Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Friday, 12 October 2012

Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - Part two

Perching high on the hills of San Simeon, approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, sits Hearst Castle.  Not to be confused with Hurst Castle, Henry VIII's Device Fort near Lymington in England, this Hearst Castle's plans for construction began in 1919 when William Randolph Hearst instructed his architect, Julia Morgan, that "we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something". 

The front entrance of Hearst Castle, with
towers inspired by a Spanish cathedral
These words must surely rate as one of the understatements of all time.  Hearst's little something took almost 30 years and created an estate comprising 165 rooms decorated with imported European art and artifacts  and 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools (indoor and outdoor) and walkways. 

The Neptune Pool, heated year round

A visit to the house, which is now owned and operated by the California State Parks, offers a choice of several different tours: the Upstairs Suites; the Cottages and Kitchen; the Grand Museum Tour.  We choose the Grand Tour to get the overall feel for the place. All tours include a 40 minute film about the history of the Hearsts (no mention of the Symbionese Liberation Army) and begin with a five mile bus drive from the Visitor Centre (run with military precision) up the winding road to the hilltop estate.  Still a working ranch of 250,000 acres, it is also possible to spot zebra (yes you read that correctly) grazing with the cattle, as for many years Hearst operated the largest privately owned zoo on the grounds.  The zoo was dismantled in 1937 when Hearst needed to liquidate some assets. Only the zebra remain.

Hard to spot, but the castle sits atop the hill
Inside the castle is akin to touring a museum that is a multi-cross between a European church, an American western ranch, a neoclassical art gallery and a movie set.  Hearst had agents in Europe seeking out pieces he could put into the castle  - you know, the odd fully complete C15th Church ceiling, or C3rd Roman mosaic floor -  and he never let practicality get in the way. The architect was frequently required to redesign rooms to fit new acquisitions, or in some cases rooms were torn down and rebuilt.  No wonder it took more than 30 years to build.  Just think, today there would be a multi season TV reality show that would give Grand Designs'  Kevin McCloud palpitations.

Hearst was a great host and invited the Hollywood glitterati and all manner of influential others to stay in the house and guest cottages in the grounds. The food was, apparently, excellent.  However, although he had a massive and well stocked wine cellar (to which only he had a key) the abstemious Mr Hearst deplored excessive drinking and rationed his guests.  This was particularly hard on the heavy drinkers of the Hollywood set and caused David Niven to remark " the wine would flow like glue during the meal" . 

We arrive out on the coast by way of the vineyards of Paso Robles which, locals tell us, is the fastest growing wine area of the US.  Currently there are about 26,000 acres planted with over 40 different varieties, some doing better than others.  In the early days (1950s and 1960s) Bordeaux varieties were mostly planted, and from the 1980s the emphasis shifted to Rhône  varieties including Syrah,  Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. The ubiquitous (in California) Zinfandel is widely grown and often blended with other varieties.  "Crazy Blends", is the nickname for Paso Blends, as these  wines do not follow traditional rules of wine making.  Lots of experimentation and, as you can imagine, the results can be variable. 

Wild Coyote Winery
We stay an adobe style Bed and Breakfast attached to the Wild Coyote Winery and vineyard, about 8 kms out of Paso Robles.  The location is spectacular: at an elevation of 550 metres we have expansive views over the vineyards, Santa Lucia mountains and the canyon.  It was just as well the location was great, as the welcome is cool, and not in a good way.  The owner/winemaker, who never actually introduces himself even as we do, adopts a patronising tone in our discussions of wine, grape growing and wine making, as if his way ("I've been doing this for over 20 years you know") is the only way.  I really hope our New Zealand cellar door  operators take a much more open minded approach with their visitors, particularly overseas grape growers and wine makers!  Overall the visit could have been enhanced by the presence of actual wild coyotes.  

Our final port of call before departing for home ex San Francisco, is Monterey. 

Monterey Bay
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."  So begins John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, set  on a street of sardine canneries in Monterey during the Great Depression (as opposed to the not-so-great depression). The paragraph continues "Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses."
Breweries rather than canneries

Steinbeck wouldn't recognise 2012's Cannery Row,  now best described as a cup of clam chowder, a bus of Japanese tourists, shops full of junk trading on Steinbeck's novel, and the zip of a credit card machine. The closest you will get to a sardine is in the Aquarium, as the industry collapsed by the mid 1950s due to overfishing.   Even so, it is a pleasant enough area to stroll around and the bay itself is quite beautiful. 

And so ends our Pacific Coast Highway trip - we head up to San Francisco to exit the country.   Sadly, I do not find a yoga room in the International departures terminal.
The Pacific Coast Highway stretches ahead

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