Tuesday, December 6th, 3:30am. The alarm clock we typically want to throw across the room sounded different that morning. The day we had been looking forward to for months had arrived, so it was easier to get out of bed at that unseemly hour. We had been invited by Teri Turner, the force behind No Crumbs Left, to attend a gathering of bloggers in Northern California where we would eat, cook, and meet in person for the very first time, even though we were already friends through the community of Instagram. Since our little Nissan Leaf only has a range of 84 miles, we rented an SUV to transport us to Napa, along with suitcases, pots and pans for cooking, ice chests full of ingredients, and the most exciting cargo of all: our friend Christine from What Do You Crave! Of all the attendees, Christine was the only one we previously knew. We became fast friends this year, and were beyond excited to road trip with her up to the Bay Area!
We left the house by 4:30am, having packed the car the night before, and arrived at Christine’s place in the Valley by 5am. With the assistance of her boyfriend Simon, we loaded the car with her possessions, as well as a significant amount of products that brands had sent for our use during the week. There were bottles of liquor, mixers, salsas, spices, and various other products, packed neatly in boxes of every size, and somehow we fit it all into the car—good thing we upgraded from a small sedan.
By 5:15am, our wheels were rolling and the sun began to rise as we climbed over the Grapevine, down into the Central Valley of California, where vast fields, orchards, and ranches stretch out to the distant mountains. Christine ran the music selections, and her playlist provided the soundtrack to our conversations about cooking, travel, our favorite foods, unsolved mysteries, and scary movies that haunt us to this day. We made excellent time, and arrived in Napa by the early afternoon.
After winding our way through forested hills and quaint towns, we pulled into the gates of Calistoga Ranch, and were immediately greeted by the sight of the main lodge, beautifully decorated with holiday wreaths and evergreen garlands. We checked in, and with the help of the staff, unloaded our mountain of supplies. It took two full golf carts to carry everything, and we sailed smoothly through the lush property, eventually reaching the private oasis where we would be spending the week. Each lodge consisted of several small buildings connected by redwood decks and a large outdoor living space, nestled in the oak-covered hillsides. We were in awe as the three of us explored our new home, from the spacious well-appointed kitchen (as big as half of our house), to the outdoor living room complete with fireplace and hot tub, to the master bedroom featuring a private outdoor shower, and the second bedroom suite where Christine stayed. We could hardly believe what we were seeing. We quickly unpacked and headed next door to Teri’s lodge, just a short walk away, anxious to meet everyone.
We have known most of these bloggers virtually through Instagram for over a year. With some of them we communicate on a daily basis, sometimes more than our own families. These are true friends, and yet we had never met. So to walk in, and immediately be greeted with hugs, cheers, and laughter was wonderful and surreal. They traveled from all over the continent to be there: Jen (The Lemon Apron) flew in from Toronto, and Christi (Bazaar Lazarr) from New York. Naomi (The Cooks in the Kitchen) was visiting from North Carolina. Deborah (Rainy Day Bites) arrived from Seattle, and Teri came from Chicago with her assistant Zach. The rest of us were California locals: Becky (Displaced Housewife), Abi (Abi’s Farmhouse Kitchen), Stephanie (Cook By Color), and of course the two of us and Christine. We immediately found ourselves at ease with each other in the way that only old friends can—even if they just met for the first time.
Teri and Zach had planned the itinerary flawlessly and within moments we were standing in the kitchen with wine glasses in our hands. After a few drinks and snacks, the group then headed to Phifer Pavitt Winery. Their beautiful forested location was the perfect backdrop for the wine-tasting, and we were treated to a full tour of the facility. We tried their Sauvignon Blanc outside on the patio and listened to a brief introduction and history of the winery, then carried our glasses inside to continue the tour of the “backstage” area to see where the winemaking magic happens. Upstairs in the tasting room we sampled their seductive red Cabernet Sauvignon, and looked out over the green rolling hills made golden in the late afternoon light.
Next on the agenda was a welcome cocktail hour, hosted by Christine with alcohol and mixers provided by Heritage Distilling and Owl’s Brew, respectively. The warm mulled cocktails were the perfect comforting refreshment after a long day of driving, and kept us toasty in the wintry evening air. We relaxed outside by the fire, sipping hot toddies, and occasionally pinching ourselves to see if we were dreaming.
Wine and cocktail tasting is a tough job, and we all worked up quite an appetite. Our first dinner of the week was at a classic diner in St Helena called Gott’s Roadside, where we were treated to burgers (veggie for us, of course!), fries, salads, and—for those that hadn’t yet had their fill of liquor—beer and wine. Everything was delicious: Ryan got the green chile cheeseburger, Adam had a Wisconsin sourdough burger, and we practically rolled back to the cars that chauffeured us home to the lodge. Although everyone was tired, we stayed up chatting with our new/old friends, and perhaps partaking in a nightcap or three, before collapsing into the unbelievably comfy feather beds and drifting to sleep, listening to the gentle sound of rain.
