Eating Local in Napa and Sonoma
The concept "eat local, think global" has long been established doctrine in the Wine Country, home to many artisanal food producers, family farmers, and small ranchers. The catalyst for this culinary and agricultural revolution occurred in nearby Berkeley with the 1971 debut of Chez Panisse, run by food pioneer Alice Waters. Initially called California cuisine, her cooking style showcased local, seasonal ingredients in fresh preparations. It also introduced American chefs to international ingredients and techniques. As the movement spread, it became known as new American cooking and these days often falls under the heading of modern American.
In the early 1980s, John Ash began focusing on food's relationship to wine. His eponymous Santa Rosa restaurant helped set the standard for the variant later dubbed Wine Country cuisine. Ash credits Waters with inspiring him and other chefs to seek out "wholesome and unusual ingredients." Today's appeals to reduce the nation's carbon footprint added another wrinkle to the culinary maxim's "think global" component, prompting further emphasis on supporting local agriculture and food production. Much of the back-to-the-earth movement's R&D takes place at Napa and Sonoma's farms and enclaves of artisanal production.
Farms and Gardens
A good way to experience the Wine Country's agricultural bounty and the uses to which chefs put fruits, herbs, vegetables, and other ingredients is to visit one of the local farms and gardens that supply produce to top restaurants (some of which have their own gardens as well). In summer and early fall you can visit Jacobsen Orchards as part of a Secret Garden Tour and wine tasting booked through Yountville’s Hill Family Estate Winery. The 1.3-acre Jacobsen farm, a five-minute drive from downtown, grows figs, peaches, pears, apricots, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, and culinary flowers—even snails—which appear on plates at chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and elsewhere. If you’re dining at Keller’s restaurant you’ll appreciate your meal all the more after tasting, for instance, the difference between fresh basil leaves and flowers and learning that Keller’s chefs sometimes use herbs’ flowers rather than their leaves to impart more delicate flavors. Over in Santa Rosa, you can tour the 3-acre culinary garden outside the Kendall-Jackson tasting room, which supplies produce for the winery's wine and food pairings and top restaurants in the Wine Country and beyond.
Farmers, of course, sell their goods to local high-end grocers, but a more entertaining way to sample the goodies is to browse the same outdoor farmers' markets that local chefs do. The two biggest ones, both in Sonoma County, are the year-round market in the town of Sonoma and the Healdsburg market, held from May through November. Many a Sonoma chef and even a few from Napa can be spotted at either of these popular markets. Two high-profile Napa Valley markets, one in Crane Park in St. Helena on Friday morning, the other next to Napa's Oxbow Public Market on Tuesday and Saturday morning, operate from May through October. All of these markets are perfect places to assemble items for a picnic, by the way.
The Wine Country's diverse climate makes it an ideal place to grow many types of fruit. Healdsburg's Dry Creek Peach & Produce, for instance, grows more than 30 varieties of white and yellow peaches, along with nectarines, plums, figs, persimmons, and other fruit. Rare fruit varieties grown in Napa and Sonoma include prickly pears, loquats, and pluots, a plum-apricot hybrid. The pluot, a fairly recent creation, involved the reverse engineering of the plumcot, a hybrid developed in Sonoma County by horticulturist Luther Burbank. Another fruit that fares well in these parts is the Meyer lemon.
Some chefs give top billing to their produce purveyors. One recent menu touted a salad containing heirloom tomatoes from Big Ranch Farms of Napa and Solano counties. Over in the Sonoma Valley, another restaurant described the main ingredients in a mushroom salad as all locally grown, in some cases in the wild. There's no equivalent of an appellation for vegetables, but that didn't stop a St. Helena restaurant from informing diners that its Swiss chard came from Mt. Veeder—what's good for Cabernet Sauvignon is apparently also good for leafy greens. Other local vegetables gracing Wine Country menus include artichokes, multihue beets and carrots, and heirloom varieties of butternut squash, beans, and even radishes.
Family-owned ranches and farms are prominent in the region, with many raising organic or "humane-certified" beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. Upscale restaurants are fervent about recognizing their high-quality protein producers. A well-known St. Helena restaurant, for example, credits Bryan Flannery for various beef cuts on its menu, and you’ll see the name Green Star Farm (of Sebastopol) for organic chicken and Liberty (Petaluma) for ducks. To delve deeper into what happens to meats between farm and restaurant, you can take a Saturday class at the Fatted Calf Charcuterie in the Oxbow Public Market. Classes that often sell out include Pig + Woman + Knife, a class in hog butchery "taught by women for women."
Seafood from local waters abounds, from farm-raised scallops to line-caught California salmon. Around Thanksgiving, California's famous Dungeness crab begins appearing on menus, either steamed whole, in salads, or as a featured ingredient in cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew that originated in San Francisco. Also look for Hog Island Oysters, whose namesake producer raises more than 3 million oysters a year just south of Sonoma County in Tomales Bay.
Restaurant cheese plates, often served before—or in lieu of—dessert, are a great way to acquaint yourself with excellent local cheeses. In Sonoma, Vella Cheese, just north of Sonoma Plaza on 2nd Street East, has been producing Dry Monterey Jack and other cheeses since 1931, the same year that the nearby Sonoma Cheese Factory, on Sonoma Plaza, got its start.
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