Saturday, 7 March 2015

A + J in Sunny Solvang

Solvang is Danish for 'Sunny Field', a particularly apt moniker for a town that enjoys balmy temperatures and is bathed in golden sunlight all year round. The town was established by Danish migrants early in the 20th century, who had initially settled in the Midwest. Compared to the horrendous winters they faced there, California made a highly attractive alternative, and so west-ward they went. Anyone who's ever been to Solvang will tell you that this was an excellent move. 

The town's earliest residents didn't overtly showcase their cultural roots, and it wasn't till the 1930s that a trend started to build homes, or at the very least facades, in a traditional Danish style called Bindingsværk. The popularity of "half-timbered" houses and Danish farmhouse designs gave the town a more distinct look and feel, and today, walking through Solvang is like walking through a bijou slice of Northern Europe. It's impossible to get lost as you meander down the well-kept streets as well, which contributed somewhat to easing my pain from that one time in Denmark I led my family half an hour away from where we intended to go, after taking one wrong turn. 

It's a shame we missed the annual Danish Days celebrations, which are held on the third weekend every September. We were told that visiting then is the best way to get a taste of Danish folk traditions without having to get on a plane. The music and dancing are led by the descendants of the original settlers, and the occasion is marked with plenty of feasting and cheer, things I'm always interested in. 

Having been a tourist in Denmark on two occasions, I can vouch for how difficult it is to get a good picture of Edvard Eriksen's statue of The Little Mermaid as she perches on a rock by the docks. She has a sister in Solvang, somehow even smaller, but looking more pensive than melancholy. The best part is the fact that there aren't hoards of other people fighting you for the best photo-taking angle, and your picture won't get ruined by inopportune swans. It is, perhaps, less romantic than being in Copenhagen proper, but let's face it, it isn't very romantic to get thwacked by a wayward selfie-stick while looking at the original either. 

I'm not usually a breakfast person, but when all the recommended dishes happen to be breakfast foods, my desire to try all the good stuff generally outweighs my disinterest in ingesting solids before 11 am. Our first breakfast was at Paula's Pancake House,  where we had Danish pancakes topped with bacon, cinnamon stewed apples, and whipped cream. We also had a taste of medisterpølse, a spicy Danish sausage. They're traditionally made by stuffing minced pork into pig intestines, and while still tasty, the one we tried seemed pretty intestine-free. The place is usually completely packed, but we arrived just before the breakfast crowds descended, and managed to get a rather nice table outside. 

On our final day in Solvang, we loaded up on æbleskiver (Pronounced aye-bell-ski-ver) from the Solvang Restaurant, which serves the best version in town. They also sell these to go, an excellent option for those who want a snack to wander around town with. Each serving comes with three piping hot pancake balls, cooked fresh in cast iron pans, drenched in rich raspberry jam and dusted with a layer of powdered sugar. They were glorious. 

Solvang is a town that's twee and touristy in the best possible ways, and brimming with opportunities to take adorable holiday snapshots. You don't have to take a picture with their giant red clog, but there's something about it that compels everyone who walks past to want to stick their foot on it, maybe pose a bit with a face that conveys an air of sadness that the shoe won't fit. We experienced the magic firsthand, and the couple strolling behind us laughed when they saw me trying on the shoe, telling us they'd had the exact same idea. 

Shoe aside, there are also lovely little architectural features all around town that will catch your eye. In this case, I wasn't sure if the twin crowned lion is an actual crest or just a fancy embellishment to someone's front door, but it made for a nice photo all the same. 

Likewise for this almost nautical clock. Very Jules Verne. 

If you're into chocolate, wine, and all the good stuff in life, you might also enjoy all the witty one-liners you can find across town. You could cover the entirety of Solvang in a day on foot, so it's perfectly suited to slow-paced walking adventures where you stop and marvel at every little thing that catches your eye. 

After a morning hitting the downtown wine bars, we wandered over to the Hans Christian Andersen Park for a picnic, and found that it was full of shady spots just perfect for a post-lunch siesta. We made the most of it. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

A + J Beer it up in Buellton

I can't say I'd ever considered the problem of one day getting sick of wine. (Getting sick from wine on the other hand...) But faced with an entire weekend's worth of winery visits, the possibility of it cropping up became a very real concern. What if, horror of horrors, we came down with wine fatigue halfway through? Thankfully, a solution was at hand. Why, we could just drink beer in between! Wonderful, palate cleansing beer, made locally in Buellton, just a short ways away. I'd heard of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. thanks to the local craft vendor just round the corner from our apartment in Downtown, who sold me their Lizard's Mouth Imperial Double IPA. After drinking it, I'd always meant to try more of their beers. J, who's made it his mission to try as many breweries up and down the West Coast as possible, was unsurprisingly amenable to the idea.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. Outdoor Seating

J was in charge of administering our vast stock of water, a duty he performed admirably. At a base ratio of 1:1 water to wine, with an additional half bottle drunk at the end of each tasting, we were possibly the soberest people within a 5 mile radius by the time we decided to leave the verdant shade of Rusack Winery. (He kept it up all weekend, and I honestly don't think I'd ever been so hydrated in my life.) The drive to Industrial Street took less than ten minutes, perhaps shorter than the amount of time we spent poring over the beer menu and deciding which eight beers to make up our sampler. Wouldn't do to act with undue haste when it comes to important considerations such as these. 

