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Whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, over nostalgic, a corporation’s dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the moneyed, wads of cash and tans and glittering windows, smooth pavements and tourists and shops, sardine canneries made new, rich, desirable restaurants and chi chi boutiques, and crowded aquariums, and bars and bakeries.

The last sardine cannery on Cannery Row closed in 1973 after over fishing and ‘unfavourable oceanic conditions’  plucked the last of the little fish from the bay in the 1950’s. Previously the factories had enjoyed the luxury of waters thick with sardines giving rise to some of the highest production rates of tinned sardines in the world. The place was dark and dirty, rich with the stink of canned fish and inhabited by characters in whom John Steinbeck dug out a novel. I fear that John, born in Salinas a few miles from us as we wonder Cannery Row, would be rather taken aback by the street as it stands today.

We have come from Charlie Cascio’s small goat farm up in the hills of Big Sur to Cannery Row via Coalinga which squats hotly right over the San Andreas fault which produced the earthquake, amongst others, that shook San Francisco to the ground in 1906. We end up there in sheer desperation having rashly posted our tent and sleeping bags home prior to Charlie telling us we can’t arrive for another 2 days. Big Sur is like a big, wild, beachy Blackheath; organic food shops, high end restaurants and big prices. Many a millionaire owns a house there and consequently, we can’t stretch to any of the hotel prices or even the hostels. Droopily we head a hundred miles east and as the shoreline recedes, the temperature climbs, the hotel prices drop.

Who would live in this empty place? I wonder incredulously as we wind through sick looking, wafer dry hills in 40 degree heat. Signs announce our arrival in to tiny, deserted hamlets with populations of 45 and we wonder if the inhabitants are required to murder somebody when a baby is born so no one has to come out and change the population numbers on the signs. We pass a blackened stretch of grass where flames have licked at the huge oak trunks though failed, this time, to do much damage to the ancient trees. In the distance a fallen pine is still smoking and I think of the cigarette casually flicked out of a passing car that may have started this fire. I’m not sure how else fires like this start, close to the road, sometimes destroying crops, forests, wildlife. Later Charlie describes a forest fire on the hill beyond his place.

 

Everybody was coming out! Mountain lions, bobcats, mice…lotsa mice!

 

The fire, once it gets started, can whip over a hillside or valley in fifteen minutes or less. If you see it coming, release the goats! Let them run wild with the rest of the beasties. I am lost for a while in a vivid image of animals big and small skipping over each other, dodging each others smoking pelts in their haste to escape the flames. I think of the order of things hastily put to one side, mice safe from the cats for an hour or so as everyone agrees that escape takes precedence.

 

It’s not a question of if this place burns

 

Charlie gestures to his little wooden house and the farm surrounding it,

 

It’s a question of when…..

 

We reach Coalinga just as I am starting to think I might spontaneously combust and set all of California alight. I stand gasping in the carpark of the Motel 6 we have managed to find while Jamie picks up the key. They have painted the room doors lavender and I picture Provence where the shutters and doors are painted the same shade and feel a nagging homesickness steal over me. We are absolutely in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but tiny, empty towns for miles around. The palm trees rustle drowsily in the hot wind and Jamie returns red cheeked and tired with the key to our room where we are to spend the next, slightly surreal two days. We swim woozily in the warm, leaf strewn swimming pool and watch the livid sunset burn at the clouds, we read, we go to the one and only diner crunching over the pale, dead grass in the dying sunlight.

And that’s it, that’s really all there is to do here. It is strangely comforting and we are thrown when it is time to leave our cool, dark room and the blinding nothingness behind. We turn the bike back towards the road in the direction we came and watch Dudstown, Dozeville and Torpor pass us by once again. I look for people, anybody to wave at but the ranches and shacks are still and dark. I imagine the inhabitants are waiting inside twitching at the faded cabbage rose curtains waiting for a motorcyclist or two to hit the spikes they have laid across the road.

 

Honey! Get them nets ready! Ah kin see ’em comin’! Foreign ones too! We gon’ eat good tonight!

 

I  scan the windows nervously and lick my lips. In the charring heat I can feel my skin stick to the inside of my motorbike gear in and I spend much of the journey peering around Jamie periodically to look at the GPS hoping to hurry the viscous miles along. Later, we discover a nail in the tyre and I nod knowingly. Close, Billy Ray, but no cigar.

We arrive at Sweetwater Farm just as Charlie is taking the goats out to graze on the chewy scrub that lines the mountainside. There are four babies, blinding white and skipping with new born joy and mosquito bites, followed patiently by the grubbier adults who sometimes headbutt  one another out of the way. We stand on the mountainside, a happy feast for the mosquitos ourselves and observe as Gaia, Charlie’s daughter trundles up the dirt road in a 4×4. She greets Jamie enthusiastically not having seen him since he was a boy and she a teenager on holiday with their family and his in the south of France. Charlie stands watching the scene quietly eventually announcing that he thinks he will name one of the dancing kids Gaia too. With that we follow the group back to the pen and the goats are put reluctantly to bed with the resident cat, Conchita.

