Forget Tuscany—the most enticing artisanal cheeses, breads, olive oils, and condiments can be found in northern California. Here, an essential tasting menu.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ultimate northern california food and lodging
(by region and town)
OLIVE PRESS 14301 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 707/939-8900. A state-of-the-art mill for hire, and a shop selling regional oils and other products.
DOWNTOWN BAKERY & CREAMERY 308A Center St., Healdsburg; 707/431-2719.
JIMTOWN STORE 6706 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 707/433-1212.
MIDDLETON FARM 2651 Westside Rd., Healdsburg; 707/433-4755.
OAKVILLE GROCERY 124 Matheson St., Healdsburg; 707/433-3200. A source for O oils and vinegars.
BELLWETHER FARMS 9999 Valley Ford Rd., Petaluma; 888/527-8606 or 707/763-0993; by appointment. Extraordinary sheep's milk pecorino, ricotta, and fromage blanc.
MCEVOY RANCH 5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma; 707/778-2307; by appointment.
IRON HORSE RANCH & VINEYARD 9786 Ross Station Rd., Sebastopol; 707/887-1507.
REDWOOD HILL FARM 5480 Thomas Rd., Sebastopol; 707/823-8250.
GARDEN COURT CAFE & BAKERY 13875 Sonoma Hwy. 12, Glen Ellen; 707/935-1565; breakfast for two $20. Order Granny's Gravy with sausage and two biscuits.
THE GIRL & THE FIG 13690 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 707/938-3634; dinner for two $66. A straight-from-the-heart restaurant, serving "country food with a French passion."
SONOMA MISSION INN & SPA 18300 Sonoma Hwy., Boyes Springs; 800/869-4945 or 707/938-9000, fax 707/935-1205; doubles from $299. The area's best spa.
GAIGE HOUSE INN 13540 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 800/935-0237 or 707/935-0237, fax 707/935-6411; doubles from $250. Warm, handsome, and exceedingly well run.
APPLEWOOD INN 13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville; 800/555-8509 or 707/869-9093, fax 707/869-9170; doubles from $185. Nineteen rooms amid the redwoods.
MARSHALL'S FARM 185 Lombard Rd., American Canyon; 800/624-4637 or 707/224-6373; by appointment. Pumpkin-blossom, blackberry, manzanita, and star thistle honeys.
CALISTOGA ROASTERY 1631 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; 800/879-5282 or 707/942-5757.
OAKVILLE GROCERY 7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 707/944-8802.
RISTORANTE TRA VIGNE 1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena; 707/963-4444; dinner for two $60. If you haven't eaten here, you haven't been to Napa Valley.
FRENCH LAUNDRY 6640 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2380; dinner for two $180. The nation's best?Taste Thomas Keller's salmon tartare-filled cone, and you decide.
BOUCHON 6534 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-8037; dinner for two $60. Keller's bistro.
AUBERGE DU SOLEIL 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford; 800/348-5406 or 707/963-1211, fax 707/963-8764; doubles from $400. Beverly Hills comes to wine country.
MEADOWOOD 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 800/458-8080 or 707/963-3646, fax 707/963-3532; doubles from $410; dinner for two $100. A country-clubby resort and spa.
APPLE FARM 18501 Greenwood Rd., Philo; 707/895-2461.
BOONVILLE HOTEL Hwy. 128 at Lambert Lane, Boonville; 707/895-2210, fax 707/895-2243; doubles from $85; dinner for two $65.
point reyes area
HOG ISLAND OYSTER CO. 20215 Hwy. 1, Marshall; 415/663-9218. They furnish the oysters and bay-side picnic tables, you furnish the shucking knife and lemons.
TOMALES BAY FOODS 80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station; 416/663-9335. Chad Robertson's bread, Elisabeth Prueitt's cookies, wonderful produce, prepared foods, and cheese made on-site.
MANKAS INVERNESS LODGE Argyle Way, Inverness; 415/669-1034; doubles from $185; dinner for two $96. The sign, honest beds, phenomenal food, is no lie.