are constantly big vats of fermenters filled to the brim with prepped vegetables, which the chefs taste daily until soured and then interns or stages fill them into smaller jars and they wait in basements or kitchen shelves until the time is right. They make all there own drinks in house too, which inspired me to come back and, together with Ash and Luca (Aisling Rogerson and Luca D’Alfonso), start doing the same in The Fumbally. We’re now making all our own juices, some nut milks, ginger bugs, kombucha and kefirs.’
I join the queue for Tartine Bakery that reaches the corner of 18th and Guerrero, and when my time comes I enjoy a perfectly biscuit-bottomed lemon curd tart, topped with a beautiful purple borage flower. To get to the public loo, you have to walk through a part of the kitchen, where you can feel the heat from the huge open oven as loaves are being shoveled in and out. Interestingly, in April of this year, Tartine Bakery merged with Blue Bottle Coffee. The two CEOs, Freeman and Robertson, have known each other for a decade and now plans are afoot to open Tartine Bakeries in Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo.
On nearby Valencia Street the divine smell of cacao and caffeine draws me into the Dandelion Chocolate Factory and Cafe. This bean-to-bar chocolate maker are also at The Ferry Building, but here in their natural habitat you get the idea of the scale of what they’re doing; it’s an exciting space for chocolate lovers. Later that night, I have a midnight meal at Flour + Water, where they take reservations until 11.30pm at night. They specialise in pasta and their seven course tasting menu ($70 per person) celebrates their best pasta dishes.
Around the corner from Mission Dolores is Bi-Rite Market, a family-run grocery that’s been feeding the community since 1940. It celebrates local gems as well as the best small-scale producers from around the country, such as North Carolina’s Big Spoon Roasters’ Spiced Chai Nut Butter. I leave Bi-Rite with a tote bag stuffed full of treats, including a $10 bag of corn tortilla chips that are made by nopalito; the chips are exquisitely crunchy, and carry none of that unidentifiable yellow dust that envelopes most commercially produced tortilla chips. I wonder if buying a $10 bag of artisanal tortilla chips makes me a hipster foodie? I contemplate this while riding a traditional cable-car down Market Street, away from The Mission.
From the tram, I see a young woman in her 20s sitting on the curb holding a sign that reads ‘Fuck You, Tech Companies’ written in a large, capital-letter scrawl. In smaller letters, her sign further explains her anger with the note ‘Students used to be able to live here.’ Last month, The San Francisco Chronicle published an extensive report on the impact of AirBnB in the city, highlighting concerns over real estate being used exclusively for the app’s users. The housing shortage in a city where average rents circle around the $3,000 per month, combined with the homelessness crisis in the city, has seen various tech companies come under fire for being the root cause of sky-rocketing rents in the city. It’s not just AirBnB getting the flak; angry protestors have been known to throw cabbages at the Google shuttle buses. What it seems to come down to is this; San Francisco is one of the greatest cities to live in the US, but only if you can afford to do so.
Oakland and Berkeley
Across The San Francisco Bay lie Oakland and Berkeley. The grounds of University of California, Berkeley, usually referred to locally simply as Berkeley, are serene and tree-filled, and grander than I’d imagined. It was while studying at Berkeley University that Alice Waters became interested in food activism.
Alice Waters is basically the Darina Allen of the US. Waters spoke at this year’s Ballymaloe Lit Fest, and herself and Darina seem to go back a long way. I once heard Darina say that it was the farmers markets in California, championed by Waters, that inspired her to set up the Mitchelstown Market in Cork, which was one of the first of its kind in Ireland.
Somehow, I’ve managed to get a dinner reservation at Chez Panisse. My Instagram feed freaks out when I mention, in a casual humble brag (or maybe it’s just a straight up brag?), that I’m eating there. ‘Green with envy’, ‘So jealous’, ‘Best meal I ever had!’ come the replies.
Chez Panisse opened in 1971, having been encouraged by friends who loved Waters’ home cooking. Early on, she started championing local produce, and built up relationships with a network of local farmers and suppliers to help feed her guests at the restaurant. She was forty years ahead of the now fashionable farm to fork idea, and so many great chefs have been inspired by and have worked with her – Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm did a stint in the kitchen; David Lebovitz worked in pastry here; April Bloomfield spent a summer working under Waters; Peggy Smith from Cowgirl Creamery worked here for 17 years; Acme Bread Company’s founder Steve Sullivan was the first in-house baker at Chez Panisse; and the list goes on.
A friend who has met Waters tells me she is known as an enormously generous person, opening up her home to travelling chefs with nowhere else to stay. This description matches up to her projects outside of Chez Panisse, such her charitable project The Edible School Yard. Waters set up a school garden in the disadvantaged Martin Luther King Junior Middle School 20 years ago, just a few minutes’ drive from her restaurant. The project pioneered the idea of getting school kids familiar with the process of growing food, and has inspired countless other programmes around the world. It was Waters’ campaigning that moved Michelle Obama to set up a kitchen garden at The White House. So, Waters and Chez Panisse are kind of a big deal.