Beer Sampler Buellton

Pros of sharing a beer sampler:
If there's something you're not quite feeling, someone else will gladly drink it for you.

Cons of sharing a beer sampler:
None. Some people think it's having to share, but honestly, if you both really like something, you can always get more of it later. 

As is apparent, we were pretty chuffed with our selection. Even the beers that didn't wow us were still pleasant. It's a special kind of wonderful to drink beer in the place it has been made, lounging on sofa seats and holding your glass up to the late afternoon sun, an act that can turn an ordinary pilsner to molten gold. 

Buellton Beer Brewery Tour

By the time we were halfway through our sampler, we were intrigued enough by what we were drinking to ask if they did any brewery tours. They're not formally scheduled, but David the head brewer was around, and happy to talk us through their creative process. The bottling machine has been shut off for the day, so we were able to actually hear what he had to say as he walked us around the space, which will soon be expanding further (Hooray!). We'd arrived a couple of weeks too early to try their limited edition St Patrick's Day brew, but we did get to catch a glimpse of some of the by-products of the fermentation stage. J helps his neighbor out with home brews, and was therefore quite excited to see that the brewery had a very similar set-up for their own experimental beers, albeit on a slightly larger scale. 

Everyone here seems to be called Jim/James

I'm not one to adulterate my beers normally, but they had a beer float pairing one of their Imperial Stouts with mint chocolate chip ice cream that sounded like absolute fun. I wouldn't advise drinking it on the regular, but it was a great accompaniment to the three quick rounds of Cornhole (Bean Bag Toss!) that we played with a couple of brewery regulars. My aim's usually terrible, but beer helps somehow, so I acquitted myself quite nicely. We learned a few tricks that those frequenting Fig Mountain Brew Co. absorb by osmosis, including one definitely not sanctioned by the brewing team. The Highway 101 Kolsch can be a bit bland on its own, and Lizard's Mouth tends to be too hoppy for the casual drinker, but mix the two, and the resulting Roadkill blend is apparently to die for, especially on sultry summer evenings. Now you know. 

Buellton Fig Mountain Bre Co.

We moved over to another spot for dinner, lured by the promise of happy hour food and drinks. It turned out that we were just on the cusp of it, which led me scrambling to assemble enough glasses to pour out all the wine samplers I wanted before the prices jumped. J found it hilarious, while I was just glad I didn't accidentally shatter anything in my rush across the wall of enomatic machines. We feasted on the fanciest Mac N Cheese I've ever tasted (And S makes really good Mac N Cheese), and Yuppie Crack, individual bites of goat cheese stuffed dates, wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, drizzled over with a sweet balsamic reduction, which totally lived up to its name. 

Terravant Happy Hour Menu Yuppie Crack

We opted to go for a walk after dinner to explore the outskirts of Solvang, and wound up standing over a meadow where a group of deer had assembled. When I was a little under two years old, my parents took me to Nara Deer Park, where I cheerfully doled out bits of the specially formulated snack biscuits. It made for some wonderful pictures initially (Objectively, I was a very cute child), but what you don't see, and what was indelibly imprinted onto my brain, was when a bunch of rather brazen deer got it into their heads to chase me for said biscuits. I told J this story, and said I wanted to run towards them. 

J: They're wild deer. Wild Deer always run away. And they're way faster than you. 
Me: Did I say run towards them? I meant charge and make them scatter in panic. 

I'd interrupted his near segue into insurance and the perils of running a deer over with a car, but J was kind enough to charge at the herd with me, and as we sped down the hill, every last one of them loped off into parts unknown. The meadow was ours, and I exulted in my vengeance. We settled down to watch the sun set over the (nearby? far away? - we weren't inclined to fish out our phones to check) mountain before us, excited for the rest of the weekend. 

A + J in Wine Country

Californian Wine Country is generally regarded as the region north of San Francisco, but for cash-strapped students short on time and based in Los Angeles, there are alternative pilgrimages to be found. J & I decided we'd go away the weekend between our respective Spring Breaks, someplace with good food and good drink and good scenery, and I realized I knew just the place. I'd watched Sideways on a flight over a decade ago, and while the finer plot points faded away to hazy memory, 'Pinot Noir' and 'Solvang' stubbornly stuck around. We'd have to brave the horror that is Friday traffic in LA to get there, but the pain would be over in under three hours, no big deal. 

