All across the nation such a strange vibration
There is nothing on earth quite like a chocolate cream pie from which you have been separated by a vast, unforgiving wilderness in which you are not at all adept. We sit with pink cheeks and slow smiles in Jack’s Restaurant in the little town of Bishop from where we started our ill fated hiking mission almost a week previously discussing our regret percentages and eating salads and burgers. Jamie, by our strict calculations, has 20% regret and I have 10% regret about having to abandon our walk. Perhaps if our tent hadn’t had a crisis and decided it was actually born a sponge, I would have more but as it is dessert’s coming up and I know what I’m having.
I’m so sorry, I accidentally cut one slice really big!
Says our waitress gleefully and pops the plate down in front of me. I assure her that this an easily surmountable glitch and we pick up our forks ready to go. The pie, a crunchy biscuit crust, deep, dark unctuous chocolate gunge and topped with cream looks at each of us and says
Hey, no regrets folks, you’re in Bishop now.
Quite. I think and tuck in. However, even after scraping off the mound of whipped cream, I am totally outfoxed by the slice and Jamie by his. Gah!
Not as good as the pie we took to the woods but pretty good!
I say, referring to a slice of chocolate cream pie and one of banana cream pie we carefully transported from a restaurant just outside Death Valley to a beautiful campground in the woods. We had gone there on the way to visit the astoundingly huge giant sequoia trees to which we had navigated using a combination of guess work and trying to gauge tree enormity as we drive. Following a beautiful, empty road through the mountains, I noticed what looked like tiny, tiny Persian cats dashing out to cross the road just in front of us.
What are they?!
I squeaked. So small! They turned out to be something like a chipmunk with a death wish. Brown and striped, glossy eyed and twitchy.
If we hit one, can we keep it as a pet?
Jamie asked through the intercom. I told him they might make better pannier stickers in that case which caused rumbles of outrage on the little creature’s behalves shouted tinnily in to my ear. As we rounded a corner narrowly missing another miniature rodent, the scenery opened up and a view across the valley appeared. We had stopped a moment to look at a signpost by the road whereupon the piece of tarmac on which Jamie’s foot rested crumbled away suddenly leaving us slowly toppling in to a bush growing from a ditch.
After a moment puzzling, I realised the sensation of falling in to a bush wearing motorbike gear was rather springy and pleasant. I called to Jamie to see if he was ok, irrationally worried by his lying splayed over the bush quite still. Nothing. I asked again, nothing but some rustling while he got up and began circling the bike anxiously. At this point I realised he was in emergency mode, quite deaf to me and I was stuck in the ditch, the bike resting on the bush over the top of me quite painlessly. Good job there’s no one at all on these roads to see this one I thought chuckling just in time for a motorcyclist to round the corner and stop in front of us.
Are you ok?
He shouted in a German accent. Oh god, this would NEVER happen to a German, I thought, struggling out from under bike pushing branches out of my hair.
Ha ha! Yes, absolutely fine. We just fell in a bush!
I shouted, sure that explained everything. He looked momentarily perplexed and then smiled looking set to go on his way. I looked at Jamie who was struggling to get the bike back on its feet and asked him to wait but he was deep in the small crisis and continued heaving at Robin from within the ditch. Sighing I grabbed the bike and after three we had shoved it upright twanging many muscles in the process. Jamie muttered something about explosions and I turned to see the German still looking anxiously back at us. I assured him we were fine, just a bit English, and asked if he knew where the giant sequoias were. In true Germanic fashion he immediately pulled out a large, gleaming mobile phone and brought up a map which pointed us in the right direction. I thanked him and promised we’d not fall in the bush again then laughed a little too loudly to which he smiled, nodded and drove away up the mountain.
In hindsight, I think as the waitress hands me a box with the rest of my chocolate pie scattered within it, that should have acted as a warning. Even a small ditch will prevail. The John Muir trail seems suddenly like lunacy and we are knackered. We are knackered for days. A spell at Lake Tahoe in an unfathomably cheap motel is mostly passed watching Game Of Thrones and eating ranch salad dressing. We pop out once to the cinema to watch the dreadful Tomorrowland with George Clooney (George, why? Just tell me why?) and return to lie on the bed in exhaustion. We make an extravagant mess of the motel room and gasp at the gory conclusion to season five then rather suddenly it’s time to go to the seaside. Today, we are going to the Pacific Ocean.
