The Next Level

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

It is high time I took picnicking to the next level.

I have read and re-read the chapter in Peter Mayle’s Toujours Provence where he talks about the picnic his wife plans for his birthday, the picnic he is loathe to attend because of a fear of “a damp bottom and ant sandwiches”.  Of course, the picnic reaches far beyond all his low expectations when he is presented with a table with actual linens and sliverware, set in a sunny, quiet meadow and several courses of a divine luncheon.  As beautiful as that all sounds, I’m not sure that I would necessarily categorize that as a picnic;  it’s more like alfresco dining.   So what I want to target is something that, on the spectrum of Eating Outside, sits far, far from PB&J and rather close to alfresco dining, but without the caterers or linen.

An opportunity to experiment with picnicking arose with Mom & Dad’s visit to SF, and the subsequent – practically mandatory – day trip to wine country.  There are several wineries in the region that have picnic areas for visitors, but one in particular, in Napa, is where we had been before and wanted to go again:  Reynold’s Family Winery.   It’s a small scale operation with a nice patio, some chairs and tables with umbrellas arranged under (what is almost always) the hot sun.  Even better, they have one of the few Chardonnays on the planet that I actually find pleasant to drink.   The wine is where I started the menu, the library is where I continued.

Truthfully, I didn’t plan to actually go searching for a picnic cookbook when I was last at the library, but I happened to pick a most unlikely choice: Tassajara Cookbook, Lunches, Picnics & Appetizers, by Karla Oliveira.

“The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a legendary Buddhist monastery set deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness, is famous for its healthy gourmet vegetarian cuisine.  Guests rave about one particular Tassajara tradition: the bag lunch.”


Ha!   It’s vegetarian, and I still brought it home.  Brought it home and got completely wound up in what were starting to sound like really good spreads and chutneys, even without any meat:  Fennel Mustard Butter, Tarragon Onion Spread, Eggless Egg Salad, Mushroom Pâté…  I had to look up what “tempeh” was, and what “tamari” was (coarse tofu and a kind of soy sauce, respectively) and then designed a menu mindful of chardonnay:

Tempeh Garlic spread with cherry tomatoes

Artichoke, Walnut Tofu spread with Raincoast crisps

Un Mondo Cacciatore Hunter’s Style dried salami & grainy mustard

Cabbage slaw with maple vinaigrette

Coco-Luxe chocolate truffles

Ultimately, though I forgot the forks and the sun refused to shine in Napa (inconceivable!), this picnic was a smash.   We uncorked a thoughtfully chilled 2007 Chardonnay, dressed the salad, sliced the salami, and enjoyed our picnic despite the chilly breeze.  In fact, I’m not sure it could’ve been nicer– the spreads were good protein but not so filling that we would regret them at dinner time, the slaw added a vinegary, crunchy element and the truffles at the end effectively sealed off any overindulgence in white wine.   Only the sun was lacking to make our view out over the vineyards perfect.

To Wine Country, Jeeves

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

view-cole-valleyThe fog drifts in again and makes itself comfortable on the hill that is Buena Vista Park, opposite our picture window.  It’s this wet blanket of water droplets dampening streets, hiding views and flattening hair that makes me sigh and reminisce about wine country.   Ahh, Napa–  where the sun always shines and the palm trees wave and the wine flows. Unless you rent a convertible, in which case, it is sure to rain.

I’m convinced that the only reason it rained on our trip North recently is because we rented the Mini Cooper Convertible.  It’s cute and all, but kind of simple and definitely not as fun in the dark, cramped, ill-formed back seat with the top up.  Nonetheless, Marc and Marcia and I trooped from winery to winery despite the chill, even stopping for a surreptitiously-timed picnic lunch before the rain began.  As it turns out, a winery is perhaps the most perfect place for civilized picnic outdoors:  tables and chairs are usually positioned with a wide view of vineyard or valley or pond, staff are quick to offer knives or napkins or whatever else has been forgotten at home, and wine is conveniently sold chilled for enjoyment on the spot.  Bread and good cheese, some sun-warmed fresh figs bought at the farm stand along the road, a glass or two of unoaked Chardonnay.  It will be hard to beat that.

After having filled the wee trunk with as much wine as it could carry/we could purchase, we headed for The Fig Café in Glen Ellen.  As they accept no reservations, we took our place second in the queue forming outside the door for the first sitting at 5:30pm.  It smelled delicious as soon as we walked in– did someone toss garlic into pan as the doors were unlocked?



Fried calamari with lemon aioli, no corkage (!), fig and arugula salad with chèvre, pecans and pancetta, duck confit, saffron and white corn pasta, and a humble order of “fries” with tarragon aioli.  Now allow me, please, a moment to elaborate on the fries:  these were The Best Fries I Have Ever Eaten.  They were twice fried, to be sure, but that oil must have contained duck fat or pure lard or something that penetrated the fluffy potato interior and melted in one’s mouth.  Burning hot and very liberally salted, they crunched so preciously between the teeth that I found them more enjoyable eaten one by one by hand, rather than by the civilized forkful.


The three of us, after having eaten and wined all day, could barely muster the strength to get through three quarters of the honey-lavender crème brulée before crying uncle and staggering back out into the drizzle to our cramped little Mini.  The dinner and the wine and the fries more than made up for the rain.