It seems you can’t travel anywhere nowadays without seeing McDonald’s, Subway and Chick-fil-A. Recently, I was invited to a wedding in a place known not only for its homegrown wines and beers, but an Old Town where by law only artisan vendors are allowed to open storefronts: Temecula, California. In fact, after wandering the historic neighborhood and its main Old Town Front Street, where every single space seems to be a local restaurant, purveyor offering free samples or antique shop, I became convinced this was a culture carnivore’s heaven.
To prepare, I jot down a few potential stops and addresses. Once I park my rental car and find myself standing in front of a series of craft shacks selling handmade jewelry, candles and blown glass, it becomes immediately apparent no itinerary is needed.
My first stop, which also ends up being my favorite even after the day is over, is the Temecula Olive Oil Company. Walls lined with olive oil, balsamics, rubs and salts greet me, as does a smiling woman holding a bottle of olive oil with a small plastic tasting cup. Score.
Anyone is welcome to savor tastings — free of charge — at the Temecula Olive Oil Company. What’s interesting is that these all natural olive oils aren’t infused with outside ingredients, but instead whole local fruits, vegetables and spices are added right into the olive oil making process, to make olive oils like Citrus Reserve, Hickory Smoked and D’Luscious Lemon. Moreover, knowledgeable tasting guides create flavorful pairings with their oils and balsamics for a novel experience.
“Our Citrus Reserve Olive Oil with real blood oranges goes great in pancake batter and cookies to give a citrus flavor — and pairs well with our Vanilla & Fig Balsamic Vinegar,” says my guide for the day (pictured above).
In the next 30 minutes, I savor a number of unique pairings: Fresh Basil Olive Oil — made with 20 pounds of basil and 100 pounds of olives — with pomegranate balsamic; a Fajita Frenzy Olive Oil featuring whole crushed limes with honey balsamic; Roasted Garlic Olive Oil made with kettle-roasted garlic to give a nutty flavor with spicy 911 Hatch Chili Balsamic to add a nice spice.
While I don’t get to experience it, the company offers tours at their nearby ranch in Aguanga.
And they’re not the only local company offering farm tours. The Temecula Lavender Company also offers tours during harvest season, around late June to early July. Even if you can’t make it during that time, their shop in Old Town is a fragrant wonderland. As soon as I step into their whimsical wooden shop I’m enveloped in the relaxing
fragrance of the purple plant.
Instead of food samples, there’s complimentary tries of lotions and body oils, all made 100% naturally and locally.
The real draw to the store, aside for the artisan products, is the way it draws you into farm country. Wooden tables hold small shaded lamps, weathered frames with calligraphy-adorned signs telling about the products, and glass jars and tied rope holding lavender-oatmeal soap, lavender & tea tree shampoo, and lavender massage oil, among other things.
Once again it’s time to satisfy my hunger, which I don’t feel until I’m surrounded by farm fresh offerings. The Temecula Valley Cheese Company has a wall lined with local art and tasty products (merlot and chocolate mustard, anyone?). The real draw, however, is the counter of stinky cheeses, free for the sampling. Budget travelers should also peek into the bin of odd but still fresh cheese ends sold at a discount price. I try a sample of the Huntsman, a layered cheese featuring Double Gloucester and Stilton Blue cheese, and a Prima Donna Dutch Gouda, which tastes of caramel, meat and nuts all at once. I buy both to use later for a localized wine picnic. I also vow to come back and enjoy one of their wine or beer and cheese pairing classes.
The artisan offerings of Old Town all come together during dinner at E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery, where Founder and Executive Chef Leah DiBernardo focuses on making delicious dishes crafted from local and sustainable farm-sourced ingredients that are often organic, biodynamic, raw or gluten-free. The menu changes with the season, and the chefs are constantly being inspired by the Old Town Temecula Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, 8am to 12:30pm) and the natural world around them.
I start the meal by ordering a glass of organic Chardonnay, with notes of crisp green apple and papaya.
Next, I savor a steaming soup packed with organic local vegetables, before moving on to a beautiful fillet of salmon sourced from Skuna Bay, a Vancouver-based farm dedicated to farming craft-raised salmon reared off of the glacier-fed Pacific Ocean waters near Vancouver Island. They make sure to harvest unstressed fish — which leads to a firmer texture and happier marine life — and work to preserve seabeds and reduce pressure on wild fish.
The seafood is served over a bed of tomato rice with a side of organic local carrots. For dessert, I go in two directions: a healthy Paleo brownie, amazingly made without flour or dairy, and a macaroon that makes me feel like a true VIP, dusted in raw mineral gold. I almost feel bad eating it, but quickly forget my remorse once I feel the thick jam sliding over my tongue.
For those interested in farm-to-fork dining and exploring a destination through the palate, Temecula’s Old Town immerses you in a delicious world of local purveyors, complete with historical 19th-century Western architecture dating back to the 1880s as well as more modern design structures. It’s a true melding of history and culture.
Have you visited California’s Old Town Temecula? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.