Friday, June 25, 2010

What I did on my holidays - part one.

It might seem a bit self indulgent to fly all the way to the west coast of the USA for just one week but that's what we did. I'm fascinated by America  - it's vast and diverse and the reality is both very familiar and quite different from expectations founded on television and movies. I was seduced by the culture when we lived there briefly many moons ago and have jumped at every opportunity to visit again since then.
Our destination was San Francisco but our first stop was Yosemite National Park. Not normally one to wax eloquent about  scenery and natural wonders I have to admit that Yosemite was spectacular. Five million visitors a year are similarly impressed! We were there for the Memorial Day weekend which pretty much marks the beginning of the summer holiday season, the weather was fabulous and the traffic jams in the park had to be seen to be believed.

 Yosemite Falls and Mirror Lake
  All the accommodation - hotels and camp sites - had been booked out for weeks so one of the really interesting aspects of our few days there was to see how all these people were catered for. All the hotel accommodation and food is handled by Delaware North Companies and they provide a range of eating options from restaurants, fine (and expensive) dining at the 'rustic and elegant' Ahwahnee Hotel in the cavernous dining room and less formal, noisier dining at the busy Mountain Room Restaurant with its view of Yosemite Falls, to burgers and other fried goodies at the Village Grill  in Yosemite Village. There was nothing especially surprising or different about the food we ate here -  very good braised lamb shoulder, seared duck breast, Alaskan halibut, juicy and perfectly cooked flat iron steak - but I was intrigued by the information about what we were eating provided on the menu.

The Ahwahnee Hotel (the Dining Room is on the ground floor at left)
To start with there was a little warning at the bottom of the page
Thoroughly cooking foods of animal origin such as beef, eggs, fish, lamb, pork, poultry or shellfish reduces the risk of food-borne illness. Individuals with certain health conditions may be at higher risk if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked. FDA Consumer Advisory 3-603.11.
Less scary was finding out where the food had come from and how it was produced. The seafood is chosen based on the Best Choices and Best Alternatives lists published by Seafood Alliance and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch while local , organic and seasonal vegetables are sourced from T&D Willey Farms based in the San Joaquin Valley. The beef used at the Ahwahnee is produced by Brandt Farms who maintain 'a pasture to plate philosophy which involves raising .. livestock humanely and naturally without hormones or the use of antibiotics' and at the Mountain View Room they use grass fed beef  from Open Space Beef. Free range chicken and duck comes from the Pitman family who run Mary's Chicken. Whilst this sort of attention to the provenance of their food might be expected at a place like the Ahwahnee it was refreshing to find that the same attention was paid to the ingredients at the 240 seat  Mountain Room. What I couldn't determine was whether this sort of information was expected by their customers or whether it was just a reflection of the policies of the Delaware Group.
The drive from San Francisco to Yosemite takes you through the amazingly lush farming areas in the valleys of the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers, where these businesses are based , through Modesto, Merced and Madera  or along the 120 through Oakdale - past acres (this is America) of  vegetables and fruit and nut trees - pistachios, almonds, plums, peaches and cherries. Modesto is not only the setting for George Lucas's American Graffiti but also the home of Blue Diamond Almonds.
And if you live in San Francisco you can buy produce from the farms in the valley at the various farmer's markets which operate in the city. On Saturday morning our first stop was the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market which is based in and around the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero at the bottom of Market Street almost in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. It was stone fruit season and there was a bewildering number of varieties of peaches available, huge mounds of cherries, 'pluots' for sampling and glorious displays of fresh vegetables. Again there was nothing we didn't recognise but it was interesting to see bunches of dandelions, stinging nettles ($US10/lb), amaranth ($US5/lb), lemon verbena, borage flowers and lemon balm which are not regular features of the markets we go to in Sydney.

 The market was very busy but how many of the crowd were locals actually doing their weekend shopping and how many were tourists like us was hard to determine. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a California Certified Farmer's Market. This means that only California Certified Producers can sell there. To quote from their brochure -
'All of the farmers who sell at our market are certified as producers by the counties in which they grow. This guarantees shoppers that their purchases are grown in California by the people who are selling them. Growers submit to their county a production list complete with crop types, number of acres, location, estimated harvest and harvest season. Based on this information, a producer's certificate is issued and the county's Agricultural Inspector visits the farm to confirm that the farm is growing what they claim to be.'
 They also make the point that being a Certified Producer is not the same as being certified organic.
Whilst on the one hand this sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare the stipulation that anyone selling in the market should have to identify the source of their wares is something I would very much like to see happen at my local market.
We spent the morning wandering around the stalls in glorious sunshine and then sat by the bay enjoying coffee and sandwiches - watched over  by a statue of Mahatma Gandhi which for some reason was given to the City of San Francisco by the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation.

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