Emma Freud leaves the city for a food-filled jaunt on a Californian dude ranch.
A couple of months ago, my sons and I sat down to watch City Slickers, the 1991 movie about three middle-aged men spending a week as cowboys herding cattle across Colorado.
I’ve dreamed of being Billy Crystal in that movie since it came out – and finally, spurred on by my sons’ enthusiasm at the concept of herding cows on horseback, we rented a tent, bought half-chaps on Amazon, purchased inappropriate hats and booked our places as ranch hands on a cattle drive at a dude ranch in California. #bucketlist. The V6 ranch, midway between LA and San Francisco, is 20,000 acres of stunning, lush countryside. There were 18 of us on the drive, spending three days taking 100-head of cattle up the valley to the long grass on the hills. The scenery was spectacular, the task was ancient, the horses were impeccable, the saddles were unforgiving.
Intermittently there was high drama as we rounded up the peskier cows, but the rest of the time it was a surprisingly peaceful and quiet task. The distances were massive, the days were hot and the talk was gentle – cowboys don’t chit-chat much, they’re too busy squinting into the sun for stray heifers. At night, we slept in tents at camp, our horses exhausted, our clothes dusty, our bottoms on fire.
The dude ranch food was everything we needed to fuel us up in the mornings, and encourage us back to camp in the evenings. The breakfast fry-up, heralded by an actual clanging triangle, came with baked French toast, a mighty way to start the day: big chunks of torn white bread soaked in a mixture of milk, eggs, vanilla and brown sugar, topped with a cinnamon crumble and baked until it’s pillowy beneath and crispy on top. Coffee came in an urn, and was exclusively black. I considered asking for some tea but thought it might go down as well as the moment I asked if there might be a cushion for my saddle (after six hours of continual riding, my bottom had lost the will to live). The request was met with tumbleweed – both literally and metaphorically.
Lunch was a rare roast beef sandwich made at breakfast time, then stored in a saddle-bag made from the cut-off leg of a cowboy’s old pair of jeans. The beef came from the ranch, was grass-fed, organic and gorgeous. But the bread was classic American-style which tastes like sweet cardboard. Most of the bread you buy here has sugar in it, smells like cake when you toast it, and can destroy the best of sandwich fillings. Regardless, after four hours in the saddle, everything tastes exquisite and the sandwiches were wolfed down.
At the end of the day, we made our way back to camp, hosed down the horses, turned them out to graze, showered in a tin shack, opened a beer, lit a fire and barbecued one of the cow’s uncles. The meat was cut into strips and, as there wasn’t much cutlery, we wrapped it in flour tortillas, covered them with salsa and cheese, rolled them up and devoured them. Discovering tacos like these has been an unexpected treat while living in America this year. You find them everywhere – at their most basic they’re meat and sauce inside a wrap. At their best they include a white (soured cream) sauce, a green (avocado-based) sauce and a red (tomato salsa) sauce, plus a grated sharp cheese and a crunchy vegetable of some sort. In our house, they’ve overtaken pasta as my children’s supper of choice – and their fresh mixture of flavours and textures is addictive.
And just in case the extensive exercise and organic meat was too wholesome, pudding was a classic dude ranch traybake made of a biscuit base covered in condensed milk, covered in butterscotch chips, covered in chopped nuts, covered in desiccated coconut, then baked. Brilliantly unhealthy, and unhealthily brilliant. I’d waited 25 years to make my debut as a cowgirl – I may never do it again, but every taco I eat will take me back to that epic valley, the green, green grass and my sore, sore bum.
Try Emma's own dude ranch taco recipe here.
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