Not much can get me out of bed on a Saturday morning. Excepting those dismal weekends where I have to get up for work, usually the only thing that can lure me from under the covers is the promise of a bacon sandwich and endless cuppas. Our final Saturday in the States was somewhat different; today was the day for our long awaited trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
After a stroll along the Embarcadero, basking in the morning sunshine, we spotted the throngs of people and rows of stalls selling local fresh fruit and veg outside the ferry building. CUESA (the centre for urban education about sustainable agriculture), who run the market, have a stall offering helpful advice, including what's in season, and even have maps available to help guide you around, so you don't miss any of the good stuff.
Map in hand we started our self-guided tour outside the main entrance; California is a produce powerhouse, growing nearly half US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Here we saw, amongst other things, bunches of multicoloured carrots, crates of plump strawberries and piles of still dewey herbs and salads, picked that very morning. The quench our thirst we drank freshly squeezed blood orange juice and blueberry limeade. While the Ewing bought some giant, sweet grapefruit, to be abandoned later, uneaten, in the hotel room due to lack of suitable eating implements.
I find it hard to have favourites when it comes to food, usually it's whatever I'm stuffing in my mouth at that particular moment, but I (think) I can definitely say cherries are my favourite fruit. For a start they are one of the few truly seasonal foods While you may be able to get imported ones from somewhere outside high summer, they taste so so inferior and are so expensive it really isn't worth the trouble. Secondly they are jolly good fun. Who isn't instantly cheered at the sight of a bowl of ripe cherries? When my sister and I were young there was nothing more fun than picking through a brown paper bag full of the ripe fruit, hooking any 'doubles' over our ears like over sized earrings.
These cherries were both local and massive. I can't remember if they were particularly cheap (probably not) but they were very good value, providing plenty of entertainment as we munched our way through a pile, while sat in the sun at the end of the Ferry Plaza pier.
Outside the back of the Ferry Plaza was just as bustling, with yet more stalls and many happily munching patrons out enjoying the beautiful morning. As well as produce there is also freshly prepared food and drinks here on the pier, coming from both from outdoor concessions of the static retailers inside and producers who are just here for market days.
The first 'must' stop on my self-guided face-stuffing circuit was for brunch at 4050 meats, and, more particularly, to get a big bag of their famous chicharrones. I didn't get around to eating these until a couple of days later, and with all the other food I consumed at the market this turned out to be no bad thing.
These were quite unlike both our British scratchings, with their layers crispy rind, soft fat and tufts of hair; or American pork rinds, which are light, crunchy and brittle. Instead these snacks resembled mis-shapen quavers, and dissolved on the tongue in rather the same way. The difference between these and the maize-based cheese snacks being that the chicarrones melted and 'fizzed' to leave a rich, lard-like coating, flavoured with sugar, salt and spice, in the mouth.
While these may not be to everyone's taste, and even I found the richness meant half a small bag in one go was plenty, they are perfect for poricine aficionados. I can't imagine there would be much better accompaniment to a cold glass of Anchor Steam Beer on a warm evening.
Thanks to the magic of Twitter, as soon as I had woken up in my motel room that morning, a mere half a mile away from the Ferry Building, I had seen 4050 Meats had posted pictures of the day's menu board. I had already decided: A fried chicken Yum Yum would soon be mine.
The picture above cannot do justice to one of the best things I ate during our whole three week trip. It really was that incredible. A piece of impossibly juicy chicken had been coated in crushed chicarrones (yes, that's right, it already sounds awesome), before being fried and topped with crunchy slaw, fava leaf aioli and jalapenos. The Ewing's version ditched the slaw for a perfectly cooked fried egg, that gently oozed its golden load all over the gently toasted Acme bun as she bit into it.
The Hog Island Oyster Co. has a restaurant at the Ferry Plaza, but also has a stand outside on market day. Their oysters are mostly grown locally, 40 miles north of SF at Tomales Bay. While you can get baked oysters, chowders and grilled cheese sandwiches at their bar, outside it's just the oysters of the day, on ice with a slice.
The Ewing with her collection of bivalves. There were two each of the three varieties here, although I'm dammed if either of us can remember what they were (I think one was the Hog Island Sweetwater, and possibly a Peter Point, too?) As mentioned before I'm not the biggest fan of 'sea snot' but I manfully gulped the smallest one down. It was actually rather pleasant, although that may have been more the picturesque setting, or the midday sun going to my head.
Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke Salmon, home of the smoked salmon 'Swim Jims'. These were a fishy take on the more common meaty brethren and made a very good snack; sweet, smoky and nicely spiced, like a kind of fishy sweet (although far nicer than that may sound). It was my great regret we couldn't pick up some of their San Francisco style lox, but with no fridge at the motel, and a belly full of Yum Yum, we had to pass on by until the next time.
Cow Girl Creamery, another well know Ferry Market institution. The very friendly lady manning their small stall outside was very happy to let us sample the wares, including a milky, yet surprisingly flavoursome Mt. Tam triple cream and St Pat spring to summer hard cheese, wrapped in nettle leaves.
