Everyone loves tasting the local cuisine when they visit somewhere new. Vacation, after all, is the perfect excuse to indulge and sample the variety of food and beverages a region is known for. With its rich soil and moderate climate, Santa Cruz County is an agricultural mecca with fertile fields of strawberries, tomatoes, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, vineyards, and apple orchards. It’s one thing to Yelp your way through each meal and snack break, but to truly savor each bite, you need to know the stories behind the food fueling your weekend adventure.
Liz Birnbaum, one of four authors of Harvesting Our Heritage: Bite Size Stories from Santa Cruz County and founder of The Curated Feast, shared some of her favorite foodie facts that will amplify your Santa Cruz eating experience. We’ve added our own present-day culinary recommendations to create a two-day food tour of Santa Cruz that’s as mouthwatering as it is eye-opening. So, go ahead and eat your way through the weekend while learning about the rich food heritage that’s been shaping our county for generations.
DOWNTOWN’S OFFICIAL DISH
Saturday, Stop 1: Downtown Santa Cruz, Abbott Square
What to Order: Potato Balls from Veg on the Edge and the Local Loaf from Cat. Cloud. Companion
As you munch on the fried potato balls at Veg on the Edge, make sure to give thanks to those delectable spuds for their role in establishing Downtown Santa Cruz. “Downtown is here because of potatoes,” says Birnbaum. “How can we be sitting here and not reflect on this alluvial floodplain that provided a really fertile place to grow?” The first Santa Cruz crop commercially grown after the Missions, potatoes were responsible for putting the area on the map as an agricultural hub. Here’s a short summary:
Back in the mid-1800s, when ambitious men were flooding into California to mine for gold, an entrepreneur named Elihu Anthony staked his fortune in farming. He discovered that the site of present-day Downtown Santa Cruz could grow giant five-pound potatoes and he could sell them for an exorbitant price. The rush to profit off potatoes eventually caused the market to crash, but not before convincing many of the miners that the fertile soils of Santa Cruz were a smart place to put down roots.
When you finish your potato balls, get another taste of Santa Cruz next door at Cat. Cloud. Companion. Their hearty Local Loaf is baked with whole wheat from the UC Santa Cruz Farm where they grow six-grain varieties, including quinoa. Pie Ranch, 10 miles north of Davenport, also grows its own grains and even has its own flour mill. They sell bags of their whole-wheat flour at their farm stand along with pies from Companion Bakeshop. The pies all feature locally grown whole wheat crust and rhubarb, strawberries, squash, chard, and eggs from Pie Ranch.
MOO COW ICE CREAM
Saturday, Stop 2: The Penny Ice Creamery
What to Order: Any flavor with locally farmed ingredients
From 1860 to 1960 there were about 100 dairies in the Santa Cruz region, known not for their cheese, but for their butters and creams. Brown Ranch, located on five acres where people now shop for the latest styles at the Capitola Mall, was one of the most successful. The ranch’s ‘Moo Cow Ice Cream’ was served in the dining cars of the Southern Pacific Railroad and on cruise ships that crossed the globe.
Moo Cow Ice Cream is no longer in business, but Santa Cruz has several other ice creameries to choose from. The Penny Ice Creamery is the only one, however, that makes their cold confection entirely from scratch and serves experimental flavors featuring ingredients from local farms. The menu changes seasonally so there’s always an excuse to go back for more. In the summer, try their Straight Up Strawberry, Rose Petal Nectarine, or Crème Fraiche Rhubarb.
A FAMILY-FRIENDLY TASTING FLIGHT
Sunday, Stop 1: Martinelli’s Company Store
What to Order: Sparkling apple cider tasting flight
In Birnbaum’s opinion (a Chicago-native), the Apple Annual was Watsonville’s version of the Chicago World’s Fair. From 1910-1913, the Apple Annual was held over four days filled with parades, dances, vaudeville acts, and literally millions of apples. (2,350,000 in 1910 to be exact.) The event also included impressive replicas of local buildings and world-famous structures like the Panama Canal constructed entirely of apples.
As many as 40,000 visitors attended the event over its three-year run. Although we no longer have an Apple Annual, Wilder Ranch holds an annual Heritage Harvest Festival each fall where you can taste dozens of local apple varieties and vote for your favorite.
“I think of that era as the pre-Disneyland era,” says Birnbaum. “They had to figure out what exhibits would draw people in. To have two million apples and these small-world replicas is just incredible to me.”
Today, 95 percent of Santa Cruz apples are sold to make juice and the region is known for the sparkling variety, in particular. In 1868, a Swiss man named Stephen Martinelli began his cider-making business. It began as alcoholic cider but when Prohibition took effect, he made the switch to non-alcoholic sparkling cider and never looked back. Martinelli’s is now sold across the world but still only produced right here in Watsonville. Get the full story at Martinelli’s Company Store and try the family-friendly tasting flight while you’re there. (Don’t miss the apple-mango!)
Sunday, Stop 2: Live Earth Farm
What to Order: Strawberry U-pick (when in season)
Commercial strawberries didn’t really take off in Santa Cruz until the early 1900s, but by the start of the 21st century, Santa Cruz was known for producing some of the best berries in the world. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, the athletes demanded three main types of fruit, and one of those was strawberries. Driscoll’s and California Giant leaped at the opportunity to showcase the region’s sweetest crop and shipped Pajaro Valley strawberries across the world to satisfy the Olympians’ cravings.
Today, you can pick your own strawberries at local farms like Live Earth Farm in Watsonville starting mid-May. Bring your own berry basket or bucket (or pay a small fee to use one of the farm’s) and end your foodie tour by strolling through sun-kissed strawberry fields against the peaceful backdrop of the rolling Pajaro Hills.
Want to extend your food tour? Find Harvesting Our Heritage, written by Liz Birnbaum, Jody Biergiel Colclough, Katie Lang Hansen, and Sierra Ryan, at the Museum of Art & History or at Bookshop Santa Cruz. All proceeds from the book go to the Museum.
Birnbaum is also planning more memorable dining experiences through The Curated Feast. Feast attendees can expect a flavorful journey set in a unique Santa Cruz location. Each dish is accompanied by spellbinding storytelling from Birnbaum of the food’s histories and mythologies.