A Berry Fine Pie!
At Linn's in Cambria, Olallieberry is king
Cakes, cookies and bread are usually at the top of my list of preferred bakery items to eat or make. But lately I’ve fallen in love with pies. Last month, my husband Jeff wrote a guest post here about a tiny town in New Mexico that is literally named for pie.
Then, at the suggestion of my cousin Dan and his girlfriend Beryl, we stopped in Cambria, a town of fewer than 6,000 residents along California’s central coast that’s famed for, among other things, pies—in particular those served at a restaurant called Linn’s.
So memorable were the pies at Linn’s that Beryl shipped Dan two for his birthday last year—Raspberry-Rhubarb and California Apricot.
The frozen, deep-dish pastries, each weighing 3 1/2 pounds and ready to pop into the oven, were delivered on dry ice to his home in the San Francisco East Bay. At $60, shipping cost more than the pies—but for a taste of that distinctive tangy fruit, it was definitely worth it, Dan said.
So, driving back home along California’s central coast, its usually brown, drought-stricken hills turned verdant green from heavy December rains, we made like homing pigeons for Linn’s. To be closer to those pies, we even determined to stay in Cambria. It’s located along Route 1, just 10 miles south of San Simeon, home of the famous Hearst Castle. (Though the castle was closed when we visited, if you’re lucky, you may come across some wild zebras grazing in the hills, descendants of former residents of William Randolph Hearst’s zoo. It wouldn’t be a hard to imagine these creatures nibbling on a patch of olallieberries, the fruit Linn’s is best known for.)
It turned out that our destination was more than a cute little pie shop at the side of the road; it includes a collection of separate businesses: a restaurant, a café, a boutique/bookstore, and a gourmet goods shop, plus a working farm and a commercial complex nicknamed Tin City that’s comprised of a commercial kitchen, bakery, corporate offices and a warehouse, where most of the bakery items, preserves, vinegars and other products are made.
Until the pandemic shut it down, you could visit the farm about 10 minutes east of town to sample pies, shop for gifts and stroll around the grounds, where much of the fruit and vegetables that turn up on the restaurant and café menus are grown.
One of the workers told us Linn’s is Cambria’s largest private employer. That didn’t seem too surprising in a small town with a sleepy main street and a mix of Victorian and cottage-style homes that harken back to another more laid-back era. Of course, we visited in the January off-season during an ongoing pandemic when fewer tourists were on hand. Summertime in a post-Covid world (yes, please!) may be another story!
About those pies
At the Easy as Pie Shop & Café, the board lists the day’s pie flavors: Red Tart Cherry, Dutch Apple, Apricot, Peach Blueberry, Raspberry Rhubarb, Old Fashioned Apple, Pecan and Olallieberry. In addition, the glass case features several tarts, including Coconut Cream, Chocolate Cream and Lemon Meringue.
There are also savory pies, including chicken, beef and vegetable herb pot pies; there are stews and soups and all kinds of comfort food.
But it’s the Olallieberry (pronounced “oh-la-leh”) Pie and, in fact, all things olallieberry that have put Linn’s on the map.
Daniel Garnett, who served us a delightful meal of grilled cheese (Jeff’s favorite!) and Tomato-Basil Bisque, followed by a slice of Olallieberry Pie with vanilla bean ice cream for me and a chocolate cream tart for Jeff, has worked for the company for 22 years and said that the Olallieberry Pie has been Linn’s claim to fame for about 40 years now.
Linn’s served farm-to-table food before it was a thing, he said. In addition to the signature olallieberries, the owners, John and Renee Linn, grow lettuce, tomatoes, citrus, avocados, apples, apricots, plums, onions, a variety of nuts and much more.
“Home-style comfort food is what we’re known for, but pies are how it all started,” Garnett said.
But what accounts for the olallieberry craze?
“I think it’s unique,” he said. “Not a lot of people have it. It’s kind of like a niche, a little boutique berry only found on the West Coast.”
