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Flourishing Food in Northern California

earning a ph.d. in coffee

The Napa Valley town of Calistoga is noted for its mud baths (a gooey mix of mineral water, peat, and volcanic ash), and the Calistoga Roastery, specializing in best-quality beans. The shop, whose deeply laid-back café serves a $1.25 bottomless cup, sells 16 varietals, four decafs, and any blend. Country French is made of four South American beans roasted "as dark as we dare." Clean Teeth Murray's, with Thai robusta, was made for a regular who wanted to be shot out of his house in the morning.

heirloom apples

You hear it from everyone: For a taste of what Napa and Sonoma were like before the tourism flood, go north to Anderson Valley, where the hills are lush with wild lilac and lupine, and west to Point Reyes, a triangular peninsula whose immaculate meadows, beaches, and inlets are a weekend playground for nature-seeking San Franciscans.

Rising out of the green Anderson Valley floor, 90 minutes north of Calistoga, is Boonville (population 500) and John Schmitt's irresistible Boonville Hotel. The restaurant at this redwood landmark remains honorable even when it overreaches. A sunny new building in galvanized corrugated metal is outfitted with board-and-batten interiors and ingenuous Pottery Barn-style furnishings. From the screened porches you can hear a creek gurgling.

Just up the road in Philo, Schmitt's family runs the Apple Farm, a 32-acre Mendocino County institution with a cooking school. The property is an enchanting patchwork of barns, gardens, arbors, greenhouses, and orchards. The farm specializes in such rare heirloom apples as the Sierra Beauty, a good keeper with terrific snap, and Rhode Island greening, whose dense flesh resists shattering in pies. All fruit is picked, sorted, and packed by hand. The jams are made like your grandma's, and it's easy to imagine the apricot one, so clear, bright, and soft, spooned into a soufflé. Apple balsamic vinegar didn't fare well in a tasting—too crude and cloying. But the apple cider syrup is a revelation over vanilla ice cream with toasted pecans.

primeval bread

It's a 2 1/2-hour drive from Philo through the redwoods of Hendy Woods State Park and down the Mendocino coast to Point Reyes Station. But my trip was eased by exhilarating views of the Pacific and the knowledge that Chad Robertson's breads awaited me. Bay Village Wood-Fire Baking, Robertson's wholesale bakery (his breads are sold next door at Tomales Bay Foods) uses Giusto's Vita-Grain organic unbleached flour and an oven built by the prince of wood-burning-oven builders, Alan Scott.

Having met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Robertson and his wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, worked at bakeries near St.-Tropez and in the Savoy. Then as now, side-by-side, he made bread while she made pastry (also sold at Tomales Bay). "The difference between French- and San Francisco-style sourdough is that the French don't want the sour taste and the bakers here do," says Robertson. "I make something in between, with a sweet and, at the same time, fermented flavor."

Feeling the heat of Robertson's just-baked walnut loaf through its heavy brown bag, I settled down on one of the hay bales that Tomales Bay, a covered market, tosses about as seating. For a week I had been carrying around a sample of Marshall's Farm manzanita honey from American Canyon in Napa. I emptied the jar onto a piece of bread, the honey dark and wild as molasses, the bread with a rich, mouth-filling flavor and fresh walnuts whose oils had bled beautifully into the crumb. And I wondered how long it would be before the feeding frenzy reaches Point Reyes Station.

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