Pacific Coast Highway Flora

The only other hiccup was finding a place to stay. Even the motel prices were outrageous that weekend, and we didn't fancy being out $200 before we even started our bacchanal. Was I alright bunking in the trunk if we folded down the backseat and layered the whole thing with blankets and pillows? Yes, I said. I'd originally wanted to go camping anyway, and this would make the whole thing seem more like an adventure. So, off we went.

Cruising down California

I hadn't realized how acclimatized I'd become to the smog of LA until we rolled the windows down and I breathed in the sea air two hours out of Downtown. My room in LA faces an indoor courtyard, and managed to be even darker than the shoe box I called home in Euston, so the endless clear blue sky and the feeling of warm sunshine overhead that morning basically had the same effect on me as that first glorious Spring day did in London. 

Los Padres National Park vista

Even before we'd had a single sip of wine, I was already bubbling over with joy, delirious on life. It was probably just my body recovering from a serious lack of Vitamin D, but then it felt like some strange alchemy was at work, making everything feel extra magical. 

Highway 101

The journey itself took us past some amazing vistas, and it felt like such a shame to speed past it entirely. I'd sketched out a rough plan for the weekend, but we really weren't in any hurry, so J indulged my whims, pulling over whenever it was safe to do so, just so we could hop out and admire the views, usually so fleeting when caught through a window. 

California Forests

Our route there was somewhat more circuitous but definitely more scenic, departing the stunning Pacific Coast Highway only to thread through Los Padres National Forest and past Cachuma Lake. There was a walking path down to the water that we debated taking, J noting he could always throw me over his shoulder if I didn't feel like hiking, but in the end, we were thirstier for wine than a closer glimpse of the water. 

Cachuma Lake

Our first winery was a little past Solvang itself, almost smack in the middle of the road leading out of the town towards Buellton. This early on a Friday, we were the only people doing the wine tasting at Shoestring Winery, and had all the attention of Danah, who talked us through everything we drank at length. The tasting room is also where many of their barrels are kept for aging, so it was freezing compared to the warm day outside. The option of sipping our wine out on the patio was given to us, but Danah was such fun to talk to that we stayed inside. 

Wine Tasting Shoestring

Much of our conversation revolved around the best things to eat in town. Danah, an avowed foodie, allowed us to pick her brain for the best in local dining, and every single one of her suggestions was completely on point. She also encouraged us to try some of the winery's own snack offerings, including a bacon jam that J felt was genius, and some homemade chocolate wafers that paired well with their Merlot. All of us concurred that if more churches provided this particular combination of wine and wafer, people would turn up in droves for Holy Communion. 

Wafer and Wine

Later on, we realized that starting with a winery where we found their different bottles consistently excellent was probably why we weren't wowed as much by our subsequent tastings. Still, it probably saved us from excessive and impulsive buys. Was it as good as that Shoestring bottle? became a pretty consistent question we asked ourselves. We did all our shopping on our final day so none of our bottles would languish in the car, and planned to hit up Shoestring last for symmetry. We rocked up 20 minutes before Google said they were due to close Sunday, but the gate was already shut, and we had to go back without that last wine we wanted to get. It was the biggest tragedy of our trip.

Nature conspired to give us a memorable weekend, so on our way up to Rusack, we caught a small bird of prey taking off from a power line. We were suitably awed by how majestic it looked. 

I'd read about Rusack Winery's patio bring one of the loveliest picnic spots in Solvang, so that was where I decided we would lunch. Picnic in tow, we skipped in, only to realize a large swathe of the outdoor seating area, patio included, was under construction. The tables and chairs had been moved onto a nice patch of green though, and the rolling hills were as verdant as advertised, so it was still a very pleasant spot to feast on all the food we'd brought along with us. The construction work turned into a little side show, and in between bites we went over to look at how the cement was being poured in. 

What wine should you pair with fried buttermilk chicken? In the absence of proper guidance, we tried it with everything so we could make an informed decision. Surprisingly, the reds were a better match. The plump, juicy strawberries I picked up from the school's Farmers' Market on the other hand, went particularly well with the rose. J felt that the setting was perfect for a mid-day nap, and nodded off almost immediately. I amused myself by looking at the world through a rose tinted glass while he dozed. If I stole little sips of J's wine while he was unconscious, well, it was only natural. 

Tilting my face toward the sun, I came face to face with the tree canopy. As I admired the pleasing way the branches reach out, and the glittering green leaves rustling, J stirred. I pointed up to show him the view, and the both of us just sat there, heads back, taking it all in.