The Finest Food of Northern California
Alice Waters would tell you: If you want good food, the first thing you need to do is ask for it.
Hard as it now seems to believe, a simple question posed by a New Jersey-born, former Montessori teacher who had fallen in love with the food of France’s Provence set in motion a revolution in Northern California farming and food production that had immediate national repercussions. When Alice Waters, who had been part of the Berkeley counterculture of the 1960s, decided to open a little restaurant in the city called Chez Panisse in 1971, she dared to ask California farmers why she couldn’t obtain the same quality of produce, meats and cheeses that the average French home cook could buy every day at her local market.
It was a time when American tomatoes were pink and bland and grown for shelf life, greens like arugula and fresh basil were unknown, there was no virgin olive oil, and the only mushroom available was the ubiquitous white variety. By demanding better quality—even at a price—Waters, along with a slew of young American chefs, transformed not only the taste of American cuisine but deepened the already vast Northern California cornucopia, which until then was built for mass commercial production.
Today, anyone who drives through the farmlands, ranches and vineyards north of Santa Barbara, through Monterey and up to Sacramento will find the most knowledgeable purveyors in the world, happy to tell you the provenance of their honey, the breed of their dairy cows and the terroir of their wines.
Events Throughout the Year
You could enjoy scores of food festivals, including the Gilroy Garlic Festival, held the last weekend of July at Christmas Hill Park, where you can try every imaginable form of garlic cookery—even garlic ice cream—and attend the coronation of Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen.
Held in January are the annual Mendocino Crab and Wine Days festival and the Fruitcake Festival in Independence. Sacramento is the site of May’s annual West Coast Brew Fest, bringing together more than 60 breweries, followed in June by Oakland’s own rollicking Beer Festival. In September you can more than satisfy your sweet tooth at San Francisco’s decadent Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Festival.
Nearly every neighbourhood in San Francisco has its own markets, not least Chinatown, but to appreciate the full panoply of California food culture, head for the wonderful Ferry Building Marketplace, which also functions as a transportation hub for the city. Here you’ll find the famous Acme Bread Company and Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese Shop, chockablock with the Hog Island Oyster Company, the Prather Ranch Meat Company and the excellent Boccalone Salumeria. And to see how far California has come with its varieties of mushrooms, check out Far West Fungi, run by the Garrone family, which carries every seasonal species, including truffles, along with cookbooks and Mini-Farms, where you can grow your own mushrooms.
Even the offerings of the Ferry Building are dwarfed by the unique bounty available at Corti Brothers in Sacramento. Founded in 1947 by Frank and Gino Corti, who adopted the motto “At Corti Brothers we just don’t hand people products, we also talk food with them,” Corti Brothers combined a butcher shop with a wine store of extraordinary depth and breadth. Today they offer more than 200 beers, 250 pastas, 70 olive oils and hundreds of Italian wines—many of which Corti Brothers helped to get into the American market.
Second-generation Darrell Corti took it upon himself to learn as much as possible about all the items, not just where they came from, but who grew them, tended them, bottled them and improved them. Darrell is a walking encyclopaedia and raconteur, speaks several languages and is never one to mince words if he feels a product is overrated or overhyped.
Fruits of Labour
Of course, the wine valleys of Northern California are among the state’s greatest attractions, as much for their natural beauty as for Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino’s resorts and restaurants, several nestled within vineyards, as at Chandon in Yountville. There are, of course, farm stands throughout the valleys, all offering the best local fruits, vegetables, cheeses, honeys and condiments. One of the best places to find a broad array is at TV star chef Michael Chiarello’s V Marketplace 1870, located within the historic Vintage Estates winery in Yountville. Here Chiarello runs and cooks at the superb Cal-Ital-style restaurant Bottega, and in the flagship market Napa Style carries 3,000 wine selections, salts and spices, sauces and vinegars, nuts and signature foods such as artisanal salami and sausages, cured prosciutto and smoked meats, and Bellwether Farms cheeses made in nearby Petaluma.
With typical California exuberance, Chiarello also sells porcini mushroom-scented chocolate truffles, honey made from Napa lavender and preserves made from California’s justly famous Meyer lemons.
That places like V Marketplace 1870 are now in profusion throughout Northern California is testament to the passion that has developed over the last few decades, ever since Alice Waters, the girl with the Lewis Carroll-like name, dared to dream of a place—the prettiest place on Earth—where everything she might eat or drink was of the very finest kind.