The Perfect Picnic: Local Artisans and the California Landscape
Here in Silicon Valley, we foodies are blessed with year-round farmers markets, award-winning chefs and some of the most innovative artisan producers in the world.
While there is certainly no shortage of amazing restaurants to discover, anyone who has spent time in the backcountry can attest that food eaten outdoors simply tastes great. (One of the most amazing meals of my life consisted of a tortilla smeared with peanut butter devoured at 4,750 meters [13,000 feet] while traversing Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.)
Luckily for the less rugged among us, you don’t have to go off-grid and eat with a titanium spork to take advantage of this phenomenon. In addition to a glut of artisan delicacies to fill our backpacks with, we have a seemingly infinite supply of places to picnic.
Some of my favorite spots to hike/picnic in the area are Henry W. Coe State Park for its rolling grass hills (lush and green in spring, dusty blond in drier months), Pinnacles National Park south of Hollister, Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek and Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve in the hills above East San Jose.
Recently, I set out on a mission to create my dream picnic, gathering provisions along the way from some of our region’s finest food artisans. And at each stop I asked the foodies who feed us where they love to picnic and what they pack in their baskets.
First Stop: EL SALCHICHERO (Santa Cruz)
COPPA, MUSTARD, BEER STICKS
Founded in 2010, full-service whole-animal butcher shop El Salchichero has made a name for themselves producing award-winning charcuterie and other delicacies using animals, herbs and produce all sourced from within the Santa Cruz foodshed. I picked up some coppa (which took home a Good Food Award just last year), a jar of mustard and a pack of beer sticks and asked manager Kyle Kurek about his favorite local picnic spots and snacks.
“I love to go up to Wilder Ranch State Park. They have great picnic areas with beach access. I’d bring along our coppa. Cheese is always a good idea, and of course bread. Companion Bakery is right here in Santa Cruz and it’s fantastic. I’d also pack a bottle from Odonada Winery, also here in Santa Cruz and making really great wines.”
Second Stop: SWANTON BERRY FARM (Davenport)
OLALLIEBERRY JAM, TRUFFLES, SHORTCAKE
Swanton Berry Farm, conveniently located right along coastal Route 1 just above Santa Cruz, offers just about anything a berry lover could hope for: the opportunity to pick-your-own in an absolutely gorgeous setting, loads of prepared berry-centric goodies to snack on, picnic tables outside and a cozy seating area inside that seems to function as much as a café as clubhouse for in-the-know cyclists (who get a discount if they show a helmet).
What really sets Swanton apart, however, is their ethics. Not content with just being the nation’s first certified organic strawberry farm, Swanton was the first organic farm in the country to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers of America AFL-CIO. Unlike many agricultural workers who are paid by the piece (necessitating a grueling and often dangerous pace), employees here are paid hourly and rotate tasks to reduce the physical stress of repetitive motion. They also receive medical and retirement plans, paid vacation time and unlimited time off to care for their children.
Before moving to California a year and a half ago, I had never heard of an olallieberry, much less eaten one. They are relatively uncommon as a commercial crop, but luckily you can find them here. Thanks to the generous sample station, I got to taste every jam that Swanton makes (all are small-batch, low-sugar and delicious) but when I got to the olallieberry, I was floored. I had never tasted such intense flavor in a jam. I knew I had to figure out a way to work it into the picnic menu. I also picked up a couple of berry chocolate truffles for dessert and a strawberry shortcake to snack on in the car!
While I was making my selection, I asked farm stand and U-pick manager Bear Boaen what he likes to take on picnics and where he likes to go. “For a picnic, I like to pick up some artichoke bread from Arcangeli’s in Pescadero—they also make killer in-house sausages if you’re going to be grilling. And of course goat cheese from Harley Farms.” To drink, Bear recommends the jalapeño beer from Highway 1 Brewing Company—they’ll fill growlers too. For hiking, Boaen says, “I love Butano State Park—it’s super mellow and nearly empty during the week. And Pebble Beach at Bean Hollow is great—there’s no sand, just pebbles in all sorts of cool colors ... you can find jade and agate if you look.”
