Mercurynews.com: May 2, 2014
I’ve never been a fan of head lettuce. Baby greens are more my style. But when I tasted that crisp wedge of iceberg, chilled to perfection and drizzled with Green Goddess dressing, I found salad utopia.
An epiphany like this — albeit an edible one — comes naturally when you’re in the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the agricultural region known as the Salinas Valley.
It’s been 75 years since John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes Of Wrath,” and this rich vein of farmland between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges still grows 80 percent of the lettuce for the United States and Canada.
The trip is a sensual awakening, if not a spiritual one. It takes you back to the land, to a cluster of small agricultural towns working in tandem with nature.
Start by booking a room near the historic downtown of Salinas. There are a number of clean, modestly priced inns within walking distance of restaurants that wrote not just the book — but the cookbook on farm to fork.
Give yourself at least two hours to see the National Steinbeck Center. Follow the path of migrant workers who’ve been coming to this promised land since the late 1800s. Reacquaint yourself with Steinbeck’s novels, each with its own interactive corner of the museum. In time, you’ll get hungry and can choose one of several Old Town Salinas cafes or a favorite local dinner spot — The Grower’s Pub.
The next morning, head straight to the source with an Ag Venture Tour of the Salinas Valley led by University of California agricultural scientist Evan Oakes. The launch point is Pezzini Farms, where baby artichokes — in season — go for 10 for $1.
Oakes drives you down dusty farm roads, pointing out barns and machinery and crops and historic landmarks. Off in the distance, you may see a strange hovercraft sweeping a field of delicate greens. It’s not a spaceship, but a $250,000 harvester for baby lettuce. Farm hands work alongside, sorting and packing the greens for restaurants and market. More than 40 different crops are grown in this valley and you’ll learn a lot in this three-hour tour.
Later that day, drive west to the ridgeline overlooking the valley. This is wine country, now, on a quaint River Road that used to connect dairy farms. The beauty of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is its sweeping views, cooler temperatures and small tasting rooms where you’ll often see grower and vintners pouring their pinot and other varietals.
And that’s the real story of the Salinas Valley. Looking out over vast fields of green, you are at the epicenter of what you drink and eat. Whether it’s wine or a crisp wedge of iceberg with Green Goddess dressing, Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is a heavenly treat.
Salinas Valley farm tours are at http://www.agventuretours.com.
Learn more about the National Steinbeck Center at http://www.steinbeck.org/.
For more on Salinas and the surrounding area, go to http://www.destinationsalinas.com/.