Finding a gem in the rubble of an earthquake…

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Napa Valley is renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s also famous for being one of the most well-known wine producing regions in the world, delivering 5% of California’s wine each year. Some of the most acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignons on the planet come from Napa and 3m+ visitors each year come to the region to drink, eat & enjoy some of the very best local produce.

After a solid 12 hour drive from Portland, stopping only for a little lunchtime magic at the culinary delight that is Denny’s – judge me not, there’s a hell of a lot of nothing between Oregon and Napa – J and I arrived in Napa around 9.30pm on the Saturday night, ready to hit the hay and wake in the morning, refreshed & ready for our adorable vintage wine trolley tour.

Hmm…

Y’know what else Napa can lay claim to? Earthquakes. Ask me how I know…

I’ve only ever been in one earthquake before; a little 2008 5.4 in Chino Hills that I experienced mid-morning in a classroom with many other people. There was a little rumble, the walls vibrated, everyone stopped…then everything carried on as normal. Scary? Not really. Exciting? Little bit.

Now imagine going to sleep and waking up at 3.20am in the pitch black, in a place you’ve never been before and barely looked at when you arrived 6 hours earlier. Imagine being woken up because the walls are shaking the headboard which is shaking you. Imagine feeling the bed move and lift you up. Imagine feeling like the cabin you are in is about to lift off the ground and take you with it. Imagine not knowing how long this is going to last or whether it will stop and start again or if something will fall on you. Imagine holding onto the person beside you and literally clinging to them because you have no idea what to do or where to go. Scary? Yes. Exciting? Err, no actually. Not at all.

Not quite the welcome to Napa we were expecting and after getting up, seeing drawers slung out of their chests and a fridge several feet away from where it started, learning that there was no electricity or wifi, going back to bed, undergoing two aftershocks and then waking in the morning to learn that the quake had been a 6.1 and the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1989 and that so many vineyards had been damaged that the trolley tour was cancelled, we were faced with an unusual prospect…

…what exactly do you do for 24 hours in Napa when there’s no power and no wine?

Making our way into central Napa, two things became obvious very quickly – one; there was a lot of damage and a lot of people had suffered far worse than us, and two; the local people had a cheery-in-the-face-of-disaster stoicism about them that was a touch British but absolutely, and optimistically and identifiably, all American. Shops & restaurants were cordoned off, staff & owners were sweeping & cleaning and a lady asked the local hotel for a table she could place outside and fill with food that locals could take as needed.

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Over $400m of damage was caused and over 200 people were injured in this quake; as we were only 6 miles from the epi-centre, it is with great relief that we were not two of that number but it was both sobering and sad to see such a lovely place damaged and hurt. As the power was not due back for several hours and, understandably, nowhere was open for wine tasting, the only option was to drive out of downtown Napa itself and find somewhere else to visit, to fill the car and our tummies and to try and explore a little of the place we’d been so looking forward to experiencing.

Sat firmly in the middle of wine country and a mere 20 miles north of where we were, St. Helena was the place we aimed for and honestly? It both charmed the pants and knocked the socks off us with its elegance, style and affluence. Famed for wine-making since the 18th century, it is a town that is both beautiful and cultured and possesses a main street like something out of a Nora Ephron movie. Sincerely. I half expected late 1990’s Meg Ryan to pop out of the local bakery or a cheery Tom Hanks to be delivering mail.

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Given that it was by now about 15 hours since we’d last eaten – which to me is really about 3 months – finding food was high on the agenda; we wanted to be able to wander afterwards and enjoy the beauty of this little town and also to support a local business. St. Helena was much less affected by the quake from a physical and visual perspective although a large percentage of businesses were still closed. As soon as we spotted Cook across the leafy main road, we were sold and upon entering, that certainty that we’d picked the perfect place for brunch was doubled and then tripled.

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A warm welcome from the manager and two stools at the bar gave us a chance to admire the cool, chic, white-walled, dark-floored interior – the old filing cabinet doubling as a menu dispenser, the cosy tables and the wall of wine, not one drop of which had been spilt that previous night.