Regarding U-Pick, Bear highly recommends Thursdays for strawberries as they’ve had a few days to recover from the previous weekend’s crowds.
* Olallieberries are only available on the weekends and he says “come early, we open at 10am, and you’ll have a couple of hours to pick before the crowds show up!”
* The Pescadero U-Pick location is open only on weekends.
Third Stop: HARLEY FARMS (Pescadero)
Tucked away in Pescadero, Harley Farms’ 200 Alpine goats spend their days grazing happily on nine acres of bucolic pasture. The herd provides the rich milk that is used to make delicious, healthy (and award-winning) chevre, fromage blanc, ricotta and feta cheeses.
The farm is open to the public for tours (and also has picnic tables!) and there is a retail shop on site that offers the entire range of cheeses as well as soaps, lotions and even house paint made from goat milk. I stopped in for a medallion of their Monet chevre. Gorgeously embellished with edible flowers grown in their garden and subtly flavored with herbes de Provence, it recently brought home a very well-deserved gold medal from the 2014 World Cheese Awards.
I asked shop manager Meryl Cheesebough and staffer Mary Windram about their favorite picnic spots and snacks:
“Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is one of my favorite spots to picnic,” says Cheesebough. “I come from a long line of picnickers … we used to go out with my grandmother and then, when my son was little, I’d picnic with him on the roof. Now I love to take my granddaughters (4 and 7 years old) out on a picnic when they visit,” and it wouldn’t be a picnic without a Monet button for each of them.
“When I have a big picnic, I like to bake a chocolate cake, or bring a pie from Duarte’s right here in Pescadero—the apricot is amazing—and sometimes I even bring punch in a Thermos: ice, cranberry-lime Odwalla and some vodka … it’s very refreshing!”
Windram, who just moved here from Michigan, is still discovering things but already has a couple of favorite picnic hikes. “So far, Hikers Hut in La Honda is one of my favorite places to hike and picnic. My granddaughters (5 and 10 years old) are visiting soon and I’m really looking forward to taking them out on a picnic. We’ll probably pack a salad with greens from our garden, Harley Farms feta and some oil and vinegar.”
Fourth Stop: ARCANGELI GROCERY (Pescadero)
If you have never tried the artichoke bread from Arcangeli’s in Pescadero, you might want to consider getting your hands on some. The gigantic loaves stuffed with herbs and artichokes are baked throughout the day so it’s almost always possible to snag one while it’s still hot (they keep for a day or two, and have a sturdy crust that protects from crushing in a backpack).
Founded in 1929 in Pescadero, the bakery and grocery have been run by the same family for five generations. Baker Chris Benedetti is part of the newest generation and took a short break to share his favorite picnic foods and spots with Edible Silicon Valley.
Also a fan of Bean Hollow Beach and Butano State Park, Benedetti adds that he “loves the redwoods at Memorial State Park.”
When asked about what to pack, Benedetti chuckles. “Well, I’d get pretty much everything for my picnic here at this store! Our deli makes sandwiches the size of your head that are really popular with daytrippers, picnickers and campers. Our Pinot Noir just got 94 points from Wine Enthusiast. Oh! And our sourdough bread uses Chardonnay yeast, so if you packed a bottle of Chardonnay, you could have a themed picnic. The plain chevre from Harley Farms is amazing and I love the olallieberry jam from Swanton. For dessert, I’d probably pack either some chocolate chip or mint cookies from our bakery.”
Fifth Stop: FULL CIRCLE FARM (Sunnyvale)
As much as I love chowing down on bread and cheese and sweets and cured meats on a long hike, I always make sure to bring along some fresh fruits and veggies. They taste even better than usual and my body thanks me the next day.
Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale has been running a farm stand and community-supported agriculture (CSA) program since 2008, providing Silicon Valley residents with seasonal produce grown on their 11-acre urban farm.
I stopped by during a CSA pickup on a Thursday afternoon to say hi to the chickens and ask staffer and farmers market aficionado Nabeela Aijaz about her picnic preferences.
“The Rose Garden in San Jose and Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills has really good hiking … and the Sunol Ridge Wilderness Ranch Preserve is great too.”
