As the slow food movement continues to grow, so does culinary travel. Culinary travel focuses on the food and drink as well as the chefs, bakers, fishermen and farmers, while ecotourism embraces the more of the ecological side of travel. The World Food Travel Association calls it “food trekking,” and it’s a growing part of the whole farm-to-table dining movement.
Epicurean San Diego Food, Farm and Libation Tours craft foodie experiences customized for travelers eager to get a taste of the local, sustainably-grown or raised, and best San Diego County has to offer. This past winter, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tag along with founder and chief culinary guide, Stephanie Parker, as she took us on a day-long feast of flavors paired perfectly with the cast of characters, like a sushi chef who’s also a surfer. This photo essay offers a taste of what might be on your tour.
“People see an alternative side of San Diego on our tours that you wouldn’t just be able to Google,” shares Stephanie Parker, owner of Epicurean San Diego which she launched in 2015 with a mission of cooking up awareness of the area’s food artisans through creating the ultimate foodie experience. “A lot of the places we bring folks to are not open to the public, so the only way they can see them is through us.”
You can’t get more authentic than a coffee and a croissant at Lofty Coffee Company in Encinitas, up the coast from San Diego. With the coffees roasted on site and every baked item made from scratch in house, the bright, bustling Lofty Coffee coffee house and bakery was the perfect start to our Epicurean San Diego Tour. From hand-crafting their own almond milk for their smooth and creamy Lattes to knowing where every coffee bean comes from, this place is steeped in authentic sustainability.
“The reason we partner with Lofty, as with all our tour partners, is that our ethos, model and mission all align,” explains Parker, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire San Diego County area. “We all have a vision for a more sustainable future, from the ingredients we use to our overall business model.” Parker also serves as the Ark of Taste Chair and Board Farm Liaison for Slow Food Urban San Diego.
Urban Agriculture at Cyclops Farm
Just up the coast, in Oceanside, is Cyclops Farm, meticulously laid out on just over two acres, surrounded by residential homes. The tidy urban farm, owned by Luke Girling, is an oasis of edible bounty amidst stereotypical suburbia. His overflowing energy enables him to run the operation without regular paid staff. Cyclops Farm’s farmstand accounts for the majority of his sales, satisfying a hunger for fresh and seasonal ingredients by his neighbors. The rest of his produce goes to restaurants.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get work done with so many people stopping by to chat,” laughs Girling. “But that’s what I signed up for, being where I am and having a farm stand out front.”
“If you really want to make a change, you need to go back to where you know people and have roots,” Girling adds. Like Parker, Girling believes in creating connections and conversations around food. He grew up in this beachside town and now operates his certified organic farm based in the heart of a residential neighborhood, serving as that needed portal to connect his community with a fresh, local food source.
“It’s a Kiwano melon,” explains Girling as we walk the farm. He turns our tour into a tasting as he cuts up samples, careful not to get the prickly orange spines stuck in his bare hands. “They’re kind of a cross between a cucumber and banana, eh?”
We taste the seedy and sour fruit. Definitely different, memorable. That sums up the underlying refrain throughout our day with Parker as we dig deep into local food stories and flavors. Epicurean San Diego Tours offers several regular tours to the general public, such as the “North County” we took part in. The tours typically last about five hours and involve three to five stops with lots of time for sampling and asking questions.
Urban farms are big in San Diego, in part as a result of the high cost of land and nearly idyllic, year-round and sunny Mediterranean growing climate. According to the County of San Diego’s 2014 Crop Report, San Diego County has 5,732 farms, more than any other county in the United States. 68% of San Diego County farms are 1-9 acres. Interestingly, nearly 19% of farms in San Diego County are operated by women, reflecting the national trend captured in Soil Sisters.
“We pick all the stops on our tour route so guests can see the connection in everything,” explains Parker. “For example, Luke at Cyclops Farm and Chef Davin Waite at the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub have an awesome partnership where Chef Davin will call Luke and say he wants everything that’s ugly, crazy, or that’s not going to sell elsewhere and he will take it and make something beautiful out of it.”
“The chefs know where my knives and clippers are,” explains Girling as he harvests fresh greens for Chef Davin. “They just stop by, get what they need and pay me.” A model for cooperatively changing our food system indeed.
The lean, tanned and tattooed Chef Davin Waite looks like he belongs on a surfboard catching waves. But Bill Murray isn’t the only celeb to go out of their way to pull up a chair at his unpretentious sushi restaurant with its refrigerated case jam-packed with some of the freshest, most-sustainably caught local fish you’ll ever get to try, prepared meticulously and artistically by Chef Davin. Here in Oceanside, at the Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, you’ll get a taste of sushi as if the chef himself was trolling the waves as he surfed. Might as well, since he selects the fish from local fisherman, divers or from Catalina Offshore Products.
“I love a surprise bag,” exclaims Chef Davin. He gleefully peers into the bag of produce Farmer Luke just sent over from Cyclops Farm. Chef Davin uses the nasturtium leaves in the bag for a salad base, keeping to his theme of no waste and using everything up, a philosophy he was raised under in England from his dad who grew up frugal and resourceful after World War II.
“The whole thing is more of an art project,” explains Chef Davin as he artistically hand-crafts each plate, embracing elements the average chef would throw away. At Wrench & Rodent, beet stems transform into relish and tangerine peels get turned into a flavorful oil. Playing with food, he calls it. It appeared more like a masterpiece on our plate.
“We focus on local fish from within 250 miles,” adds Chef Davin. “There’s a tremendous new wave of second generation fish farmers that are really trying to do it right and sustainably who I want to support.” His menu changes daily based on the fresh catch of the day, from a buttery and mild Japanese yellowtail to wahoo paired with a smoky apricot sauce.
“It’s all about luring people in through their eyes, taste buds and stomachs,” adds Parker with a grin. Count us in with this curriculum, as we sample more sushi. As deep-rooted rural Midwesterners, we admit that prior to this outing our sushi encounters were limited and not that interesting or spectacularly tasty. Chef Davin converted us to evangelical sushi fans.
You’ll drink at the source when you visit the new tasting room at Golden Coast Mead, also in Oceanside. Sampling takes place amidst the buzzing production activity of this hip urban meadery. Mead may be all the rage, but its roots go back thousands of years, a tradition the folks at Golden Coast Mead want to build on and connect with while having fun. “Gandalf Drank Mead. So Can You” proclaims t-shirts for sale.
Most of their San Diego style meads are made with an ale yeast, leading to the more sour or tart flavors. They’re complex, balanced and unique. The carbonation evens out any sharpness for a smooth and refreshing experience, or as the brewers themselves call it, “Sunshine in a Glass.”
Our first taste, their flagship Orange Blossom, proved the most pleasing to our personal palate, with its California-sourced citrus flavor and bouquet. Next, we sampled zesty Cali Oak, blending essences of wildflower honey and oak, followed by Gruit, made with clover honey, heather, yarrow, mugwort and lemongrass. We finished our flight with Spiced Clover, made with clover honey paired with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla.
Naturally, we were in a happy state after our tasting at Golden Coast Mead, with many of their meads 12-percent alcohol by volume. Happy to leave the driving to Parker, who whisked us back to San Diego, expertly navigating rush hour traffic while sharing more food stories to be had on other tours. Her company also hosts a variety of pop-up on-farm dinners throughout the year, providing ringside viewing and tasting as you dine amidst the growing fields from which the bounty on your plate came.
“Even I learn something new on every tour. Someone says something I didn’t know and I just think that’s awesome.” We couldn’t agree more as our end the day with full bellies, nourished hearts and minds, savoring the flavors of San Diego.-------
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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