Solvang, a city in Santa Ynez Valley, 212 kilometers north of Los Angeles, has been described by visitors as cute, charming, quaint and romantic. Others derisively say it’s “touristy,” “boring” and “fake.” To me, however, this city founded a century ago by Danish teachers and since transformed into a Danish village, is the land of whipped cream.
Nowhere else have I seen so much whipped cream piped on cakes, coiled on cream puffs, sandwiched between cookies and twirling on top of fresh fruits than in Solvang. Even the coffee and hot chocolate come with frothy, graceful swirls of whipped cream.
After a long, scenic drive on California’s Central Coast, it was whipped cream that greeted us in Birkholm’s Bakery, a family owned restaurant and bakeshop founded by Carl and Charlotte Birkholm in 1951. The cream puff we ordered had two pastry shells linked by towering layers of whipped cream, dusted with powdered sugar. It was like biting into a cloud and savoring its ethereal sweetness. Even the banana cake we ordered had whipped cream piped between its layers.
Elsewhere in the display case, other pastries looked just as tempting: carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting, chocolate cookies with whipped cream filling, Napoleon Hats with chocolate topping, sugar crusted kringles and buttery pastries with jam at their center, curiously called Owl’s Eye.
Not that I’m complaining. Whipped cream does add volume and glamour to desserts, anointing it with a final touch of indulgence. Probably it’s this propensity for whipped cream that makes the pastries in Solvang look so mouthwatering.
To be fair, there were other delectable foods to try. At breakfast the next day I ordered the famous Arne’s aebleskivers in Solvang Restaurant. I had heard so much about this delicacy from my friend Delores, who’s of Danish descent, as well as from another friend, Mary, who showed me how to make them when I visited her in Missouri. Naturally I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to try authentic aebleskivers right in the heart of this Danish town.
A Scandinavian specialty, an aebleskiver is a pancake shaped like a ball. It’s a traditional delicacy often served at Christmas and other festive occasions. My order consisted of three aebleskivers clustered over a puddle of raspberry jam. Ample sprinklings of powdered sugar gave them a snowy look. Inside, the golden crust was light, fluffy and savory; they were endowed with just the right amount of sweetness by the raspberry jam and powdered sugar.
Since it was December, the restaurant was decked in full regalia with Christmas ornaments. Wreaths and candy canes were hung on the walls, and a smiling snowman was suspended from the ceiling. It was just the kind of place where we would love to linger, except that the other restaurants and shops were beckoning to be explored.
It’s probably these shops, huddled side by side on the main streets, that make others describe Solvang as being touristy. But rather than mock such abundance, I actually found them fascinating. The shops, especially at Christmas time, made the street look magical, like a page out of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Here was a shop window filled with dolls and stuffed toys, there was a sumptuous display of chocolates, candied apples, fudge, butter cookies and caramels, while in another shop were artisanal cheeses, bottles of preserves, olives, sausages and butter. It was enough to bring out the inner child in anyone.
And speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, a museum located above the Book Loft on Mission Drive houses an extensive collection of his memorabilia. Here one can peruse the Danish writer’s letters, manuscripts, books and photos.
Adding to Solvang’s appeal are the stalls right outside the farms that sell seasonal vegetables, organic produce, flowers, herbs and plants. In the summer there are dance performances on the streets and rides in horse-driven trolleys. And because it’s in the middle of Santa Barbara’s wine country, there are a number of wine tasting rooms around Solvang, where visitors can sample wines such as artisanal Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
In the evening, we took the opportunity to drive to nearby Buellton for dinner in Hitching Post II, a restaurant known for its barbecues and steaks—and also as the setting for some scenes in the film “Sideways.” In the film, two friends, Miles and Jack (portrayed by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, respectively), set out on a weekend together before Jack’s wedding. One of their stops happened to be the Hitching Post, where they sat in the bar drinking Pinot Noir while ruminating on life.
Imagining ourselves to be obscure extras in a movie, we sat at our table and ordered prime juicy sirloin steak and Angus rib chop, which were served invitingly charred on the outside
and an appetizingly reddish pink at the center. The servings were huge, so we had to exert a bit of an effort to do justice to the steaks. Nevertheless, we still found room for dessert, a dark moist chocolate cake served with ice cream.
Making the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Solvang even more worthwhile are the nearby towns with attractions of their own. In San Simeon Valley, the Hearst Castle looms on The Enchanted Hill, with its majestic gardens, grand rooms and suites, cottages, pools and terraces. Built by William Randolph Hearst in 1865, the Mediterranean Revival Style estate is open to the public for tours.
Before driving back to Los Angeles, we stopped by the Piedras Blancas Rookery on the California Central Coast, where the powerful waves lashed at the rocks while dozens of seals swam to shore to sunbathe in the golden California sunlight.
I still think of that trip once in a while, whenever I see pastries laden with whipped cream, or whenever longings for the ocean and the orderly greenery of vineyards strike me. It was as magical a trip as one can get in California, away from the bustling crowd and into a land all its own, a wondrous land where sweets form part of the landscape and dreams of castles and movies come with the territory.