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The Sonoma County California Food Scene

The Sonoma MissionPeople from every region of the world are proud of their local food that is different than other regions. This good natured aspect of human tribalism is a constant source of entertainment, exploration, discovery, and learning for a culinary explorer who spends the energy getting to know regional food. Isn’t this obvious when you cruise the food & cooking section of any large bookstore? Those beautiful large format, graphics rich books that portray the farms, the towns, the seashores, & the restaurants with the salacious pictures of exotic food dishes from far flung regions literally sell like warm, soft, & comforting hot cakes. Go to one of our local bookstores, in the food & cooking section you are going to find a surprising number of books about northern California cooking.

Sonoma County is a pivotal place in the northern California food scene. Here much of the highly touted organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lamb, beef, and WINE are grown and processed. Most of it gets exported to the gourmet buyers in the big cities throughout the San Francisco bay area & the USA. Like any other food production region in the world, the current Sonoma food scene comes from many generations of tradition combined with recent innovation

To know where we are today it helps to see where we came from....

The native people, notably the Coast Miwok, Patwin, Pomo, Suisunes, and Wappo lived here for 10,000 years. They gathered from the bounty of wild forest fruits, river & ocean fish & game animals. They called this place: tso-noma = earth village. But their food traditions are lost to us now. Since the mid 1800’s when European colonization became the dominant population, Sonoma food has become a mixture of cooking recipes, flavors & techniques brought from the old countries that are adapted to the varieties of produce, meat, & fish that grow well here.

Historically the 1st European settlement was the northern most Spanish mission church/army base/trading outpost that finally arrived in Sonoma in the early 1820’s. This era was the very end of the Spanish missions.

There were written plans for the next mission to be built in Santa Rosa which never happened. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, & the Sonoma mission was too far from the power base in Mexico City for financial or military aid. By 1840, the Sonoma mission was in tatters. The food legacy from this 1st mission settlement is meager, but informative. Beef cattle were raised, sheep were used for wool and food, the 1st successful grape cultivation was made by General Vallejo.

But the rubber really hit the road in the early 1850’s after the Sonoma bear flag revolt which leads to California Statehood. The 1849 gold rush brought a tidal wave of immigrants from the world over. From this time, food production, preparation, cooking and restaurant serving becomes what we recognize today as our collective comfort food.

The kitchen traditions of Russia, Italy, France, China, Britain, & Germany all got carried here by hopeful immigrants looking for financial fortune & the good life. It’s fun to look at the 1851 restaurant menu for the Plaza hotel in San Francisco. On it you’ll find: Oysters Rockefeller, roasted squirrel, braised rabbit, seagull egg omelets, beefsteaks, Salmon, etc. There are few vegetables, as large scale local farms weren’t established yet and produce didn’t survive the long slow wagon trips in the California heat. The menu is a combination of east coast city sophisticated dishes with fur trapper vittles. Oh and hardly any wine is seen yet at least in the Anglo restaurants that had printed menus which survived to this day, Those gold rush era guys were drinkin’ Whiskey.

The 1st Sonoma larger scale vineyards & wineries started up with the partnership of General Vallejo and the charismatic Agoston Haraszthy in the late 1850’s. Agoston was a Hungarian immigrant who had knocked around Wisconsin rather unsuccessfully in the 1840’s and then brought a wagon train of hopefuls to San Diego. There he started to reap some real success. He planted fruit orchards, operated a livery stable, ran a stagecoach line, opened a butcher shop. He organized a syndicate to subdivide a large section of the San Diego Bay shore into streets, parks, and building lots. He seriously started to dabble in grape growing there. He was elected to the California legislature which was in San Francisco then, and he unsuccessfully tried to grow grapes in the foggy regions of the city and Crystal Springs down the San Mateo peninsula.

Agosoton moved to Sonoma in 1857. By 1858, he wrote the 19-page “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” published by the California State Agricultural Society. With his practical advice for planting vines and making wines, it encouraged the planting of grapes throughout the state. In later years, the “Report” was recognized as the first California treatise on wine making . It was praised as the first American recipe for traditional European wine making practices. This is the wine watershed moment in Northern California.

The wine history you just read is important concerning food. In Italy everyone talks about how various wines “marry” particular foods. It’s long standing folk knowledge learned by trial & error over many generations. It’s smarter and always tastes better than the simplistic: “Red wine with beef , white wine with fish” advice.

Wine families are Food Families. By the 1870’s here came the flood of Italian, French, German families to Sonoma county bringing thier grapevine starters and their family cooking recipes. There’s plenty of those family descendants here still. Check out: Kunde Estate Winery ; Buena Vista Carneros ; A. Rafanelli Winery. These families carry on their food & wine traditions today.

By railroad & stagecoach recreational visitors came to the Sonoma Valley for the scenery, the healthy climate, the peace and quiet. During their visits, they were well fed with delicious family “farm food” and the local wines. The burgeoning tourist trade funded the local families to open larger inns, hotels, and expand their vineyards. The cuisine grew in size and scope. Family farmhouse recipes were adapted to restaurant quantities and modified for Anglo-American palates. These immigrant farm families food traditions is what we call Gourmet food today.

Sonoma County participates and leads some of the most exciting food trends. The SLOW-FOOD movement that started in Italy has dozen of local chapters here in Sonoma county. Every year more top notch world class chefs who grow weary of the big time urban hustle-bustle are moving to Sonoma to operate extremely successful small scale restaurants that aim for stellar level cuisine. Innovative cheese makers have started world class production in our hills. Small scale organic vegetable gardening is a given, some families are doing it so well that they are becoming world famous. Natural grass fed beef & lamb graze our pastures. Free Range chicken roam small scale poultry farms. Our coastal fisherman are struggling against diminishing catches, but still deliver excellent line caught fish to our local markets. Several new organic artisan bakeries daily provide us with crunchy on the outside, poofy inside baguettes, ciabatti, breads, rolls, and pastries.

That’s what I like about living here. This good stuff is all grown, produced, harvested, packaged and sold fresh daily within steps of my home. When I’m too lazy to cook it myself, or I just want something different from one of the local chefs, it’s just a short car ride away to food nirvana.

That’s where future articles in this blog are going to take you. If you’re an adventurous food focused visitor, I’m going to tell you about places that you’ll never find on the big food & wine websites. I enjoy the small owner operated restaurant that has great food. I like the small production wineries where the owner / wine maker will generously explain what he’s doing and why. I’ll interview these food innovators, you’ll get the inside scoop. There’s a big wide world full of food out there, Go for the best stuff - It’s good for you!