Her preferred provisions? “I love Acme Bread. I pick it up warm from the Sunnyvale farmers market and it goes great with Mt. Tam and Sonoma Jack cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station. I love the organic olives from the Palo Alto farmers market and I love to make a fennel beet salad with CSA ingredients from here at Full Circle … Oh! And strawberries! We have amazing strawberries here.”
Sixth Stop: KAISER PERMANENTE FARMERS MARKET (San Jose)
SMALL BEES HONEY STICKS AND HONEY
If you ask me, no hiking picnic is complete without honey. Not only is it a delicious complement to cheese, bread and apples, it provides an important boost of calories and carbohydrates to keep you happy and feeling good while you are on the trail. Depending on your weight and speed as well as the weight of your pack and the terrain, hiking can burn upward of 450 calories per hour and it’s important to make sure you eat enough to avoid fatigue and injury. It’s also crucial to make sure you are well hydrated; I always bring at least three liters of water.
Unlike table sugar, which is difficult for the body to digest, the enzymes added to honey by bees allow the body to directly absorb it, making digestion easy. Honey also has a lower glycemic index than sugar, helping to avoid the “crash” often experienced after eating sugary snacks.
I stopped by the farmers market in the courtyard of the San Jose Kaiser Permanente to pick up a jar of honey and some honey sticks from Small Bees, which produces all of their honey and products right in the Santa Clara Valley with their very own bees.
Wendy Small, who owns Small Bees with her husband, was on hand to share her picnic favorites. “We love to go to the Bear Valley Music Festival in the summer—it’s great for picnicking and listening to music. I like to take lots of fruit, turkey sandwiches and I pick up a rhubarb pie from Apple Hill.”
While I was at the farmers market, I also picked up some apples and dried cherries—perfect for easy mid-hike munching.
The last stop was a quick trip to the “Local” section of the grocery store to round out the menu. I picked up some fresh croissants from the bakery, a packet of Myenberg goat butter from Turlock, a tub of Fig & Olive Spread from Jimtown in Healdsburg as well as some cold-pressed “Greens & Apple” juice from the Forager Juice Project in SF, and a couple of mini squares of SF favorite Tcho’s mokaccino chocolate (it’s made with Blue Bottle coffee, which makes it doubly local). Libations included a bottle of Frey’s Organic Agriculturalist red blend wine (from Mendocino) and a bottle of 2012 Bald Mountain Pinot Noir from Beauregard Vineyard (located in the Santa Cruz Mountains) that I’d been saving for a special occasion.
Our destination: Pinnacles National Park, just South of Gilroy. The dramatic red rock spires rise along the San Andreas fault and provide rock climbers with a playground that resembles eastern Utah more than the gentler rolling hills that surround it. We’ve explored several trails in Pinnacles including the 9.3-mile High Peaks Loop and a 12-mile combination of Bear Gulch, High Peaks and Balconies Cave trails.
For this evening’s picnic, my husband and I chose the shorter hike to the Bear Gulch reservoir. It’s only about a mile and a half up, with moderate elevation gain, but the terrain is really interesting and the man-made reservoir makes for a perfect picnic spot, without the time commitment of a full day of hiking.
To get there you pass through talus caves, formed when boulders and debris tumbled into deep, narrow canyons. The cool, dark climb up the caves offers a welcome respite on hot dry summer days, but bring a flashlight or headlamp to light the way.
As you exit the caves and your eyes readjust to the sun, you are faced with a steep set of stairs carved into the rock. At the top, a small tranquil oasis sits before you. Bear Gulch reservoir is surrounded by smaller, but still breathtaking, rock formations.
With our picnic laid out on the blanket before us, we sipped wine and ate while swooping formations of small birds fed on the water skippers and other insects skating across the water’s surface.
Tired and hungry hikers and climbers returning from the High Peaks and Chalone Peak trails passed us by and waved their approval as we enjoyed our golden hour feast. We waved back, trying not to feel too guilty. With a little planning and foresight, you too can skip the ubiquitous energy bar and make your future adventures more delicious and rewarding.