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The Evolution of California Cuisine

Specialty Food Magazine
Kristen Wolfe Bieler
November, 2007

From chefs like Alice Waters in the 70s to artisan cheesemakers today, West Coast culinary pros spark national food trends and passions.

In the 1970s when New York chefs held as their benchmark the great restaurants of France, Californians were crafting their own fare free of culinary preconceptions and old world snobbery. These cooking techniques, flavor combinations and ingredient choices rapidly began influencing tastes across the country. Today, California cuisine trends continue to radiate outward, influencing the national palate with exotic ingredients, bold flavors and a progressive sustainable sensibility.

"The abundance of our agriculture has always been the foundation of California cuisine," says Michele Anna Jordan, author of 16 books including California Home Cooking and The New Cook's Tour of Sonoma.

Alice Waters, a name forever linked to California cuisine, popularized the sourcing of fresh ingredients from local artisans, encouraging chefs to spend less time in the kitchen and more time with farmers, butchers and cheesemakers. It's a philosophy that remains ingrained in the state's food culture.

In addition to popularizing new and unusual ingredients - arugula and goat cheese in the 1970s, mangosteen and tree oyster mushrooms today - Californians have also showed us daring new ways to use them.

"Alice Waters� influence is felt in a willingness to put ingredients together (in unusual combinations) and this has become further entrenched," explains Jane St. Claire, founder of Savor California, a Healdsburg-based marketing group for small artisan specialty food producers. "(For instance), food doesn't have to be strictly Thai; it can borrow from many cuisines. This notion has become commonplace."

The influence of California's increasingly ethnic and spicy cuisine has helped usher in a greater tolerance for strong flavors across the country. "People are interested in more powerful flavors today," says St. Claire. "The Asian-fusion trend in California started this, but it has spread across every cuisine. Mexican cuisine in the past was toned down for American palates, but that doesn't happen anymore."

"The craving for spicy flavors hits every category," she continues. "There is a willingness to take risks among California's specialty food producers, because the American palate is more willing to try things. People are emboldened by the consumers' taste for hotter foods,� she adds.

The focus on sustainable agriculture currently sweeping through most major U.S. markets undeniably started in California, running in tandem with the emphasis on fresh and local.

California's commitment to eating locally farmed foods has helped push producers to improve the quality and variety of local ingredients. The cheese industry provides a vivid example: California has surpassed Wisconsin to become the largest cheese-producing state. While much of its 2.2-plus billion pounds is from commercial production, the most dramatic developments have occurred with small boutique producers.

There has also been an exciting surge in local olive oils. A palate for the new and different flavors extends to various packaged specialty foods coming out of California. St. Claire points to a surge in interesting condiments and herbs and seasonings that involve unorthodox flavor combinations such as Dried Apricot Red Pepper Topping from B & R Farms in Hollister, Calif.

Perhaps the most pervasive trend is toward hand-made products. According to St. Claire, "there is a genuine interest to return to the way products were made in the past. Consumers value this, and will pay the high price for it, so the market has grown tremendously. Details about the artisan who made the product are almost more important than details about the product itself."


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