Last weekend, I awoke early on Sunday to make a batch of sourdough pancakes for two. I used a starter that my wife and I received as a gift in 2009 from an outgoing tasting room associate at a Paso Robles winery we visited shortly after moving to California from Baltimore. The associate had run a bake shop in nearby Cambria and had gotten the starter while learning her craft at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, so it had a storied history. We’ve been feeding it ever since. Sourdough pancakes on Sunday thus has become something of a ritual marking our transition to becoming proud residents of the Bear Republic.
Each week, I do something a little different. Sometimes I use fresh strawberries. Or blueberries. Or baking spices. Or dark cocoa. This time, I ground a pinch of Spanish saffron threads into the sugar before adding it to the pancake batter, mixed dark rum into the Vermont syrup warming in a water bath on the stove, and then served the simple breakfast with lavender-scented, vanilla black tea from Mighty Leaf, using a beautiful Bodum art deco metal serving vessel that has been in our family for what seems like forever.
Refueled and ready to go, my wife and I departed for a morning hike at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, just above the city of Palo Alto in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In late summer, the wildflowers for which the location is famous had long since disappeared, so the hike was largely a study in contrasts: deep blue cloudless skies, golden yellow hills of oat grass drying in the heat, and the faded greens and reds of leaves getting ready for the transition to autumn. The hike didn’t last more than two hours, and we weren’t out to set any speed records. It was simply a chance to breathe some fresh, smoke-free air and enjoy a bit of unspoiled nature after a long week of work and busy Saturday of running household errands.
When we got back home to the cottage, I brewed a French press of locally roasted Verve coffee and then located our copy of Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, from which I read a few chapters aloud on the deck while my wife did some knitting. When we come together to meet, Parker writes, there should always be a specific purpose, and that this purpose should be a “disputable” one. Meaning that people have a right to different views and opinions and that these potential disagreements create the texture of the conversation and make the gathering a more memorable one. There should be ample food for thought, in other words. Not just meeting for the sake of meeting out of a sense of obligation or routine.
Reading this aloud made me stop and think. After all: these were words coming from my own mouth. My wife was listening. Did I believe that Parker was correct? What was the purpose of our little Sunday gathering for two, I wondered?
Fortunately, I already knew the answer to that question before it had even been asked. The purpose of today’s gathering was to test drive a newly-discovered Byington wine: a 2014 Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon that I had picked up at the Los Altos tasting room the week earlier. I had selected ingredients on Saturday at our local College of San Mateo farmers’ market with exactly this wine in mind and designed the day to lead up to the meal itself. The morning hike, the reading, the relaxation on the deck: all were stages increasing our anticipation (and appetite) for the wine and food awaiting us.
Once we had made the meal to pair with the wine, of course! So, coffee finished and reading over, my wife and I divided forces. First, I opened the Bates Ranch Cab and decanted it into a Riedel glass carafe so it would have time to breathe, making sure to place it somewhere cool enough to stay near the recommended 65F serving temperature. Then, I started on a dry spice blend for a package of grass-fed local organic beef from the Markegard Family, who raise small herds of cattle along the coasts of San Mateo and Marin Counties using regenerative ranching methods. They sell at various locations around the Bay Area, and most of the meat we buy comes almost exclusively from them.
Using a marble mortar and pestle, I ground together two bay leaves, a dozen juniper berries, a teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón), Redmond Real Salt (an ancient sea salt mined in Utah), and a pinch of ground cloves (from Penzey’s Spices in Wisconsin). Using my hands, I gently folded the fragrant spice mix into the room temperature beef and measured out 8 cigar-shaped, 2 oz. portions with the help of a digital scale. I then started our Weber grill and let it reach 550F before grilling the kofta (a spiced beef dish common in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially Turkey) for about 2.5 minutes a side, using metal tongs to turn them.
Meanwhile, my wife made a batch of organic stone-ground polenta (from Bob’s Red Mill) with Californian olive oil, alderwood smoked salt, and dash of apple cider vinegar. We made a simple salad of baby arugula and basil from Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero, a very popular organic grower of fruits, vegetables, and free-range eggs in the region. We played Vince Guaraldi on the stereo and opened the living room window to enjoy the music from the deck. The Bates Ranch Cab was the star of the show, but the supporting cast played their parts perfectly. We were thrilled that nearly all of our meal had been purchased directly from farmers, ranchers, and winemakers who practice organic, sustainable methods. Even the music was local.
Could we have repeated this experience for a dozen of our closest friends? Or had the same gustatory pleasure by paying top dollar at a really good restaurant? Honestly, I don’t
think so. But that wasn’t why we – my wife and me – gathered last Sunday. The purpose wasn’t to reconnect with old friends or network with new business colleagues. It wasn’t to celebrate a birthday or wedding. It was “us time,” as a couple. A chance to do things together, as a team, using our own skills and relying on foods and wine we had discovered for ourselves. You can’t
really put a price on that. Byington wines are like that. Stop by the winery or Los Altos tasting room soon and discover a new one for yourself! If I’m in, I’ll be happy to help you decide.