I’m very lucky; I don’t have to go far for one of most soul-soothing, health-enhancing, consciousness-raising adventures on this beautiful planet. All I have to do is drive north on 101, turn off on 116 north through Sebastopol, and suddenly I’m passing apple orchards, heirloom plant nurseries, bakeries, even a crazy hippie café with a giant espresso mug on the roof. I dearly love Healdsburg, Sonoma, Yountville, and Calistoga, but there are far fewer people here to intrude on my “country girl” fantasy. And Western Sonoma County is all about small-production artisanal produce and food of all kinds.
Wine, yes; vineyards slide up and down the hills and this time of year as the vines begin to turn sunset hues, they’re gorgeous. But there are also apples. Heirloom tomatoes. Melons. Cheese, from cows, goats, and sheep. And a wonderful variety of products and menus prepared from ingredients that chefs don’t have to go more than a few miles to find.
Last weekend I took this drive, giving myself even more time than usual to stop at each farmstand, u-pick, bakery, and farmer’s market I passed along the way. I also visited a few of my favorite cafés and restaurants to see what new dishes were on the menu this time of year, inspired by the seasonal bounty. I renewed my enthusiasm for many longtime favorites, and made some new discoveries as well. Here, from south to north to south again are a few of my local food heroes to celebrate and support.
Start in Sebastopol. You’ve got to get to Sebastopol before noon to catch this country town’s small but mighty farmer’s market in full swing, and it’s absolutely worth it. Local cheesemakers offer tastings, olive oil producers hand out slices of freshly baked local bread dipped in their latest batch. It’s impossible to decide whose heirloom eggplants and tomatoes to buy, and if you get inspired enough, you’ll end up, like I always do, going home with starter plants for your own kitchen garden. Fuel up with a big cup of the spicy chai from Hardcore Espresso (you can’t miss it — it’s the tin-roofed shack that looks like a junk dealer, bicycle repair shop, and Grateful Dead parking lot all in one.) I always get the chai; if you ask for spicy, it really is spicy – a rare thing outside of India. I’ve heard other people swear by the espresso drinks, which come with a big head of foamy milk.
Don’t Bypass Graton. Just north of Sebastopol is the tiny town of Graton, which you basically have to know about because it’s several twists and turns off 116 and the sign is easy to miss. I found Graton years ago when a friend moved out there, and now I just have to stop to see what’s up in this tiny hamlet where there’s always something interesting going on.
This time it was a local craft fair at the Grange Hall, where amongst some rather corny holiday gifts and tchotchkes, I found a local weaver selling goat’s wool scarves in muted harvest hues. The perfect lunch stop is WillowWood market, which despite its name isn’t a market but a wonderful café and restaurant with a cucumber green and ochre color scheme so farmhouse-elegant I once took photos, brought them to a paint store, and asked to have them matched. My only complaint about WillowWood is that they only serve their mouth-watering breakfast menu til 11:30. Since I tend to end up stuck at the Sebastopol Farmer’s Market until at least noon, this means I always miss out. Still, I’ve never forgotten the one occasion I arrived in time to try their French folded eggs, slow-cooked in a double boiler with fontina cheese and fresh herbs. But the smoked trout salad with walnuts, apples and blue cheese, my usual lunch choice, is not-to-be-missed as well.
In Search of Heirloom Apples. Now I’m on to my annual apple pilgrimage. I’m an apple fanatic, but I don’t particularly like any of the varieties commonly sold in stores nowadays. For years I wondered, where oh where are the tart, juicy, thin-skinned, firm-fleshed apples of my childhood? Here’s my test: when you bite into an apple, it should give an audible crunch, and tiny droplets of juice should fly out around you. Stand back, everyone. So I was thrilled to see the bins set out outside Hale’s Apple Farm, carefully labeled with names and varieties I’d never even heard of. (Arkansas Black? Sleeping Beauty? I had to try them all.) Luckily, whichever member of the Hale family happens to be running the stand at a given moment is only too happy to cut slices for you to taste, and to recommend apples based on your criteria. Despite a long conversation about the various merits of each, however, I ended up with a huge bag containing several of almost every variety except Romes, which are too soft and sweet for my taste.
By this point, of course, my mind has moved on to apple-related food, and I’m craving a slice of the incredible fresh Gravenstein apple pie served every year to hordes of pie fanatics at Mom’s Apple Pie. A quick stop for a slice in the peaceful new garden gazebo, and — not to be selfish — I pick up a whole pie to serve the family later that night. The tart locally pressed cider they sell at the counter also makes a great take-home prize or hostess gift.
A New Discovery for Next Time. While enjoying the warm October sun at Mom’s, I made one of the new discoveries that makes this area so endlessly enjoyable for me. Just next dooris the intriguingly named and can’t-miss-it lovely Henweigh Café. I wasn’t hungry thanks to WillowWood’s delights, but the posted menu, which features a collection of eclectic small plates based around ingredients like local figs, prosciutto, and fresh-baked panini bread, was interesting enough to tempt me for a return visit soon.
From here, 116 heads north to Forestville, a hub of local winemaking and tasting, and eventually to the Russian River, which was my final destination.
On the return journey, you can either come back the same way, or make a loop by heading west along River Road to Monte Rio. From there you take the Bohemian Highway south through Occidental, which is what I do. (Try never to retrace your steps is part of my life philosophy.) Among other things, Occidental is the home of one of my favorite gardens of all time, Western Hills Nursery, a horticultural treasure that almost disappeared a few years ago after the death of the founders. Purchased a year ago by new owners, Western Hills is open on weekends once again and gardeners from all over the west are flocking back to hunt through the rare and exotic plants collected from all over the world. Continuing south you pass through Freestone, where a must stop is my favorite bakery of all time, Wild Flour Bread, described in a post a few months ago.