Sonoma County

BBC Good Food - - Eat Like A Local - • Sup­port for this trip was pro­vided by Ap­ple­wood Inn, Restau­rant & Spa (ap­ple­wood­inn.com), Hertz car rental (hertz.co.uk), Sonoma County tourist board (sono­ma­county. com) and Bri­tish Air­ways (britishair­ways.com). @mari­naolough­lin @mari­nag­polough­lin

Napa Val­ley’s en­chant­ing neigh­bour with in­die restau­rants and bou­tique winer­ies is the place for true food­ies

Ev­ery­body even vaguely in­ter­ested in food and wine knows about Napa, Cal­i­for­nia’s Miche­lin mag­net and pow­er­house of the grape. But fewer are as fa­mil­iar with hip­per, more af­ford­able Sonoma – ac­tu­ally about twice the size of its swankier neigh­bour. For those of us who find Napa’s huge vini­cul­ture con­glom­er­ates a lit­tle cor­po­rate, trav­el­ling fur­ther west to­wards the coast re­wards over and over again. The two ar­eas couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent: Napa is all limos and block­buster wines, while there’s still a re­fresh­ing touch of the hip­pie about Sonoma. Here is where to come for Chardon­nay, Pinot Noir, blended reds, de­li­cious fizz, of­ten from winer­ies that won’t charge for tast­ings.

The towns that pep­per the coun­try­side are some­times stage-set pretty. Pe­taluma, for ex­am­ple, is a beauty: its Hotel Pe­taluma (hotelpetaluma.com), com­plete with creak­ing 1920s lift, is the height of bou­tique chic; while its restau­rant The Shuck­ery (theshuck­eryca.com) has su­perb, juicy, fish tacos, spiky with fresh chilli and herbs and their cau­li­flower ‘hot wings’ – fried, Buf­falo sauced, with blue cheese dip – is such a clever dish. Sis­ters Jas­mine and Aluxa Lal­icker who cre­ated this mer­maid-tiled cu­tie know their stuff. Pe­taluma is blessed with pie shops, ar­ti­san butch­ers, cock­tail bars; our choice, de­servedly pop­u­lar Della Fat­to­ria (del­lafat­to­ria.com) serves leg­endary home­made bread and glazed, syrupy buns.

Just out­side town, a wine tast­ing at Mcevoy Ranch (mcevoy ranch.com) comes with Rose­bud (rosé), The Evening Stan­dard (pinot noir), and Red Pi­ano (ev­ery­thing from Mon­tepul­ciano to Viog­nier). Their ex­tra vir­gin es­tate-grown olive oil is ev­ery bit as good as their wines.

CRAFT BOOZE BOOM TIME

You could spend weeks ex­plor­ing Sonoma’s many wine trails but where’s the fun in wine-tast­ing when you’re driv­ing? In­stead, we visit wine en­tre­pre­neur Jamie Kutch (kutch­wines. com) in his vast ware­house. His pinot noirs, still juiced by foot, col­lect rave re­views, and there’s a Santa Cruz Moun­tain chardon­nay that’s up there with the big names from Bur­gundy. It’s boom time for craft booze, with a mush­room­ing of dis­til­leries. We wal­low in some su­perb gins from Se­bastopol’s Spirit Works (spir­it­works­dis­tillery.com), run by hus­band and wife, Bri­tish-born Timo and Cal­i­for­nian Ashby Mar­shall. The com­bi­na­tion of clas­sic Bri­tish gin with sunny Cali ex­u­ber­ance is heady stuff – aro­mat­ics in­clude orange and lemon, hi­bis­cus and car­damom. They make whisky and vodka too, even sloe gin. The Bar­low (the­bar­low.net), the com­plex that con­tains Spirit Works, bris­tles with cof­fee shops, restau­rants, ice-cream stores, craft beer bars, winer­ies, cheese­mak­ers (no­tably the ex­cel­lent W M Cofield) and restau­rants. But we’re off to nearby Han­d­line (han­d­line.com), a glo­ri­ous rein­ven­tion of a for­mer Foster’s Freeze drive-thru diner. And yes, the menu fea­tures diner clas­sics – burg­ers, tacos, soup – but el­e­vated by the qual­ity of cook­ing and beauty of the lo­cal pro­duce. The ‘popotla verde’ hal­ibut ce­viche served with the toasti­est, crispest home­made taco chips is haute cui­sine in a diner apron. Sonoma of­fers ev­ery­thing from tiny street-food out­fits to some of the finest cui­sine any­where in the US. And it’s al­ways for­ward-think­ing: the first time I ever tried the fash­ion­able shrubs (drinks sharp­ened with fruit vine­gars), was a cou­ple of years back in Healds­burg’s The Shed (healds­burgshed.com). This time I go back for the full ex­pe­ri­ence – oys­ters and ‘her­itage hen hash’, a won­der­ful mash-up of eggs, pota­toes, mus­tard cream and wild fen­nel, served on the shady ter­race.

