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Flourishing Food in Northern California

The way people jockeyed for them, you'd have thought they were the last olives in Napa Valley. Durangos idled three-deep at the curb as women in Ferragamo flats and straw boaters raced into the Oakville Grocery: food central for the price-unconscious. The atmosphere in the Grocery, an hour north of San Francisco, was unusually high-pitched because a delivery of Bob Cantisano's niçoise-style olives marinated in tangerine-infused olive oil had just arrived. Customers elbowed, jostled, and nudged to get at them. Isn't it people on the East Coast who are supposed to be the pushy ones?

So began my northern California food odyssey, a delicious postmodern (tangerine oil!) bite of the Mediterranean, with a side order of aggression. My focus was the products fueling the current California feeding frenzy, with chefs and their dishes supplying the context, and my discoveries made my palate sing. That succulent sound you hear is the new American table groaning.

food wars: sonoma vs. napa

I based myself in the quintessential Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen, across the Mayacamas Mountains from Napa Valley, at the Gaige House Inn, the wine-country hotel of your dreams. Gaige House has thoughtful guest rooms, a yummy pool, and baroque breakfasts—such as scrambled eggs with leeks, asparagus, prosciutto, and pesto cream—that have earned their renown.

The Mayacamas form a gentle barrier between the valleys. And a necessary one: the two are archrivals, with open war all but declared. Napa, a 30-mile arc that swings between the towns of Napa and Calistoga, is famous for its vastly better (and expensive) restaurants, chichi allure, and wine-marketing muscle. The 17-mile Sonoma Valley, reaching from Sonoma to Healdsburg, has the greatest concentration of food producers, and prides itself on its folksiness. But you'd better go quickly. The Napatization of Sonoma is well under way. Sun-dried-tomato mustard?Cilantro-pepper risotto?I don't think so.

italy watches its back

Anyone interested in where American food is headed will want to visit McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma. A very young 80 years old, Nan McEvoy is the former chairman of the board of the San Francisco Chronicle. I wanted to know how a high-powered, deep-pocketed society gal like her had come to make one of the country's finest olive oils: unfiltered, rather peppery, low in acidity (less than 0.2 percent), and virtually noseless. McEvoy's interest in olive oil was sparked by cooking classes in Italy, with Lorenza di Medici at Badia a Coltibuono, a Tuscan wine and olive estate, and with high priestess Marcella Hazan in Bologna. For her own undertaking, McEvoy enlisted the dashingly mustachioed Maurizio Castelli, a former consultant at Coltibuono. He insisted on planting coratina olives, which give McEvoy's oil its piquant end notes, and on buying an Italian-made Rapanelli press. The fruit is crushed on a traditional granite millstone, but the Sinolea extraction system is new-wave. The conventional method involves spreading olive mash on mats separated by metal disks, and the oil can be tainted from the trauma of high pressure. The gentler Sinolea process employs thousands of tiny stainless-steel blades that slice into the pulp and emerge weeping with oil.

The McEvoy press also produces the O label's citrus-flavored oils, created by Greg Hinson and his sister-in-law, Cristina Salas-Porras, whose day job is as assistant to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Most flavored oils are infused oils. But O's draw on the Italian custom of sending whole lemons (in this case Meyer lemons, and also organic blood oranges and Tahitian limes) through the press with the last batch of olives, letting the acid from the citrus clean the grinding stone. Salas-Porras recommends adding the lemon oil to fig halves slathered with goat cheese.

a tale of two vinegars

The citrus oils notwithstanding, if you buy only one O product it has to be the ambrosial Zinfandel vinegar, which is literally good enough to drink. Oak-aged for 2 1/2 years, the vinegar is an elegant garnet color, with bright intimations of plums and pomegranates. As with balsamic vinegar, a splash goes a long way toward making anemic early strawberries taste like intense, mid-season ones.

O's thunder is being stolen by Paul Bertolli, chef at Oliveto in Oakland, and the first person in this country to create a by-the-book balsamic vinegar. His headquarters are in a Healdsburg barn. Unlike wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar is cooked. Crushed grapes are simmered to a syrup, which spends at least 12 years aging, acidifying, oxidizing, and largely disappearing. Alas, the only chance to taste the results is at Oliveto, or by ordering a bottle via the Web site of Healdsburg flower farm Chalk Hill Clematis (www.chalkhillclematis.com).

hot sauce: the last word

When Wall Street securities analysts talk about reinventing themselves as West Coast winegrowers, Iron Horse is the sort of place they fantasize about. The vineyard is set among the soft, sexy hills of Green Valley, a half-hour from Glen Ellen in Sebastopol. An allée of palm and olive trees leads to a cluster of redwood barns and 20 acres of gardens and orchards.

Iron Horse's olive oil is suave, silky, and buttery. And the estate's Hot Horse pepper sauce is a pedigreed product as worthy as its méthode champenoise wines. The sauce is made from six kinds of chilies grown on the premises, including habanero, which packs the most heat, and Trinidad, used as a seasoning. Roughly chopped, they are aged in oak barrels whose wood coaxes out the peppers' residual sweetness. After nine months the fermented mixture is processed to a jammy purée with a fresh pepper taste and a seductive floral perfume. "We wanted to make a nuanced, sweet hot-pepper sauce, rather than one of those numbingly aggressive hot-hot sauces," says its creator, Forrest Tancer. "Use it as you would Tabasco."

a cheese course

Redwood Hill Farm's view of Mount St. Helena is even more exalting than Iron Horse's. The 250-goat dairy peers down on the winery, a sultry 10-minute walk away on a dusty road. Ex-hippies Jennifer Lynn Bice and her late husband, Steven Schack, studied cheese-making all over France before inventing their mold-ripened Camembert-style Camellia. It tastes of whole milk and has a pearly interior, opulent as charmeuse. In addition to an excellent Teleme, cheddar, and raw feta, Bice produces a true Mediterranean-style yogurt. Redwood doesn't have a formal tasting room, but visitors should have no trouble getting Bice to lend them the dairy's deck, which comes with that million-dollar, wraparound view.

the all-american roadside picnic

Redwood cheeses are the stuff of great picnics, as are the trendy Oakville Grocery's focaccia sandwiches, pistachio biscotti, and Mount St. Helena pale ale. In Healdsburg, where the Grocery has a branch, you can also pick up a chewy sourdough baguette at the Downtown Bakery & Creamery—a reminder of the days before the town succumbed to Victorian cutesiness. For crudités stop by Middleton Farm, whose organic vegetables look like jewels and are about as expensive. Then go seven miles from Healdsburg to the Jimtown Store, which brings the concept of the general store into this millennium. Housewares, antiques, toys, and candy are sold alongside the shop's signature chopped-olive salad, created by owners Carrie Brown and John Werner. Werner was one of the silent engines driving the original Silver Palate.

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