Farm and Away: Farm-to-Table Bounty in Northern California
By Trish Sebastian
When I was growing up in Manila, I have to admit that I looked condescendingly at the rural way of life. I found if painfully slow and awfully backward. It lacked action and stimulation that I, as a dyed-in-the-wool urbanite, get stoked about. I liked traveling to bustling metropolises replete with blinding lights, a tireless hum, and monstrous concrete that towered arrogantly over humanity.
If you are a “foodist” (and if you’re reading this blog, you most likely are), then you probably recall that epiphany when eating well, healthy and fresh has turned into a way of life; that moment of awakening when your food choices drastically change and you suddenly find yourself discriminating between whole, slow food over processed and fast food. With a commitment to eat or make the best food I can, I now look at the countryside with fresh eyes. I slowly made the connection that to get the best and freshest ingredients for the table, one must start at the source – the farm.
Many do not explore Northern California beyond San Francisco, or perhaps, Napa Valley. But there are many obscure pockets in this region that is teeming with farmers and food artisans. Its dry summers and mild winters, combined with a healthy water supply, make Northern California a dream for farming. Read on for a taste of some sweet spots in rural California that made a convert out of a haughty city girl like me.
San Francisco has an abundance of excellent restaurants that source from farms direct. But if you want to try something a bit off-the-radar somewhere with a smaller town feel, why not drive across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley? The 40+ year-old restaurant Chez Panisse is a mecca for foodists, especially since it is founded by Alice Waters who is credited for pioneering the organic, slow food movement in the States. Or why not venture to California’s political capital, Sacramento, also dubbed as the farm-to-fork capital of America? Come in September for the Farm-to-Fork Festival and Restaurant Week.
There is probably no corner of the epicurean world where Napa Valley vintners are not celebrated. While Napa wines are good, I’ve discovered a nook in obscure Lodi, California where red wine, especially my variety of preference, Zinfandel, is made by families who’ve been making wine for generations. The scene is idyllic and intimate, and don’t be shocked if the farmer-cum-winemaker himself pours you wines to try at a tasting. It is definitely a far cry from the impersonal treatment you’re likely to get in the hyper-wineries in Napa Valley. Heritage Oak Winery is my only recommendation and that is partly because their wines never fail to astonish that there really is no other reason to go elsewhere. Their zinfandels are freaking amazing – bold, unflinching, and consistent. They also don’t sell to big box stores so that bottle you’re going to take home is only one of a very limited batch.
The Sonoma Cheese Trail in Sonoma and Marin Counties, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco, is cheese heaven. There are about thirty of these farms and cheese makers, some of which offer tours or cheese making classes. You might even meet the animals where the milk for cheese came from! Come in April when the whales are due back from the south and you can whale watch on the coast while you’re on the Cheese Trail. The plus is that there are numerous vineyards here, and where there is wine, great food cannot be far behind.
Apples and Fruit
Apple Hill in Placer County has an abundance of apple orchards. It gets really festive and busy in the fall when apples are in season. You have the option to go out to the orchard with your own bucket and pick your own apples. There are also farm stands where you can buy other seasonal fresh fruits, nuts, and pumpkins. The best part is the bigger farms make their own apple pies, apple crumbles, apple doughnuts, apple tarts – and you can just spend a whole day doing exactly this – apple dessert hopping.
It’s remarkable how food and travel, either individually or together, could change how you see the world or live your life. I have not been back to the Philippines in years and every time I book a trip somewhere that is not the Motherland, I feel a little pang of guilt that I really should be getting my rear on a flight to Manila instead. The Philippines outside of Manila is largely agricultural and as ironic as it sounds, I’ve never bothered to explore the Philippine countryside. I am curious if the farm-to-table concept is alive in the Philippines and other parts of Asia. Now that is a trip I can’t wait to take to find out.