Sweetwater Farm sits right on the mountain top shaded by hundreds of trees, some sporting brilliant, brick red trunks with plasticky bark that looks unreal like a film set. Later I am told they are called madrones and I stop to admire them each time I pass spurred on only by the trillions of biting creatures who want only to see my hollowed out carcass sucked dry and crumpled on the path. The only place to hide from them is our splendid jurte which sports a double futon and a great deal of heat. At night, we switch off the dim, yellowy lamp and sit in the dark suddenly acutely aware that we are sitting alone in the middle of a great stretch of forest that stretches 200 miles down the coast; wild, tangled and roadless. The net tacked across the walls lets in the crunching of leaves and snapping of twigs in the darkness beyond us and we lie on our stomachs staring out at the creaking branches thinking uncertainly of mountain lions.

We spend the days hoiking big, sweating bags of goat turd up the steep paths to the garden with which Charlie sustains himself and his Woofing interns and which is fed with an unholy mixture of ammonia reeking goat manure and chicken shit from the coop adjacent. I pack the straw and goaty crap around each plant to hold in the water which is desperately short up here since Sweetwater Creek, for which the farm is named, started to falter and sometimes fail in the blistering drought. We collect beautiful, pale bluegreen eggs from the flock of chickens and distress the head honcho rooster in the process. He cries loudly and hurries the chortling hens in to the corner, puffs up his breast and looks at us with testosterone filled eyes. When we back out clutching the eggs, his eyes sparkle in triumph and we lock the gate laughing at his victory.

We sweat through two days of strenuous lifting as the temperature slides above forty, gulping down cups of water and chowing down Charlie’s vegetables with alarming speed. I am eventually led to the cheese making lair down by the goat pen having questioned Charlie relentlessly on the process of cheese production. I watch in the gloom as a large pail of supernatural looking goat curd is sliced, tumbled slippery and pale into plastic moulds and left to compact in to their final shapes until the following day when they will be removed from the moulds and salted. Charlie sells his crotins, chevre and aged manchego to high end restaurants locally for extraordinary sums of money because no one else is making goats cheese in this style in the area. He learnt in the 1970’s with a goat shepherd in France who obviously taught him well. The cheese is sharp and creamy with a layer of creeping gunge that moves like delicious ectoplasm when the cheese is sliced. I spread it thickly on slices of dark bread when we are lucky enough to be served it at dinner and think a little wistfully of France and the easy drive home to England whenever we are there.

But we are thousands of miles from home and don’t we know it. Finally, with the heat rising to unholy temperatures, Charlie stops us in our shambling procession up the hill and invites us to go visit the aquarium on Cannery Row which he confidently tells us is rather super duper. We gladly dump the black bags, vainly attempt to wash the goat smell off ourselves and make a rather nervous journey down the rutted dirt road to join highway one. We feel the air cool as we sink into the beautiful fog bank hanging over the coast and happily arrive in Monterey to battle with the parking restrictions that foretell of swarming crowds. We quickly slurp down some weirdly Californicated sushi filled with mystery crunchy bits and cream cheese then head to Cannery Row. The first warning sign is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a depressing restaurant chain founded on the film Forrest Gump and found leaching off all gacky visitor friendly attractions in the USA. The place is sparkling clean and humming with beshorted, tan-happy holidaymakers guzzling down itchy looking, swirly cupcakes and iced lattes. The swishy restaurants are clad in faux canning factory jackets and CANNERY ROW is written in huge, vintage letters across the street.

The aquarium is at the far end and we hurry through the drifting crowds to take a look. The price staggers us a little and we stand as though we are trying to remain upright in the swell of tide just looking at it. $80 for the two of us. But we wanted fish! We want sharks! It’s not fair! Where are our manta rays? I know immediately that we can’t afford it and pout my bottom lip and grunt that the prices are ludicrous. I suggest sneaking in via the shop but Jamie wisely reminds me that we must be on our best behaviour here for not only are there security guards all over the shop but people get criminal records for this kind of behaviour and a criminal record here means no readmittance to the USA probably ever. I grumble that I just wanted to see a reasonably priced fish and not get arrested but it’s clear that we should just leave. We walk away and head instead to a thrift store we had spotted on the way. We have visited dozens of aquariums and perhaps another one just lacks imagination. Indeed, as John Steinbeck once put it,

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book, to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

 

Irish Soda bread recipe from the Esalen Cookbook by Charlie Cascio- this is from his pre cheemaking days so forgive the lack of cheese recipe. The promised peanut butter mousse pie recipe will have to feature later.

This bread should go just great with goats cheese…

Makes 1 loaf

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup buttermilk

In a 2  quart mixing bowl, sift and then mix the flours, oats, baking soda, sugar, cream of tartar and salt.

Make sure the butter is cold and chop it into small pieces. Drop them in to the mixing bowl and, with a pastry cutter or your fingers, work the butter into the mix until it will hold together when you squeeze a bit of flour in your hand.

Whisk the yogurt and buttermilk together and add to the mix. Mix until all the dry ingredients are absorbed and you have a scone looking dough that is not sticky. If it sticky, add a little more unbleached flour. If the dough is too dry and the flour is not being completely absorbed into the dough, add a small amount of water to pull it together.

Oil and flour a baking tray. Shape the dough into a round loaf. Cut two slits in the bread and bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about one hour, or until a knife inserted in to the bread comes out clean. Place on a rack to cool.

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