We wind our way through quiet back roads watching vineyards, dazzlingly green amongst the powdery, dead grass covering the hillsides. Roadside diners start to acquire a little more chi-chi, a little more hipster beard and skinny jeans and the prices start to rise steeply. Gone are the free refills of the east and we learn not to expect lunch on a plate but wrapped in foil and eaten from a perched position on a wall. People stop treating us like minor film stars when we walk in in our dusty motorbike gear. Now we are just another tourist here to snatch up some of The Golden State.
The rewards though, are numerous. The closer we get to the sea the greener the landscape becomes. Great clouds of wild pink sweetpeas tumble down the verges, palm trees begin to jauntily dot the landscape and bluejays flash their feathers cheekily at us as they skitter up and down tree trunks. The hills are tightly compacted, neat and cosy so we don’t see the ocean until it is right in front of us, shocking in its hugeness. I cheer silently for, the little islander that I am, I haven’t felt quite right knowing how far from the sea we have been. The air is hazy in the late afternoon and the landscape unfurls to resemble a sort of gigantic uber Devon. We follow an intensely winding road for several hours passing empty beaches festooned with seaweed and driftwood, silver barked pines and hundreds on wildflowers. Eventually we settle on a campsite sitting on the edge of a cliff where the wind whips my hair in to a frenzied mess and argues with the tent. We decide to treat ourselves and stay for three nights then purchase ice and beer which we tip in to the bear canister we bought for our hike. A much better use for it I think to myself.
Three days pass watching the rolling fog bank this area is famous for sidle up off the trees and blanket the trees. We wander the cliff tops narrowing our eyes to the intense blues, greens and terracottas on the view in front of us. We watch a man fall through the branches of the dead tree he has been jumping on for firewood and appear a second later pretending nothing has happened. We clamber over rocks looking through the bright, clear waters to the seabed below. On the beach we spot a great lumpen thing swilling fattily in the waves and realise it is a dead seal lying as if sleeping. We stare it for a while watching the gore pulled by gulls from a hole in its side stream about in the swell. Later, we see a live seal sunbathing in the low rays of the evening on a rock beyond our reach. Jamie throws stones in to the water and sea looks up indignantly like a cat woken from a doze in the garden. I scold Jamie for waking him but the seal yawns for a long time, kicks its flippers a couple of times and returns to sleep quickly. The days pass quickly and very soon it is time to pack up and make the short but winding journey to San Francisco further south down the coast.
The drive passes quickly for me and Jamie confuses me by nudging my leg and pointing. I see the city in the distance without realising where we are until we arrive at The Golden Gate bridge. I stupidly miss most of the iconic entrance because I am filming over Jamie’s shoulder though I can tell you it is big and very red. Delightfully mismatched wooden buildings in sunny pastel shades begin to appear in jingly jangly rows marching up the hills in to the distance and the bike starts to feel like an o!d fashioned wooden rollercoaster as we mount the hilltops and feel our stomachs flip. Inviting road names flick past us; Chestnut, Clementina, California, Anza. Areas like The Mission, Tenderloin and North Beach make me feel like I’m in a film. Twin Peaks lies just to the south of us. I can hear the famous theme music to the television series in my mind and wonder if it the same place.
The bike tremulously climbs monstrously steep hills up which the buses must be pulled by steel cable and later, we push through the crowds on pier 39 to watch soft, yawning seals in a brown pile lying sleepily in the sunshine on a floating dock in the marina. We push through the old ladies buying unfamiliar piles of vegetables in Chinatown, slurp noodles, wolf down spicy soups and line up to buy pale, custard filled buns from dark, steamy bakeries. Two large, silvery fish flop around in the road gathering grit on their flashing scales, their sides heaving in the air. I watch frowning as a woman looks at them and kicks one back across the pavement then looks at me as if that was the very best course of action she could manage. I scoop up the bucking panicking animal almost dropping it at it flips in my hands and drop it back in the tiny tanks filled with similar prisoners and follow suit with the other. People laugh at the spectacle and I walk away from the overcrowded tanks wondering guiltily if I have just prolonged the misery.