The Red Hawk is their take on a European washed rind cheese. This had been washed in salt water, and had gained a pleasing, meaty pungency, without being nearly as overpowering as the Epoisses and Muensters found across the pond. The Lady at the counter explained that the Europeans tended to be the biggest fans of the Red Hawk, and it was our favourite too. The chunk we bought would later be enjoyed in an Acme bread sandwich, with a slice of good Mortadella and a glass of red.
Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts. This did exactly what it said on the tin. As well as selling house made salamis (you can see them hanging up to dry in cabinets around the shop), choritzo, sausages and other charcuterie, they also make a variety of sandwiches to eat either perched at the counter, or wrapped up for takeaway.
Sadly I didn't rate my changes of getting a piece of their jellied head cheese, blood pudding, or a bag chiccioli (pressed pig fat and skin) home in one piece, but I did pick up a brown sugar fennel salami for the suitcase. They also sell mortadella dogs. Another reason, if any more were needed, to get myself back on a plane heading Stateside pronto.
The infamous Bocclaone 'meat cone'. This came with a preselected variety of meats (you can pick your own for a buck extra), including a pistachio-studded mortadella and some slices of very good salami. I also had a chance to sample some of their house made n'duja while waiting at the counter; rich and smooth with a fearsome chilli kick.
Acme bread, one of the proponents of the Bay Area 'bread revolution', leading to the rise of artisan bread across America. Although you'll find their bread cropping up everywhere, from restaurants to corner shops, only here and in their original Berkeley (whole-sale only) home will you find their full range of baked goods.
Between us we tried the alleterative Rye Raisin Rabbit (perfect with the Red Hawk cheese), levain rolls and a sour baguette. Good bread is my desert island dish, and I would be more than happy to be castaway with nothing but a bag of their buns for company.
The Mietta bakery. I wasn't originally planning to stop for cakes at all, but, while stood in the queue for a Blue Bottle Coffee, my willpower melted like the ice cream sandwiches people were chomping in the doorway. I had to go in.
It's sometimes easy to overdose on tweeness, loosing sight of the reason we loved these things in the first place, but it turns out Mietta was good call. The Ewing and I had two of the chocolate cupcakes, topped with Italian meringue and jelly beans. These were cute without being style over substance. The meringue (after our trip to Paris one of my current favourite things) was ethereal, the sponge managing the clever trick of being both dense and fluffy.
Another slab of brilliance; Miette Earl Grey ice cream, sandwiched between two chocolate cookies. Tea flavours seem to have a great affinity with dairy (having recently had Earl Grey panna cotta and matcha ice creams that were both quite lovely) and this was no exception. A properly grown up snack, the subtle, citrussy bergamont managing to hold its own against the tea and the bitter chocolate.
Blue Bottle Coffee, the site of our final, and the Ewing's most highly anticipated, stop on our gluttonous tour. We had seen our first branch on the ground floor of the Rockafeller Centre In New York, some three weeks before, but I had insisted we wait until we were on the West Coast for our first taste of the California-based brew. Despite there being many other places around for a cup of joe, the line for Blue Bottle is still the longest in the Ferry Plaza, with people patiently snaking around the market for their caffeine fix.
Blue Bottle are serious coffee purveyors in a serious coffee town. There is a particular interest in brewed coffee, their Mint Plaza branch has the only halogen siphon bar in the States; $20,000 worth of coffee machine imported (with much care) all the way from Japan. While this may all seem overly obsessive and pretentious, Blue Bottle is very far from style over substance. This is simply about getting the very best beans and turning them into the very best beverage.
A row of ceramic drippers stuffed with cones of filter paper, ready for their made-to-order single origin drip coffee. In a world of super duper, triple skinny soy lattes with a flake on top (here the menu is very much pared back, but you can get a mocha made with Tcho chocolate and affagatos made with Humfrey Slocombe ice cream), I decided to get back to basics with one of these.
It was a pretty perfect coffee; normally I far prefer the promise of coffee (the smell of the freshly ground beans, the pomp and circumstance that surround its creation) to the finished product. A mouthful of thick and oily espresso, especially if accompanied with a brandy, is always nice after a big dinner; and a bowlful of cafe latte, with a croissant to dunk, is de rigueur on trips across the Channel, but i usually find I''m just as happy with a mug of PG Tips.
This coffee came with no bells or whistles, it was just a good cup of joe; nicely bittersweet with decent body, and not too rich to be sipping out in the sun. Normally I get bored half way through drinking anything much bigger than a double espresso, but here I was interested to the end. It was good enough for the Ewing to buy her own ceramic dripper, to try and create some of their simple coffee alchemy at home (yes, it's still in the box...).
The Ewing tried a cup of their celebrated cold brewed New Orleans coffee. A mixture of coarsely ground beans, chicory and cold water is allowed to infuse overnight, before being served over a good handful of ice, with a splash of organic Clover milk and sugar if you want it. An ice coffee for grown ups.
The cold brewing means the coffee isn't at all bitter, but keeps a good depth of chicory-coffee flavour that stays nicely balanced against the sweet, creamy milk. Fortunately, for those who can't come every week for their caffeine fix, Blue Bottle have instructions of how to brew your own on the website. And despite the dismal summer so far, the Ewing has had a jug permanently on the go in our kitchen, going some way to bring a small slice of California coffee-tinged sunshine to these shores every morning.