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Tastes of love: A culmination of nibbles, noshes, and knowledge from an overstuffed 2015 

How many bites in 12 months? 

How many chews in 52 weeks? 

How many individual flavors come together to culminate in The Best Thing You Ate All Year? 

Over 2015, I savored at least 1,095 meals (not including snacks), reviewed more than 100 drinks, and interviewed more than 80 chefs, winemakers, restaurateurs, and farmers. 

I’ve swished hard cider through my teeth, held slimy kombucha culture in my bare hands, and traversed fields of heirloom tomatoes, garlic, and kale. I’ve fried goose eggs and slurped acai. I’ve seen week-old sheep frolicking through the vineyard, thick swarms of bees, and more chickens than I can count. I’ve crushed countless flora in my hands—lavender, lemon verbena, rosemary—just to take a long hard whiff of that strong, sumptuous perfume.

If I could preserve a slice of each experience forever, I would. I could then open the jar and enjoy its warm contents, not unlike popping open a Mason jar of juicy peaches on a cold winter night. 

This retrospective will have to do. So, I invite you to put something meaty in the oven, cuddle up with a lazy dog, and open up wide. This is what we in the biz call a “flavor bomb.”

Green dreams

click to enlarge SPOON IT ON :  Comfort meets creativity at Grover Beach’s The Spoon Trade. Thomas’ favorite part of the interview? Digging into fresh made sourdough bread smothered in butter. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • SPOON IT ON : Comfort meets creativity at Grover Beach’s The Spoon Trade. Thomas’ favorite part of the interview? Digging into fresh made sourdough bread smothered in butter.

Shocking but true: One of the best snacks I had all year probably took less than five minutes to make. When I think about dunking a salty tortilla chip into Bob Criswell’s fresh kiwi and tomatillo salsa, my mouth still waters. Known by farmers’ market patrons as simply “Kiwi Bob,” Criswell produces 65,000 pounds of kiwifruit on his 10-acre Nipomo farm, and it may very well be the Central Coast’s best kept secret. Not into kiwi? Try the salsa and get back to me. Combine jalapeno, kiwi, tomatillo, lime juice, and salt. You will become a fan.

The takeaway: Sometimes the exotic is hanging in plain sight. Kiwi season usually runs through March, so look for Criswell’s sweet, tangy fruit at four different farmers’ markets from SLO to Goleta—before it’s too late (mallardlakeranch.com)!

click to enlarge APPLE OF YOUR MOUTH:  Made in Cayucos by local boys, it made perfect sense that these frosty bottles of Reef Points Kid Neptune hard cider would be enjoyed at the inspiration’s source. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • APPLE OF YOUR MOUTH: Made in Cayucos by local boys, it made perfect sense that these frosty bottles of Reef Points Kid Neptune hard cider would be enjoyed at the inspiration’s source.

This little piggie

I ate a lot of pork last year, including my first-ever Jocko’s pork plate and a slice of melt-in-your-mouth Coca-Cola braised pork belly, courtesy of Thomas Hill Organics. Now, when I look at pork, I no longer see a cut of meat. Thanks to a FARMstead ED Heritage Pork class I took at J&R Natural Meats in Paso Robles last June, I now see the whole animal—hoof, snout, and tail. Watching the professionals at J&R Meats carve a whole hog before my eyes was life changing, providing years of missing context within moments. I invite all meat eaters to tour a mobile harvest unit and to poke their nose inside J&R Meats, where you can also procure freshly made local sausages.

The takeaway: Local pork is all around you, if you know where to look. Pork butter is a real thing and is as decadent as it sounds. Always look for rosy-hued cuts of meat—a telltale sign you’re getting true heritage pork. Never underestimate the transformative power of an expertly wielded bone saw (jrmeats.com).

Cluck yeah

Turns out, 2015 was the year I resolved to stop dealing with sketchy chicken people on craigslist. Seriously. Don’t be like me and end up with one chicken that turns out to be a rooster and another that would rather eat nails than lay an egg. Touring Jeremy and Megan Raff’s 40-acre homestead west of Lompoc last May, I was struck by how good a bird can have it. At Dare 2 Dream Farms, reserved chicks and pullets are housed in a clean, spacious barn until you can pick them up or they are delivered to you (health and sex is guaranteed). Meanwhile, the Raff’s laying hens happily free-range on grasses, bugs, and seeds.

