Back in 1968, a 21-year-old Rick Stein visited California and Mexico as part of a two-year round-the-world trip. It’s still the most memorable part of his life, he says, and it changed the way that he thought about food for ever. This year, he went back to retrace the journey for BBC Two, and discovered new culinary wonders in both countries.
Some other things were different this time round, too. In the Sixties, he was hard-up, thumbing rides and travelling by Greyhound Bus. This time, for the California leg, he hired a Mustang convertible, and drove down the Pacific Highway with the top down. “The countryside in California is so fabulous,” he says. “I was listening to The Doors because it reminded me of ’68, but also Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness – ‘Cruisin’ down the coast, goin’ about 99’.” Chris to add something reassuring here about current wildfires..
For the series he returned to some of the locations he’d visited earlier, such as the one-time epicentre of the hippy movement, Haight Ashbury, in San Francisco. Had he taken an LSD trip back then? “No, I was too scared,” he laughs, “I did end up smoking joints but acid, no way.”
In fact, he had set out on his original trip in the years after his father had deliberately jumped to his death from cliffs in Cornwall, when Stein was just 17. “When I left England and did that trip, I wasn’t even aware why I was doing it,” he says. “My dad had died, I was depressed, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it was only later when I looked back on it that I realised I was running away from a really difficult situation.”
A life-changing moment awaited in Monterrey, Mexico, when he tasted pork tacos with lime and chilli sauce for the first time. “I had never tasted anything so vivid, so demanding, so exciting,” he writes in the book that accompanies the series. Food had been enormously important throughout the trip, he recalls, because trying not to spend money meant that he was always hungry. He remembers being in Acapulco longing to eat the grilled red snapper with salad and salsa that rich American tourists were enjoying.
This time, he was able to experience the famous clam chowder in Pismo Beach; the Pacific alternative to Dover sole – sanddab – in Monterey; and even visit the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, one of the birthplaces of California Cuisine, where, in 1971, Alice Waters began an ever-more influential food movement by insisting on cooking only with fresh, local ingredients. It’s a philosophy that seems obvious now, Stein says, but it wasn’t at the time.
He was forced to confront some of his prejudices about “food faddishness” in California, too, such as gluten-free food. “As a restaurateur, I have been a bit intolerant of gluten intolerance,” he admits. “But there, they take on board people’s health requirements without ever blinking an eye. And they’ve still got time to do some brilliant food and wine. It really changed my attitude.”
He explored both sides of Californian attitudes to food: their respect for tradition and willingness to experiment wildly. He delved into the importance of sourdough bread to the state, which goes back to the Gold Rush days of the late 19th century. But then there were the food trucks in LA, which, he says, “do the most outrageous things with people’s cuisines.
“We filmed at one called Kogi that was parked outside (cable channel) HBO’s headquarters. It served a mixture of Korean and Mexican food, such as slow-cooked Mexican carnitas – pork simmered in lard until it’s falling apart then shredded – which they served in a bun with kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables). I loved it, and so did all the other customers.”
Perhaps inevitably, he also tasted the seafood riches of the Pacific coast. “I went to a warehouse in San Diego run by a guy called Tommy Gomes, whose family have been fishermen for generations. They only buy conservation-friendly fish, such as the opah, or moonfish, which lives on the surface. It’s a round fish, half a metre across. Tommy’s thing is ‘don’t waste any part of the fish’ – people throw away heads and bits they don’t think you can eat. He took the pectoral muscle, which is as big as your hand, chopped it up and made the equivalent of chilli con carne with it.”
In Mexico, too, Stein found dishes that he already knows he can introduce to his seafood restaurants. “I suppose I nick people’s dishes, and bring ’em back to England,” he laughs. He adds, more seriously. “Travel is terribly important for broadening the way we taste and experience food. I’m just so lucky to be able to do it.”
Rick’s California food choices
I would really recommend you go to Martin Yan’s Chinese restaurant M.Y. China in San Francisco. He did these seafood dumplings… god they were good. You can book ahead at tastemychina.com
The Boat Oyster Bar at Hog Island Oyster Farm near Petaluma is on a little bay looking out over a very nice estuary. The oysters there are fabulous. Make a reservation at hogislandoysters.com
If you can get into Chez Panisse in Berkeley, you’ve got to go there. Founder Alice Waters is one of my food heroes. The dishes there are a reminder of the importance of fresh daily produce. Reservations can be made one month in advance at chezpanisse.com.
Rick Stein’s Road to Mexico is on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 9pm
Rick Stein: The Road to Mexico is published by BBC Books. To order for £22 inc p&p, call 0344 245 8092 quoting RTBOOKS46
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