I’ve 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 dessert? Well, the Bay Area is a food oasis, in most parts. I will be heading out of Cali 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. She 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 cheese by hand every day. My favorite is the goat manchego and fresco. She’s 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 she’s opened her property to young, land poor farmers looking to learn the ways of goat ranching, cheesemaking and farming.
While staying with Patty she 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 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, attracting a local crowd and tourists on weekends.
The food is hearty, creative and deeply satisfying. I went two nights in a row. The first night Mark made an outstanding short rib, kale and lima bean stew, a meat loaf and bacon sandwich made with Magruder beef and a hazelnut pudding. Perfect stuff for a cold and rainy night. The following night Moishe served up a chorizo, potato and garbanzo bean steam, vegetarian and meat lasagna, and my favorite, a salad of arugula, fresh lava beans, artichoke hearts, and mint.
The crowd all seems to know each other and kids (mainly mine) run around watching the adults play pool and talk loudly from bar stools. Good stuff.
Across the street is the Bodega County Store, a convenience store that recently started serving a line-up of fresh soups–New England and Manhattan clam chowder, Thai seafood, smoked salmon chowder, and miso and tofu. Great stuff. There’s also a deli case filed with freshly made hummus, babaganoush, seaweed salad, and dolmas. Definitely worth a stop.
Our final stop was Laguna Farm, 30-acre farm on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the largest fresh water marsh in California. What was cool about Laguna was its take on the classic CSA, the Community SharedAgriculture program. Subscribers come to the farm and pick up their weekly box of produce but can trade items they don’t want. There’s also a line-up of additional, mainly Sonoma County products, i.e. honey, almond butter, tea as well a decidedly non-local, but fair trade and sustainably grown items her item products like bananas and avocados.
One thing Laguna doesn’t have is organic produce. The farm was once CCOF certified by CSA manager Jennifer Branham, but eventually, she said the paperwork and bureaucracy and cost just wasn’t worth it. Instead, the farm is Certified Naturally Grown, a peer-reviewed certification that she says it 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 see is a watering down of standards. It will be interesting to see if the Certified Naturally Grown label can compete with organic.