The Thoughtful Feast Recreates Old California

From Richard Foss

The first European fusion cuisine in California was created a long time before the era of celebrity chefs and restaurant publicists – in fact, before the state had anything we could call a restaurant at all. At the dawn of the nineteenth century the state was the cattle ranch for the Spanish empire, and in a few ranchos wealthy cattlemen lived like princes on vast estates. Their dream was to recreate the lifestyle of Iberian aristocrats in the country they had left, but their cooks invented something that fit their situation, a hybrid of new and old techniques using imported and local foods.

That California Rancho cuisine was documented in a few books that remain little known even to experts, but chef Anne Conness was inspired by those ideas when she opened her restaurant Sausal in El Segundo in 2015. She usually cooks a modified and modernized version of that cuisine, but on February 22nd she recreated a meal that might have been served two hundred years before, when this was part of the vast Rancho Sausal Redondo that gave her restaurant its name.

Over a welcome punch made in early 19th century style, host and historian Richard Foss opened the evening with a short description of how the odd economics of the California colony made things that were expensive everywhere else cheap. Chef Anne followed with an explanation of the first item, a pumpkin empanada with apple-radish pico de gallo, and the second, a chili relleno stuffed with potato, golden raisins, olives, almonds, and cheese. 

Foss and Conness were joined by Bennett Traub, representative of Harrington Winery, who explained early California winemaking as we tasted glasses of red wine made from the Mission grape. Mission grapes were traditionally used to make sacramental wine and are rarely planted now, but the winery owner found some productive hundred year old vines on a property he owned and was able to make a small amount of table wine. This semi-sweet wine was a fine match for the main course, smoked short rib in barbacoa sauce with pinquito beans and sautéed bitter greens with pickled jalapeno and onions. 

Another even rarer Harrington wine was the surprise accompaniment to the end of the meal: the winemaker made only two barrels of wine in a traditional Angelica sweet wine style, and we were privileged to be the first people to taste it. The sherry-like character of the wine went superbly with the walnut and chocolate custard made from a recipe in the 1898 cookbook El Cocinero Español, the first comprehensive book on this cuisine.

After dessert the participants took some time to talk with the chef and winemaker – here Chef Anne is seen with PACFAB President Philip Dobard and Director Tracey Mitchell.