My journey with Carmel Food Tours is about to begin. I’m shifting nervously in my wine-colored Converse, standing outside a cheese shop in what can best be described as an outdoor mall. I begin to shiver just a bit. My day in Carmel, CA has barely begun and I’m already out of my element. It may be summer, but there’s a cool gray mist hanging heavy over the village.
My jangly nerves have nothing to do with the weather. I know California. This is a classic summer marine layer. It will burn off and the sun will shine. I have no trepidations regarding the weather. Weather is what we do best in California.
You see I’m caught in a conundrum. Wedged between two opposing forces: my love of food and my barely contained social anxiety disorder. I may be exaggerating (it’s another one of my disorders) but I’m trying to set the stage. I’m trying to describe the anticipation of the moment. I’m not a joiner by nature. So when I decide to partake in group activities I’m always beset with the desire to flee just before the group assembles. Group activities have been known to disorient me, so I’ve developed a fight or flight syndrome when confronted with tour guides bearing megaphones.
Carmel Food Tours
Our guide from Carmel Food Tours shows up, and without the aid of a megaphone, she immediately begins to gather our group together. She somehow recognizes me and uses my full name in greeting. I don’t say this to indicate that I have the sort of face (or reputation) anyone should remember. I say it to illustrate how effectively she’s made this group of strangers begin to feel comfortable. The not knowing people is a big part of my social anxiety disorder. Points for her as I immediately begin to relax in my wine-colored Converse.
Our guide is Staci Giovino, the head Tour Chef and owner of Carmel Food Tours. She’s knowledgeable on her subject and her love of Carmel is obvious. I see she’s comfortable talking to groups as well, phew. Staci explains that we’re heading out on a walking tour. It will take approximately 3 hours. We’ll be tasting a variety of different foods at a leisurely pace but she assures us nobody will be going home hungry. There’s plenty to eat and plenty to see in Carmel. The tour typically consists of “seven of Carmel’s most unique restaurants and specialty shops”. Our group is made up almost entirely of men. We men are very task-oriented (according to Staci). In the end, our tastings go so smoothly and so efficiently that we run a bit ahead of schedule. Which means Staci squeezes in an extra winery for us to enjoy. Good thing this is a walking tour!
Carmel Food Tours: Destinations
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before God made wine, he made cheese and bread. In the case of the Carmel Food Tours, he made excellent cheese and served it up at The Cheese Shop — Carmel. This shop specializes in cheese from around the world– and we tasted several. However, there’s more than just cheese behind the counter here. There are all sorts of gourmet products too. Including wine. Even if you don’t take the entire food tour, the shop offers a special wine and cheese pairing flight at the counter in the back of the store. These cheese chats are led by a cheesemonger whose cheesy jokes had me choking on my curds.
Next, we trot off to Cassanova Restaurant. A “romantic” little spot that’s full of history and even a bit of intrigue. It’s a beautiful, antique-filled cottage with rough-hewn tables tucked into nooks, fire-lit rooms, and al fresco patios. The diversity of interesting objects and the attention to detail is part of what makes these rooms so special. We even spy an empty bottle of 1955 Chateau Latour Pauillac amongst the eclectic collection. However, this artful little retreat was once nothing but a rundown shack at the edge of the village. The transformation was the vision of one family who patterned the building after the “great country restaurants of Europe”. Plates of pasta, gnocchi, and other traditional European fares, as well as an impressive (hand-dug) wine cellar, make this rustic destination the center of the Mediterranean “good life” in Carmel. (There will be more on this restaurant in my next post).
After a few bites at Cassanova my appetite is piqued and we head back out onto the path. As I suspected the fog is clearing and blue skies greet us as Carmel Food Tours continues. Along the way, Staci fills us in on interesting facts about the village. We see a white stucco building shaped like a milk bottle and learn that Doris Day once owned the historic Cypress Inn (circa 1929). It was her devotion to canines and other critters that made the inn the “pet friendliest” hotel in the “pet friendliest” town in America.
Salumeria Luca is an Italian delicatessen. We stop in to taste a selection of cured meats while sampling a glass of Italian wine. Every little tidbit just tastes better with wine. Don’t ya think? I guess it’s the combination of the wine and the brisk pace our task-oriented group is maintaining, but we find ourselves with extra time and I have the urge to shop. I’m not usually much of a shopper, but the temptation of so much authentic Italian food in one place is too much for me. I take a few minutes of the group’s time to buy a couple of bagfuls of handmade pasta and farro. Before we leave we decide to taste some Italian gelato. Staci orders an extra container of the vanilla bean gelato to go– she’s either very hungry or she has a plan. Que bella Luca.
Her plan becomes obvious as we enter Trio Carmel, a unique shop combining art, wine, and ultra-premium olive oil & balsamic vinegar. We’re being given a primer into just what makes olive oil so special and why its unique flavors are so prized by gourmands around the world. I notice Staci is scooping the gelato into small cups. A variety of flavored olive oils are laid out in front of us and we’re encouraged to drizzle the gelato with any one (or two or three) of the oils we like. I choose walnut. The combination of rich vanilla with the nutty, piquant oil is a remarkable experience. I see the others in my group are enjoying the combinations they chose as well. I may be stealing the entire idea for my next dinner party. I must say I’m enjoying Carmel Food Tours very much.
It’s time for some serious eating. So Staci leads us to La Bicyclette Restaurant. The interior is warm with wood tones. There’s a counter to buy freshly baked bread and a proper espresso machine. The center of the space is dominated by a wood-burning oven. There’s some very good pizza in our future– I just know it. The restaurant is divided into two larger rooms and a small private alcove in the back. Staci chooses the alcove for our group. All in all, it’s a beautiful space and is very approachable in design. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner– offering a changeable menu that is “simple and spontaneous”. The pizzas laid out before us are both comforting and creative. It’s hard to choose a favorite between the sweetly caramelized butternut squash with prosciutto and the deeply caramelized onion pizza with mushrooms. So I choose both. Twice. I’m so impressed I immediately resolve to be back for breakfast the next day. Stay tuned, there will be more treats from this brick oven I promise.
Full of good food, we step into two tasting rooms for flights of wine (Figge and Manzoni). As I said we’re a very task-oriented group. Our speedy ways have left us time for drinking. Hallelujah. I can’t promise your group will be as task-oriented or that there will be time for two wineries. But I can promise that the wine you taste on your journey with Carmel Food Tours will be excellent. We learn a bit about the terroir of the area and the unique weather patterns that make these hills prime grape-growing territory. There are “cheers” all around as we toast our new found friends. Maybe being a joiner isn’t so bad after all.
Next, we’re off to “dessert”. This food tour may not be a traditional “meal”, but it’s fine dining none the less. Good food and good wine should end with something sweet.
We find ourselves at Lula’s Chocolates. It’s a beautiful little shop where it seems that everything is tied up in a bow. I taste some of the chocolate truffles, a bit of the salted caramel, and a bite of the rocky road brittle for good measure. It’s good chocolate and all of my choices please me. I look around at the array of confections and realize there’s just enough time for (more) shopping. I know a dog sitter in Los Angeles whom I can thank profusely with a box of salted caramels. Then like clockwork, our time with Carmel Food Tours comes to end. Staci offers handshakes or hugs as a farewell gesture. I chose a hug– crazy joiner that I am. GREG