I have been on the road for more than two weeks and am less than three hours from home. And what’s wrong with that? There is so much happening in the greater Bay Area’s food scene it makes it hard to leave. You’ve heard of a food desert? Well, the Bay Area is a food oasis, in most parts. I will be heading out of California next month, but for now there’s a lot to do and see here.
I’m wrapping up a few days in west Sonoma County, one of my favorite places in the world. Our first stop was Bodega Artisan Cheese. Owner Patty Karlin has become a fixture in the little town of Bodega for her great cheese and outgoing personality. She’s the kind of woman you feel like you’ve known for years after just spending just a few minutes with her.
Karlin runs a quirky but charming goat dairy on seven acres. She opened the first goat-cheese dairy in Sonoma County at a time when few people knew chevre from feta. With a little help, she makes half a dozen goat cheeses by hand every day. My favorite is the goat Manchego and fresco. She also makes a Peruvian version of a dulce de leche, a goat-milk and molasses sauce that’s outstanding when dribbled on her cheese. She’s getting ready to retire (her farm and dairy are for sale if you’re interested) and has opened her property to young, land-poor farmers looking to learn the ways of goat ranching, cheese-making and farming.
Patty suggested we make a few stops in Bodega. Her best tip was the Casino Bar and Grill. From the outside, the Casino looks like a roadside bar. Inside it looks like one, too, with its Hamm’s paraphernalia, pool tables, long bar, juke box and wall full of deer trophies. But each night, tag-team chefs Mark Malicki and Moishe Hahn-Schuman serve a changing menu of outstanding local food that draws deeply on Sonoma County’s wealth of farms, creameries and ranches. The restaurant-within-a-bar has been open since October, and it’s a big hit. The food is hearty, creative and deeply satisfying. I went two nights in a row. The first night, Mark made an outstanding short ribs, kale and lima bean stew and a meat loaf and bacon sandwich with Magruder beef and a hazelnut pudding. The following night, Moishe served up a chorizo, potato and garbanzo bean stew, vegetarian and meat lasagna and, my favorite, a salad of arugula, fresh fava beans, artichoke hearts and mint.
Across the street is the Bodega County Store, a convenience store that recently started serving a lineup of fresh soups: New England and Manhattan clam chowder, Thai seafood, smoked-salmon chowder and miso and tofu. Great stuff.
Our final stop was Laguna Farm, a 30-acre farm on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. What was cool about Laguna was its take on the classic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. Subscribers come to the farm and pick up their weekly box of produce but can trade items they don’t want. One thing Laguna doesn’t have is organic produce. The farm was once CCOF, but eventually the paperwork and bureaucracy and cost just weren’t worth it, says farm manager Jennifer Branham. Instead, the farm is Certified Naturally Grown, a peer-reviewed certification that she says is like what organic was before it got too complicated. I hear from lots of farmers who say they don’t bother with organic certification because of either the bureaucracy or what they consider a watering down of standards. It will be interesting to see if the Certified Naturally Grown label can compete with organic.
Food editor Stett Holbrook is on the road, traveling in a 1965, 26-foot Airstream trailer with his family to research and promote Food Forward (foodforward.tv), a documentary series for public television about the people changing our food system.