I wanted to dispel the myth that America is just hotdogs, pretzels and burgers. It has some of the greatest food and best restaurants in the world and its culinary scene has had the same sort of rapid growth as the UK’s. It’s gone crazy.
You’re a petrolhead. Did you travel in style?
I did Napa Valley on a Harley-Davidson; LA in a 1959 Porsche Speedster; Texas in a massive pickup truck; Louisiana in a Mustang convertible and a Pontiac; and New England in a Corvette. And on the final day, the crew were nice to me and organised an Aston Martin for New York. The pickup truck was the one I most wanted to take home. Mind you, I couldn’t afford to fill it up over here.
Which coast wins in the food stakes – the east or west?
New York has it all, but I would say California has the best restaurants. We started in San Francisco and headed north to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which are famous for their beautiful vineyards but also have lovely towns with amazing hotels and restaurants.
The French Laundry in Yountville is the best restaurant I’ve ever been to. It’s run by Thomas Keller, who’s the only US chef to have two Michelin three-star restaurants. We also went to an incredible new place called Single Thread in Healdsburg, which has the most beautiful dining room and is already the most talked-about restaurant in America.
You blend your own wine in episode one…
Yeah, at Raymond Vineyards, which is owned by an eccentric gentleman who owns vineyards around the world. You’ve got to get dressed up as a spaceman for some reason – maybe the crew were taking the mickey out of me – then you blend your own wine and put your unique label on it. And when you get back to the UK, you can phone them up and order more.
Was yours any good?
I don’t know… it’s still on my shelf!
As well as dining out, you learn about the history of famous dishes and foodstuffs. What was your favourite discovery?
Avery Island. Who would have thought Tabasco comes from an island in the middle of a swamp just outside Louisiana? No one really wanted this land, so a guy decided to farm chillies on it and realised there was a salt mine underneath. He mixed the chillies and salt together, fermented the mash in old bourbon barrels for three years, added vinegar – and that’s Tabasco.
Where would you revisit for a real holiday?
Middle America. I’d never been there before and I’m definitely going back. Austin in Texas is one of the best cities I’ve been to – so clean and green, the people are fantastic and slightly wacky, which is what you want.
And the food?
Texan food isn’t sophisticated, but the barbecue is. If you want to taste proper smoked brisket, you’ve got to go to Angelo’s barbecue pit in Fort Worth. It’s been there nearly 80 years and they put two and a half thousand pounds of meat through their smokers. That’s the equivalent of 5,000 steaks every day. The beer arrives in a frozen, ice-cold glass. It’s amazing.
Line dancing at Billy Bob’s – it’s the biggest honky-tonk in the world. They do everything from bull riding to armadillo racing to music. There were about 2,000 people line-dancing and I was at the front. It was surreal.
Did you look the part?
You’ve got to. You stick out like a sore thumb in European jeans and shoes, so I got kitted out in Allens Boots. Even businessmen go around in suits and cowboy boots. I brought the Stetson back home, but haven’t worn it around Hampshire yet.
James Martin’s American Adventure is on weekdays, Monday to Friday, 2pm