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There were locals old and young sat along the bar beside us and a variety of brunches, lunches and even the odd date going on around us, providing ample scope for one of my favourite past-times, people watching. Is it just me or is that such a satisying, if slightly nosy, way to pass the time?

My favourites were the 3 old-timers sat to our right who looked like they’d been in there every day of their lives and as if life required nothing more than the glasses of chilled rose and the open newspapers in front of them to make it good and worthwhile. I half envied them now and half hoped that might be me in 30 years time.

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Opened 10 years ago by Jude Wilmouth who is both chef & owner as well as being native to the area, Cook offers local, fresh ingredients that make up a selection of well-thought out dishes and so began the second hardest decision of the day…

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Always a sucker for any form of slow cooked pork, J wasted no time opting for the slow roasted pork hash with yukon potatoes, sun dried tomatoes, caramelised onions and (making a substitution for fried) poached eggs.

The pork was so good here that its memory is making my mouth water a little bit.

Ok, a lot.

Alright, alright, my tastebuds are in fact asking my brain what the heck it’s doing remembering how good it was without any way of getting it in front of them now.

Soft and juicy with each piece of meat perfectly charred and succulent, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; this is the only way I’ve ever eaten pork and enjoyed it. Pork chops? Dry and white. Roast pork? Flavourless and bland. Slow roasted and flaked off the bone pork? Get. In. My. Tummy. Now. Please. If you vehemently disagree with me, accept the challenge I lay down before you now and show me a non-pulled pork recipe that is tender and flavourful…

The sweet onions and tomatoes added oodles of flavour and the potato enough substance to the meal without leaving you heavier than can ever be comfortable. This was an absolute winner and the rapturous silence it was received in by J made me certain there was nothing it was missing.

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I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Croque Monsieurs and Croque Madames. C’mon – bread, cheese, ham, egg…I know you don’t need me to go on. The Cook Madame therefore ended up on my plate quite easily; focaccia topped with fra’mani rosemary ham, fried egg, caramelised onions and a tallegio cream with a side of fries.

This was without a doubt the most decadent version of a Croque Madame – or egg, ham & chips, it’s your call – that I’ve ever had. For saying the focaccia was doorstep sized, it was incredibly light & fluffy. The ham was thinly sliced, salty, juicy & piled so high on the plate I needed an oxygen mask to scale its delicious pink heights but scale them I did, the reward being a perfectly fried egg – neither greasy or burnt – and a tallegio sauce that was rich and so delicately, creamily, cheesily delicious that I could have doused not only that meal but all those that followed on this trip with it.

Piping hot and crisp rosemary scattered fries were the perfect accompaniment and although I’m normally a triple-cooked-in-duck-goose-and-any-other-fat-or-dripping-you-can-find kind of gal, here the almost shoestring skinny fry reigned supreme.

I was full after this. I was satisfied. I was enjoyably heavy.

It was totally worth it. You can always walk off what you ate; you can’t always go back to a place, time and menu you wished you’d taken advantage of and do just that.

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And walk it off we did…through all the lovely little parts of St. Helena as well as the nearby and gorgeous, if a little stiflingly hot, Yountville. We may have ventured out of the main areas of the region but have no fear, we still saw the beauty of the place and its bounty through the swollen, ripe bunches of black grapes swinging low in the sunshine from the acres of twisty, green vine.

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This may not have been the visit we had planned and it may not have shown us Napa itself in the way we envisioned but the silver lining is that it allowed us to explore areas that we probably not have done otherwise and as a result we’ll be back.

If we’d done the trolley tour and spent 6 hours getting delightfully tipsy on fat little fruits of the vine, we’d have had a great time sure, but maybe we’d have then considered Napa done and not ventured back anytime soon. This wouldn’t have been because there was nothing else to do and it’s ridiculous to even imagine you could ‘do’ a place in one day but when there are so many places in the world and so little time & money, I hope you understand what I mean when I say that.

Having come to Napa and not done the things it’s famed for means that we will absolutely return and that when we do, we’ll have all of that to look forward to as well as knowing a little hot-spot of a place to come back to just up the road…after all, I’ve got my old-timers spot at the bar to claim.

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