Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our Summer Vacation: Part I: Picnic Mania

Oh, I love a good picnic! All I've done all this wet winter was whine about my picnics and how I'd been cheated of them last summer -- and how I was going to get my picnics, lots of them, this year.

So as we pushed off for our first vacation in ages, I made some preliminary plans to ensure that there would be plenty of picnicking. A little bit of Martha Stewart planning, some shopping and we were guaranteed some spectacularly fun al fresco dining.

After all these years of picnicking and dreaming about picnicking, I've learned a few things, which I'll take this opportunity to share...

1) I always take a cooler with the ice pack screwed into it, even if it seems unwieldy. You can always leave it in the car, but if you're travelling in hot climates, the cooler is invaluable. I also buy myself a little extra ice-time by freezing a few drinks, a few bottles of water to pack in the sides. I also like to pack equipment (blanket, knives, corkscrew, plates, serving/cutting boards, plasticware, napkins, winesaver and rubber stoppers, salt & pepper shaker) in a backpack with the non-cooled food. It's just easier to carry.

2) I believe in a tablecloth. It sounds silly, but it makes a difference when you can cover up that weathered wooden plank, or faded plastic tabletop. I bought this length of batik fabric at the remnants table of a fabric store for $2. If it gets messed up, I won't care, but it makes things look nicer.

3) You don't need a lot of food to be satisfying. For our starter picnic, we bought a whole Molinari coppa salami, some prosciutto, a couple of wedges of cheese (Comte and Tipsy Cow), half a pint of oil-cured olives, some homemade focaccia, some Maille mustards, a few bottles of water. I also made an orzo salad with leftover oven-dried tomatoes and sauteed fennel and along the way we picked up some anchovies. That was literally enough for our first four picnics.

4) Plan ahead where you're going to stop -- a place that has picnic tables? Grass? Will you have to hike in? Is there shade, or water? It saves you a lot of stress and meandering about when you're hungry and therefore cranky.

Our first stop on the picnic trail was at the Mission at San Juan Bautista. Check it out -- it's the site of that fabulous finale in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Can't you just see Kim Novak dashing across the lawn? No tower though -- that was a studio set constructed for the movie.

The site was quiet when we got there -- most of the Fourth of July revellers were gone and we saw only a few people painting the bucolic scene of the old El Camino Real and the mission. By the way, all along the old route of El Camino Real -- which started out as an Indian footpath and became the lifeline that connected the California Missions -- there are markers in the shape of bells. You see them at the side of 101 wherever 101 coincides with Camino Real. I wondered about the bells, which have no clapper. As it turns out, there are 555 of them along the route, made by California Bell Company -- and you can even own one of your own...

On Thursday, we had spent the greater part of the day winding through the wineries of West Paso and we were hot and tired by the time lunch came around. Of course, you can find a picnic table at almost any winery in the area, but we found a nice shady green spot at Peachy Canyon, which is on Highway 46.

A former schoolhouse, this site is charmingly green, with a garden, a gazebo, and our very own attendant. I very much enjoyed the company of our lunch guest, who especially approved of our Tipsy Cow cheese. She was not intrusive, but reminded me of our own Cheese Kitty.

On our third day, we ventured even further west to visit Hearst Castle. I think it's one of those sights that's just too good to miss, but I hadn't been there since I was a child. In the mean time, they've installed a food court, an IMAX theater and what seems to be an exact replica of New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal. The smell inside is very much reminiscent of the Disneyland-Great America-boardwalk experience, i.e. cheap hotdogs, bad fires and lots of High Fructose Corn Syrup (Say what you want, New York Times -- I still want more research done on the connection between HFCS and the obesity epidemic.)
So we were quite happy to escape across Highway 1 to the William Hearst Memorial Beach with our picnic supplies. A lovely lunch with the Pacific Ocean in front of us.

After staving off some interested gulls (horrible birds) we enjoyed a light lunch and then a walk down the pier that leads off the side of the beach.

I love looking at the kelp and the seaweed along the coast. From the pier you could see an elegant twirl of vegetation.

At this point, our supplies were running a little low. However, I'd done some research on shops in Paso and read about a little place called di Raimondo's Italian Market & Cheese Shop (822 13th Street at Park Street, Paso Robles (805) 238-1268). It turned out to be a really well stocked market that sported, among many other things, a wide array of cheeses, Molinari salamis, El Rey chocolate and anchovies from Cantabria. YUM. Owner Jean Higgins was more than ready to let us sample cheeses and let us try a lovely local sheep cheese called Pozo Gold made by Christine Maguire at Rinconada Dairy.

"It's made from raw unpasteurized sheep's milk, aged 60 days," she explains.

"Oh," we say, nodding with a 'wink, wink, nudge nudge,' "Just long enough, eh?"

"Oh, yes," she says, realizing just what kind of cheese-hounds she's dealing with, "Just enough to be legal. I'm there on the 61st day knocking on her door."

She cuts us a sample of the Rinconada's Chaparral, as well as samples of some fabulous Comte, a bit of Bucheron -- she even has some Spanish Picon -- a nice tangy blue we hardly see in our area.

In the end, we opt to go local -- our theme for the weekend -- and we take some of the Pozo, making a mental note to visit Rinconada the next time we're down this way.

On the trip up the spectacular California coast, we broke for lunch in a place that I hadn't researched called Lucia, nestled in the gap between the Los Padres National Forest and the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Park. We got out to stretch our legs, spotted the picnic tables overlooking the ocean, and made a quick decision.

Easily the prettiest spot on the trip, Lucia seemed to be a charmed haven -- even the marine layer pulled back so we could see the jewelled Pacific water. The air was cooler, even though it was sunny and there were nasturtiums blooming on the hillsides. In short, an idyllic little spot at just the right moment -- and after all, isn't that what picnicking is all about?

Simple Focaccia

5 cups unbleached flour
2 tsp salt, plus extra sea salt for sprinkling
2 cups warm (110°) water
1 pkg yeast
6 Tbsps olive oil
3 Tbsp fresh chopped rosemary, basil, thyme or oregano (optional)
Chopped garlic, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions, olives or roasted red bell peppers (optional)

Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Add in the herbs if you're using them and combine well.

In a separate bowl, mix water, yeast and then 3 tbsp olive oil. Stir the yeast mixture into flour mixture until evenly moistened.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place 1 1/2 hours or til doubled.

Scrape into 10 1/2 x 15 1/2 pan and pat evenly into pan. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise 1 hour.

Uncover and dimple dough by punching finger at 2" intervals into surface. Drizzle with remaining olive oil, and add chopped garlic, green pepper, sundried tomatoes, chopped olives, etc., on top. Sprinkle sea salt over the top.

Bake at 450°F for 25 minutes.

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