Even Garnett’s shirt speaks to the fruit’s popularity: “Linn’s: Experts in all things olallieberry,” and the café, restaurant and store are filled with olallieberry products—in addition to pies, fresh and frozen, there are preserves, jellies, fruit butters, pie fillings, vinegars, syrups, chocolate truffles, cakes and more made with the beloved berry. There’s even olallieberry honey, olallieberry tea and olallieberry hot fudge—all available via mail order, along with the pies at the Linn’s website.
So what is it about the Olallieberry Pie in particular that draws people? Well, for one thing, it’s delicious and addictive—a perfect mix of tart and sweet that lingers on the tongue and in your taste memory. Have you ever tasted a pie, cake or cookie that you couldn’t forget? Of course, Proust’s famous madeleine comes to mind. For me, I think it may be this pie!
I’m at home as I write this wondering whether to order a frozen Olallieberry Pie from Linn’s or make one from the jar of filling I brought back with me. I’m thinking about the crust, an important selling point for all the pies from Linn’s. It’s golden brown and sturdy looking, but that’s deceptive; it shatters into scrumptious flakes the moment you stick your fork into it…
After a little digging for details, I learned from one server that it had butter in it and from another that it definitely has lard too. For those who don’t know, lard is not the same as vegetable shortening, which is also often used in pie crust. Lard is made from rendered fat from a pig. While my family didn’t keep strictly kosher when I was growing up, pork wasn’t on the menu, so I’ve never made a pie with lard. But the Linn’s crust took my breath away. And there was nothing porky about it. I doubt an all-butter or a butter and vegetable shortening combo could ever compare.
And what, you ask, is an olallieberry? The Linn’s website describes it as a cross between a loganberry and a youngberry, but “genetically about two-thirds blackberry and one-third red raspberry,” with the appearance of a classic blackberry. These berries are primarily grown on the Linn Farm, with some of the fruit coming from Oregon, where the berry was first developed in 1949.
The ones grown at the farm are a little on the tart side, the preference of Renee Linn, who developed the fruitier, lower-sugar pies, preserves and sauces that are the company’s signature. The goal, Garnett explained, is “to sort of let the berries and the fruit talk for themselves.” And they do.
As for Linn’s origin story, it’s as familiar as apple pie. John and Renee Linn, a young midwestern couple, had a dream of owning a farm. After attending a friend’s wedding in Cambria, they fell in love with the area, purchased some land and moved there in 1977 with their three young kids. Beginning with fruit trees and other crops, they began a Pick-Your-Own business to make ends meet.
Renee started selling her special “More Fruit-Less Sugar” preserves at the farm, then added pie so that visitors would have something to eat. And it grew from there. Still a family business, there are now three generations of Linns involved, including son Aaron, general manager of the restaurant, and the eldest grandchild, William, who is running the farm.
Final thoughts: Pies, sunsets and elephant seals
If you do stop in Cambria for pie—or possibly some beautiful pottery at the Arts & Crafts movement-inspired Ephraim Pottery—you may be inclined to stay a little longer and book a room at one of the many motels along Moonstone Beach or in town (midweek prices in off-season, as you’d expect, are more reasonable).
At the risk of sounding like a travel agent, I’d advise you to take a walk along the boardwalk at sunset. The next day—perhaps after coffee and fresh beignets at The Second Line in town—you might want to head north a few miles in search of those zebras or, from late January to March, to Las Piedras Blancas to view the elephant seals during the breeding season. We saw a sizable contingent of mama seals nursing their pups, along with a few fierce-looking dads with the giant jutting proboscises that give them their name.
And that’s enough about pies, seals and beignets. Welcome and thanks to my new subscribers and those who have stuck by me over the months! Please feel free to like, comment, and contribute to the discussion. Are you a fan of pie? Do you have a favorite flavor? Should I change the name of my newsletter to Ruthtalkspie? (Just kidding!)
I’ve recently been introduced to some talented bloggers on Substack and hope to talk more about them—and to them—in future posts.
See you next time!