The takeaway: Just say no to the crazy chicken lady. Take a page from the Raffs (and the folks at Niner Wine Estates) and get yourself a mobile chicken tractor, too. It’s good for the land and good for the eggs, and that’s very, very good for you (dare2dreamfarms.com).

Merroir of Morro Bay

click to enlarge AQUA ADVENTURE:  This sumptuous, salty oyster was thoroughly enjoyed on a dock in the middle of Morro Bay estuary last summer, courtesy of Morro Bay Oyster Company owner Neal Maloney. - PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
  • PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
  • AQUA ADVENTURE: This sumptuous, salty oyster was thoroughly enjoyed on a dock in the middle of Morro Bay estuary last summer, courtesy of Morro Bay Oyster Company owner Neal Maloney.

Last June, I learned that Morro Bay Estuary holds a secret: Life thrives on the seemingly barren mud flats. Under shallow water, clams, worms, shrimp, and about a million oysters stir. I am lucky enough to have come face to face with a few fine morsels (fresh from the sea is the only way to go). During a boat ride with Morro Bay Oyster Company’s Neal Maloney, I learned just how special our local Morro Bay oysters are—that there is a “merroir” of the bay, just as there is a terroir of the vineyard. Sounds “romantic” and slightly woo woo, but it’s totally true.

The takeaway: Thanks to freshwater aquifers and minerals in the water, this “sense of place” translates into a sweeter meat unique to Morro Bay waters. If you haven’t yet tried these glistening beauties, make it a resolution to do so. Unsure about how to shuck correctly? Consult YouTube first (morrobayoysters.com).

Other 2015 moments that stuck to my ribs: 

click to enlarge REPORTER IN THE FIELD:  Over the past year, New Times Flavor writer Hayley Thomas has traveled across the county in search of epicurean adventure. She found a few sheepish friends at Adelaida Winery in Paso Robles last spring. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • REPORTER IN THE FIELD: Over the past year, New Times Flavor writer Hayley Thomas has traveled across the county in search of epicurean adventure. She found a few sheepish friends at Adelaida Winery in Paso Robles last spring.

Sipping Reef Points Hard Cider on the sand in Cayucos with former New Times photographer Kaori Funahashi; devouring succulent black-tea-brined rotisserie chicken at The Hatch in Paso Robles; watching in amazement as my husband finished a boot of Konig Pilsener at Beda’s Biergarten; noshing on freshly made sourdough at Spoon Trade in Grover Beach; watching hard cider being made at Atascadero’s Bristols Hard Cider and trying the most delicious scrumpy glass imbued with hot pink beet juice; spending hours at The Secret Garden Tea and Herb Shop at 740 Higuera St. in SLO discussing the magic properties of teas and spices; Chef Chris Kobayashi’s citrusy Thai salad at Templeton’s Kitchenette—a meal that unfolds with layers of unexpected textures; interviewing the sun-kissed Betsi Clark about her healthy Grrrnola on a warm afternoon on a bench in SLO’s community garden; hanging out in the Spoon and Bowl acai truck while blenders whirred; playing pinball at Lincoln Market in SLO while sipping on Modern Times beer; zip-lining over the pinot noir vineyards at Margarita Adventures with the taste of Santa Margarita-grown wine on my lips; watching the strange sour beer brewing process commence while listening to the Misfits at Libertine Pub in Morro Bay; getting Foremost Wine Company’s ramen burger all over my face during a Thursday SLO Farmers’ Market; frolicking with week-old sheep through Adelaida Vineyards like a child; learning about all things rum at Brigit Binns’ Refugio Kitchen in Paso Robles; and laying my eyes on wheels and wheels of glorious cheese in rural Santa Margarita courtesy of Farmgirl Creamery. 

Is there more where this came from? You bet. 

Hayley Thomas is grateful for the diverse, vibrant, funky, and unforgettable flavors found only on California’s Central Coast. You can send her bright new food and drink ideas for 2016 by emailing her at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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