Thanks to charis­matic chef Christa Luedtke, the pic­turesque town of Guernville on the Rus­sian River has be­come a foodie hotspot. Her tiny, en­dear­ing Boon Eat + Drink (eatat­boon.com) is just the sort of bistro I love: full of heart and wel­come. And things you re­ally want to eat – the deep-fried Brus­sels sprouts dressed in olive oil, lemon, gar­lic and chilli are fa­mous; veg­eta­bles of­ten come from her gar­den and brown­ies are squidg­ily evil. Guerneville casts a spell: watch­ing the life of this tiny one-street town cen­tre, from a win­dow seat at Big Bot­tom Market (big­bot­tom­mar­ket.com) is an ur­ban-rus­tic plea­sure. As are its huge, fluffy bis­cuits. We work off the bis­cuits by hik­ing through Arm­strong Woods, fol­lowed by a pro­found sleep in Christa’s lovely lit­tle bou­tique hotel (boon­ho­tels.com).

FOR­EIGN FLAVOURS, CALI STYLE

Firmly in the fine din­ing arena is Healds­burg’s Sin­gle Thread (sin­glethread­farms.com). It’s like a Ja­panese inn fil­tered through a Cal­i­for­nian in­te­ri­ors mag­a­zine; the rooftop gar­den an oa­sis for drinks. Chef Kyle Con­naughton is ex-fat Duck, but it’s the el­e­gance of Ja­pan that’s cel­e­brated rather than any­thing tricksy. From a starter of many tiny, flaw­less dishes – im­mac­u­late oys­ters, mar­i­nated raw mack­erel, tem­pura squash blos­som, per­fect veg­eta­bles with smoked miso, sen­bei crack­ers, a tongue of peachy sea urchin – to the desserts, this is a meal of mes­meris­ing love­li­ness. Ev­ery­thing is del­i­cate and light: sugar snap peas bright with lemon and rich with Dun­geness crab; egg velouté topped with caviar. I haven’t the words – nei­ther count nor ex­per­tise – to ad­e­quately de­scribe the wines. Yes, it’s ex­pen­sive, yes, it’s a rar­efied ex­pe­ri­ence – but it’s one I’ll re­mem­ber for years. Even the knives are beau­ti­ful.

We travel up a wild, windswept coast to Bodega Bay: fa­mous as the set­ting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. As the mist swoops in, the mood be­comes de­li­ciously brood­ing. For­tu­nately, any fears are al­layed by the ex­cel­lent food at Drakes, in our hotel the Bodega Bay Lodge (bode­gabay­lodge.com): beau­ti­ful lit­tle crab cakes; huge, charred ar­ti­chokes, vast Ap­ple­wood-smoked lo­cal pork chops with Yukon gold pota­toes.

As the fog clears, we drive to the lo­cal crab shack, Spud Point Crab Co (spud­pointcrab.com), for a long soft roll crammed with the sweet­est crab­meat, with an ar­ray of rel­ishes and mayos. There’s just time for Boyes Hot Springs, a sub­urb of Sonoma, and some de­lights from chef Rob Lar­man’s Co­chon Volant BBQ Smoke­house (co­chon­volantbbq.com). Here, fat buns are filled with Carolina-style pork, smoked over al­mond wood and tangy from cider vine­gar. We leave with bot­tles of co­rian­der-spiced, mus­tard-seeded Carolina BBQ sauce, and the sig­na­ture Sonoma sauce, sweet, smoky and spicy from chipo­tle and chillies. As for Mex­i­can, brightly painted El Molino Cen­tral (el­molinocen­tral.com) is as good as it gets: the masa flour, ground daily from or­ganic corn; the tor­tillas freshly made to or­der; the mole poblano chicken com­plex and res­o­nant. The gelato scene in Sonoma is in­no­va­tive, too. Flavours here, in­clud­ing but­tered whisky, tequila, ap­ple-bour­bon-ba­con-brit­tle or cin­na­mon cof­fee fudge, make for a truly grown-up in­dul­gence. When­ever in Sonoma, I’ve left via the at­mo­spheric Fre­mont Diner (the­fre­mont­diner.com). There’s no bet­ter way to say good­bye on the short hop to the air­port (there’s now a non-stop Bri­tish Air­ways flight from Gatwick into Oak­land). Their home­made tomato soup comes with grilled cheese, melty and drip­ping. Sonoma is where you dream of when the city gets too much, while still pin­ing for foodie so­phis­ti­ca­tion. And wine: not for­get­ting all that won­der­ful wine.

Han­d­line

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