I’m surprised at how formal the dining room at Chez Panisse is. The décor is a sort of bizarre combination of art deco with a Japanese influence, and the waiters are in white shirts and black jackets. What I love the most about Chez Panisse is its open kitchen. All night, it’s calm and quiet, with about ten chefs working together to plate up our simple supper. And, like Tartine Bakery, you have to walk through the kitchen to go to the loo. Is this a Californian thing? It’s lovely to have an excuse to have a nosy look at where all the action is happening.
The kitchen is teeming with morels and asparagus; the asparagus appears shaved and lightly dressed in a salad of radish and greens that accompany crispy, salted cod fritters. The morels lace a risotto that accompanies slices of pink pork shoulder, served with a side of borage leaves. This dish really reminds me of Ballymaloe House; it’s simple, homely, and free of fuss. As soon as our mains are out, I can see the pastry chef start to work on our creamy panna cottas, scooping plump early summer berries and their juice onto our plates. This is all part of the Monday Night Dinner menu, and the three courses cost $75. The meal sums up Californian food to me. The best of it is a celebration of simple ingredients, sourced locally and handled with care.
What an inspiring city for food lovers, and how encouraging that some of our leading Dublin food folks are applying what they’ve learned there here at home. The beginning of The Blue Bottle story reminds me of 3fe’s story; one coffee nut who started small and ended up inspiring many. And how fantastic is it that The Fumbally has incorporated Tartine’s kombucha mother and ginger bug enthusiasm to their offering? Ireland doesn’t have the same access to that breadth of local ingredients, but the farm to fork idea, and the celebration of great local ingredients, suits us well.
EMBARCADERO + NORTH BEACH
Nearby and worth a visit:
Alcatraz: Hop on a ferry at Pier 33 to see where Al “Scarface” Capone spent his final days. Tickets are $30 and must be booked in advance. Give yourself two and a half hours for the visit. http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/
The Beat Museum: a charmingly ramshackle tribute to Jack Kerouac and his beat buddies. 540 Broadway, $8 entry, http://www.kerouac.com/
City Lights Bookstore: across the busy junction at Broadway and Columbus from The Beat Museum, this landmark independent bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Laurence Ferlinghetti and Peter D Martin. 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway http://www.citylights.com/
Tosca Restaurant: across the street from City Lights, this legendary North Beach restaurant was taken over and transformed in 2013 by April Bloomfield, the British chef behind Michelin starred New York restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. 242 Columbus Avenue (http://toscacafesf.com/)
Chinatown: Make your way down Grant Avenue, close to City Lights, to take in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I got a $2 fortune cookie at the Eastern Bakery that told me I “could prosper in the field of medicine”. 720 Grant Avenue http://easternbakery.com/
THE MISSION, THE CASTRO AND HAIGHT-ASHBURY
Nearby and worth a visit:
– The de Young Museum: The building that houses the de Young fine art collection is a work of art in itself. Give yourself at least two hours to browse through the contemporary art collection in this stunning museum. Golden Gate Park (http://deyoung.famsf.org/)
– Community Thrift Store: A warehouse full of other people’s junk. While perusing the discarded pottery section, I spotted Instagram micro-celebrity and former Bon Appétit art director Elizabeth Olson (@white_lightning). I introduced myself and then stared at her for quite a long number of seconds, going red in the face while desperately trying to think of something to say. It was my San Francisco “I carried a watermelon” moment. Cringe. 623 Valencia Street http://www.communitythriftsf.org/
– GLBT History Museum: Find out about Harvey Milk and other heroes of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights movement in San Francisco and beyond at this small museum in The Castro. 4127 18th Street (http://www.glbthistory.org/museum/)
OAKLAND + BERKELEY
Nearby and worth a look
I get the BART (San Francisco’s DART – their Muni line is like our LUAS) from The City to Berkeley. These spots aren’t really within walking distance of each other so plan ahead for taxis.
Monterey Market: A grocery and market run by the Fujimoto family since the 1960s, it has been hugely influential in the farm to fork movement by giving local chefs access to farm produce. 1550 Hopkins Street, Berkeley (http://www.montereymarket.com/)
Ramen Shop: Opened in December 2012 by Chez Panisse alumni Sam White, Rayneil de Guzman and Jerry Jaksich, this ramen bar’s fans include Kinfolk and Lucky Peach magazine. 5812 College Avenue, Oakland (www.ramenshop.com)
Blue Bottle Coffee: This coffee empire had its start in Oakland, and its café at WC Morse, which was until recently a disused car showroom, is an inspiring space thanks to its floor to ceiling windows letting in heaps of natural light. The company’s “tech department” operates out of this shop; one side of the café is given over to their coffee machine repair centre, that looks after the upkeep of their machines. 4270 Broadway, Oakland (https://bluebottlecoffee.com/cafes/morse)
Words: Aoife McElwain