In the morning, we braved the high-30’s temperatures and took advantage of the outdoor shower. It was actually quite warm once you were standing under the hot water, but getting to and from the shower took courage. Feeling refreshed, we headed over to Teri’s lodge for a delicious breakfast prepared by Deborah and Naomi: a sweet baked apple oatmeal topped with Greek yogurt, a spinach and potato frittata, and broiled grapefruit with crispy brûléed lids of brown sugar. There may also have been some breakfast wine.
The first surprise walked through the door in the late morning: Ginny and Anne from Erickson Woodworks! They had flown up from Orange County and surprised us all—besides Teri, who had invited them of course—and spent the rest of the day with us. Ginny shared how her business started with just a few word-of-mouth recommendations and now her family-run company is shipping photography surfaces all over the world, to Africa, Asia, and beyond. They even generously brought several boards to raffle off to some lucky winners—and we were thrilled to win the distressed blue wooden surface pictured below!
The next highlight of the day was an intimate presentation by photographer George Lange. George has photographed everyone from the Obamas and the Clintons to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and with his enlightening words and moving videos he showed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The second surprise of the day was finding out that George was taking us to the woods for individual and group photographs, using the natural beauty of the forest—and an Erickson woodworks board—to capture each blogger’s unique personality.
Dinner that evening was an epic potluck, and our contribution was one of our favorite holiday recipes: baked sweet potatoes with cranberries and a cinnamon oat crumble. It shared space on the table with all the other beautiful creations, from Teri’s pot roast masterpiece, to Stephanie’s roasted root vegetables with quinoa, Becky’s towering gingerbread layer cake, and Christi’s fabulous creamy butternut squash soup.
We were on breakfast duty the next day, and planned to make our blueberry cream cheese french toast (pictured above). This recipe is perfect for large groups since the work is done the night before, and all you need to do in the morning is pop it in the oven. As the french toast baked, we made fresh blueberry syrup and assembled a colorful fruit platter with help from Stephanie and Christine. The breakfast was a success—whew!—and the rest of the morning was learning from each other in a round-table discussion on blogging, cooking, and social media, where we chatted and shared our experiences.
At 2pm we had a dinner reservation at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, and the natural daylight allowed us to fully document our unforgettable meal at this award-winning restaurant. The smoky aromas and tall vaulted wood ceilings charmed us the moment we walked in, and the staff made our visit truly magical. The service was impeccable, and every dish was outstanding: there was creamy warm burrata with roasted garlic, a caramelized beet dish with goat cheese crema and chimichurri, our two main dishes pictured below (gnocchi with mushrooms, smoked turnips, and fall squash, and a mushroom risotto with lemon and herbs), and two spectacular pies, a silky lemon meringue and a rich Scharffenberger chocolate cream. Our bellies and hearts full, we walked down the street to a local bar called Goose & Gander, and sampled an eclectic selection of thoughtful, well-crafted cocktails. The drinks were flavorful and topped with creative garnishes, and the space was warm and cozy, perfect for a nightcap with friends.
Friday was our last day in Napa. We awoke to a delicious home-cooked breakfast by Christi and Becky, and as difficult as it was to say our goodbyes, we loaded up the car and headed home, with a few important stops along the way. Christine and Becky caravanned with us through the lush hills of Sonoma to Abi’s historic estate, situated on acres of vineyards and working farmland. Her expansive property is also the home of Annadel Winery, and we sampled some of her impeccable wines as she gave us a tour of the grounds, the vibrant gardens, and the stone ruins from the 1800’s. We didn’t want to leave, but the road was calling us, and after one last round of goodbyes, we headed south to San Rafael where our favorite Puerto Rican restaurant awaited. We have loved Sol Food for years, even recreating their spicy and tangy pique sauce here on the blog. We finished a satisfying meal of grilled sandwiches, fried plantains, black beans and rice, and of course lots of pique sauce on every bite, then hit the road and didn’t stop until we arrived back in LA.
This was the trip of a lifetime, but what made it special was not just the picturesque location and luxury accommodations, or the delicious food and wine—although that was pretty special too—but the people. We bonded on a deep, personal level, and have become friends for life. Along with our memories, we also wanted to share one of our favorite dishes from the week: a simple, unassuming dip made by Jen at The Lemon Apron that was bursting with so much flavor no one could stop eating it. When she told us how quick it was to make, we knew it had to be shared here on the blog. This tangy and spicy dip couldn’t be easier to prepare: all the ingredients are simply mixed in a food processor, and will steal the show wherever you serve it. Made with roasted pistachios, feta cheese, a serrano chile pepper, fresh dill and cilantro, garlic, and a splash of lemon, this vibrant green spread is also perfect for sandwiches, burgers, or anywhere else a zesty kick would be welcome. We will never forget our adventure up north, and this Middle-Eastern recipe is a delicious reminder of that fleeting, magical moment in time.
3 1/2 ounces (100g) shelled roasted salted pistachios
1/4 cup olive oil
7 ounces (200g) feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup (15g) fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup (30g) fresh cilantro, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 serrano chile pepper, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup greek yogurt
zest from one lemon
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Combine the pistachios and olive oil in a food processor, and blend for 30 seconds. Add the remaining ingredients and process until the desired texture is reached. Taste for salt and adjust as needed, which will depend on the saltiness of the pistachios and the feta. Serve at room temperature with crackers, pita, or crudités, and enjoy!