Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Road Trip on the Slow Lane: A Weekend of Foodie Bliss (and Other Noteworthy Adventures) in Northern California

Spring has sprung and all this sunshine and warm weather has had me doing cartwheels and backflips. Well....  Metaphorically, at least. Ski season is in its fight for its last breath, and I personally have not had much of a season anyway because of our underwhelming winter, busted knee and honestly, the psychological setback of that injury. There is no better time than to road trip and get out. I'm getting too pale.  Destination? Northern California for authentic local food experiences - and then some.  

Being fanatic about honest and real food, I love farmer’s markets. Being someone who grows food seasonally in our backyard on a small-scale, I have cultivated a respect for small, organic farmers. I appreciate that so much of it is a labor of love. Organic farming is not easy nor cheap, so I applaud these folks who supply America with the most honest and real food they can. I have met a handful of these farmers at markets and perhaps it is good ol’ Vitamin D overdose from being out in the sun all day, but it is almost always true – the spirit of these people are kind, sincere, cheerful, and happy.

I’ve gone to countless farmer’s markets but on this trip, I’m skipping the market. Instead, I’m dragging the Dutch to the source – the farm itself.  In between bites, we're also doing some absolutely fun stuff in the great outdoors.

Here's what this weekend looked like:

[Sacramento, CA]
We started in California’s capital, Sacramento. Also touted as the “Farm to Fork” capital of the United States, this one flies under the radar often. Sacramento is located in very close proximity to a lot of farming. It is only natural for the City of Trees to have a thriving slow food and locavore community.  My favorite spots so far are Cafe Bernardo for lunch and Magpie Cafe on R Street for dinner, and Hot Italian for in-between.

A salmon salad at Cafe Bernardo has the crispiest salad greens.  That alone makes the salad stunning in itself.
Magpie Cafe on R Street is delightful.  Yes, that's beef tartare.  
[Bodega Head, CA]

The following morning, we drive to Bodega Head to catch the northward migration of gray whales from Mexico. This annual northbound migration begins around March and continues to about May.  They swim 6,000 miles in the spring to the north to feed and back south in the south again in the fall to breed.  That's a total of 12,000 miles!

We attempted to whale-watch last year in May at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, close to the Ano Nuevo State Park.  However, I think we got there too late in the season that we only saw one sighting.  This time, we spotted whales as soon as we stepped out of the car.  There are unobstructed views of the Pacific and from about 100 feet peering through binoculars, you can see these magical mammals spout every five minutes or so. It is a wonderful experience and I do think it should be on more peoples’ bucket lists. The weather this time of the year is also splendid. There was a light flog in the early morning, but it lifted quickly by 10am.

The rugged California coast is so beautiful.  The weather was nice and warm which heightened the experience!

There were dedicated volunteers around who can and will talk your ears off (with visual aids even) about these fascinating creatures.

[California Cheese Trail]

Next, we drive twenty miles inland to Tomales, CA to get on the California Cheese Trail. Yes, there is such a thing and I strongly believe that this region of farmers ought to be given more credit. Not very many people have even heard about the California Cheese Trail, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful drives in America. Its tranquility and sheer natural beauty made me feel like I’m driving on the sloping pastures of Scotland. And I’ve never even been to Scotland. There are more than twenty artisan farmers on the trail who make all sorts of small-batch cheeses from mozzarella to brie to goat's cheese.  Some will give tours and tastings, some on an appointment-only basis.

We sought to get away and this part of California did not disappoint.  Oftentimes, there's not a car within periphery.  We owned the road.

We were on our way to Rimini Mozzarella in Tomales who makes small-batch buffalo mozzarella, and Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese in Valley Ford. Don’t ask me for directions because it seriously was a series of winding twists and turns dictated by a bored-sounding GPS voice. You could read my entire post on Rimini here and on Two Rock Valley here. I’ve never been to a dairy in my life before and if you love food, real and slow food made with passion, I would udderly recommend a visit to either or both family-run dairies!

[Guerneville, CA]

In the late afternoon, we drove twenty or so miles to Guerneville, CA where we were to spend the night in Boon Hotel + Spa. I know, Guerneville has zero market recall, but trust me, this is one small town in America you should not miss, especially this time of the year.  Between bike-friendly roads, the Russian River, a impressive food scene, and a redwood forest, there's enough here to keep you busy and happy.  Read the entire post on Guernville and how I downright rave about Boon Hotel + Spa here.

[Russian River Valley Wineries]

Russian River Valley is the cradle of Pinot and Chardonnay, we've been told.  I personally am not a Pinot drinker since I'm drawn more to the big reds like Zinfandel.  I always put in a disclaimer that I am not a connoisseur at wines.  I can’t detect notes of stone fruit, berries, or licorice, or whatever else it is they tell you you should taste.  What I can say though is that at first sip, I can tell if it is good wine or not.

We came unprepared for wine tasting in Russian River Valley.  When I say unprepared, I mean that we don't have a list of must-trys.  We ended up tasting at a random winery called Moshin.  We probably sampled a good eight or so of their wines, and to put it bluntly, each one was bad (these were $30 bottles, mind you). We gave it a shot to redeem itself so we hung on until the very end, but it just wasn't there.

We headed over to John Tyler Bacigalupi next.  In contrast, the wines here were stunning.  We tried their Rose and Pinots (and again, I'm not a Pinot drinker), and each one had a bold, full, even sophisticated character.  One sip is all it takes to know!  The grapes that put California wine on the map in the seventies in Paris were grown by this family.  It's $15 for a tasting and you don't need an appointment.  We had some cheese left over from our tasting the previous day at Two Rock Valley Cheese and nibbling on their cheese with the tasting made the experience even better!

[Healdsburg, CA]

This is a pleasant stop for some substantial food before we headed back home.  It was right down the hill from John Tyler Winery.  The folks at John Tyler sent us to Willy's for some fresh seafood and we're glad they did!  We found Healdsburg so charming and walkable.  There were so many cafes, restaurants, and tasting rooms that if you're a gourmand, I will be surprised if you haven't already heard about this cute little foodie town.  Click on this post for more pictures of downtown Healdsburg.

I was anxious about this trip because I've never planned anything like this before.  I knew absolutely nothing about the places we've made pitstops at and in end, the weekend could not have turned out better.  I recommend this itinerary to anyone within driving distance seeking to get away, and if not this exact one, anywhere you've never been before.  It's spring after all!

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