The people thin out as we head out of the centre towards Japantown. A homeless man, one of many hundreds in the city stops to tell us an existential joke about drumming and we load him with handfuls of change. We like him. He has kind eyes full of smiles which I think is brave based on his circumstances. He also has filthy, black hands which play on my mind afterwards. I wonder who in this city cares about him and I hope the answer isn’t nobody. He offers us a small, white, plastic guitar which we must decline. Space on the bike is at an all time low but I would have liked it perhaps decorating the top box.
Eventually, a concrete pagoda appears in a neat square dotted with small sculptures and manicured hedges. We are right up on the hill, the sun is falling and lighting everything rather dramatically. Tidy Japanese restaurants line the streets and people chat silently behind the glass as we stare in. We follow a couple in to The Japan Centre which is a shopping mall filled with restaurants and shops vending small bowls and smiling figurines of fat kittens. It is quiet, the shops are closed and the place feels a little post apocalyptic as though there had been a huge pandemic leaving only a few hundred survivors who all elect to weather it out with chicken katsu. We choose a place with wonderful plastic arrangements of food in the windows which I stare at longingly before going in. A man with beautiful, quiet Japanese mannerisms takes our order and brings us Sapporo beer then trays of sushi rolls flecked with ripe avocado and fresh tuna, tempura prawns, miso soup and glistening salmon roe. The rice is buttery and hot, soft and sticky and we eat quickly, our chop sticks clicking quietly. I take another sip of Sapporo, I am stuffed with rice and fish and my legs ache with walking up the steep hills all day but I feel extremely content. The Japaneseness of the place is a wonderful tonic to the cluttered city outside and I have an overwhelming urge to live here in The Japan Centre perhaps under a bench slurping udon and enjoying the low key company of the people here. Sighing an putting my chopsticks down hesitantly for I have a vague memory that the way I place them is considered the height of bad manners, we call for the check. Tomorrow we are leaving San Francisco behind and riding down to Big Sur. We have goats to meet, eggs to collect and a spot of cheese to make. Sweetwater Farm, here we come.
Chocolate cream pie
I finally received an email from the lady in Pagosa Springs saying she doesn’t share her recipes (bah) so next time, a recipe for that using the best of several recipes online….oooh you are going to love it. But for the meantime, this…….this….
For the Crust
1-1/2 cups finely crushed biscuit crumbs- I personally think pretzels work the best but Oreos, digestives, graham crackers are all popular too
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
For the Filling
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, best quality
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, best quality
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Topping
3/4 cup chilled whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, grated or shaved
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Make the filling: Combine the sugar, corn flour and salt in a heavy medium saucepan. Whisk gently until combined. In a bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the milk and egg yolks. Add the milk mixture to the saucepan in a slow and steady stream, whisking until the mixture is smooth. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken, 6-8 minutes. Immediately turn the heat down to a simmer and cook, whisking constantly, for one minute more until thick. (The constant stirring and low heat prevents the eggs from scrambling. Be sure to stand attentively at stove and keep scraping the whisk against the bottom and edges of the pan where the mixture is more likely to overheat.) Off the heat, immediately whisk in the chopped chocolate, butter and vanilla extract. Transfer the filling to a bowl. Press a piece of clingfilm directly over surface of the filling to prevent a film from forming; refrigerate until cool, 1-2 hours.
Make the crust: Combine the biscuits, sugar and butter in bowl of food processor fitted with the blade attachment and pulse until the biscuits are finely crushed. Press the mixture firmly into a 9-inch pie pan (spread it with your hands first, then use the back of a spoon or bottom of a measuring cup to press and even out). Bake for 10 minutes until crisp. Set on a rack to cool completely.
Once the filling and crust are cooled, spoon the filling into the crust and spread evenly. Cover with cling film, pressing directly against surface of filling, and chill for at least 6 hours or up to one day.
Up to 3 hours before serving, make the topping: Place th cream in chilled mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, whip on medium-low speed until the whisk or beaters begin to leave tracks in the cream. Add sugar and whip until the cream holds medium, silky peaks. Go slowly towards the end; if it gets grainy or curdled, you’ve gone too far. Spread the whipped cream over the filling, leaving some of the chocolate filling showing around the edges. Sprinkle with the grated chocolate and refrigerate until ready to serve.