As good as Sonoma restaurants can be, it’s probably fair to say that if you want the very best food and wine in this part of the world you won’t find it at any restaurant, at least not during normal business hours, though “best” is certainly subjective.
The best tacos and burritos can often be found at Mexican food trucks like La Bamba along Sonoma Highway, not far from Santa Rosa. Higher up the food chain, the places for the best food and wine are often at wineries where vineyards cascade up and down the hillsides, where you can smell the smoke from the barbecue, and where celebrity chefs show off. Usually there’s a hefty price to pay – certainly far more than one pays at restaurants such as the Girl and the Fig and Café Le Haye in the town of Sonoma, or at the La Bamba food truck.
But you also get more bang for your buck at the winery events: more great wine, more delicious food, more starters and main courses and more attention, too. You also learn more, especially when a food event is connected to foraging, for example.
At Silver Cloud, a spectacular vineyard in the Mayacamas Mountains that overlooks the Valley of the Moon, a hundred of so guests went looking for mushrooms in winter.
Unfortunately there weren’t any to be found. Foraging can be hit or miss. But the guests heard talks about mushrooms by mushroom experts on a Saturday afternoon, and then ate slowly and enjoyed each and every bite inside a large barn where the wine didn’t stop. Guests ate, drank and talked at long wooden tables that lent themselves to conversation.
John McReynolds prepared the food in his signature way with surprising ingredients and unusual dishes such as a mushroom spaetzle made with acorn flour.
“The acorn is probably the most iconic of northern California foods,” McReynolds explained. “The Indians used it as a staple in their diets for thousands of years and there are millions of acorns around here, but you can’t find acorn dishes in any restaurants in Sonoma. I like to cook with them because they suggest the flavor of the forest.”
Mushrooms were featured in several dishes that McReynold’s made: grilled hanger steak, mushroom conserva & leeks; wild mushroom ravioli, braised kale, pine nuts and stinging nettle oil; roasted chanterelles, arugula & citrus-tamari dressing; and the afore mentioned acorn spaetzle, caramelized onions, black trumpet & hedgehog mushrooms.
Attending food and wine events like these are the equivalent of attending a cooking class. Tasting the dishes can provide ideas for what you might do in your own kitchen, the place where you can make and eat the best tasting, most nourishing food in the world. Just looking at McReynold’s menu suggests combinations that might not have occurred to you.
To taste acorn flour and all kinds of foraged ingredients like wild nettles and hedgehog mushrooms you have to get off the well-beaten restaurant track. To learn how to cook them it helps to buy — or at least read — John McReynolds’s magisterial Stone Edge Farm Cookbook in which he reveals his deep dark kitchen secrets and democratizes the art of making gourmet food.
Anyone with a bit of imagination and a willingness to be innovative can make the dishes McReynolds made for years at Stone Edge Farm behind stone walls and away from the prying eyes of the public. His conclusion seems to be this: if you want the best food in Sonoma make it yourself in your own kitchen with local ingredients and perhaps with his cookbook as a reference.
Spontaneity guides McReynolds nearly every step of the way. He’s never sure what’s going to be in a starter or an entrée until he’s made it, a practice that gives headaches to those who have to write menus and list ingredients in each and every dish.
At Silver Cloud, Julie Schreiber, a longtime chef and now a winemaker in Healdsburg, added her kitchen wisdom to McReynolds’s. “I always cook mushrooms for a long time,” she explained. “That helps to make them easier to digest. I also want them to caramelize. I sauté them in olive oil and add butter for flavor at the end.”
“Eat more mushrooms.” That has been Schreiber’s mantra in a mushroom season that arrived early with warm December rains and ended quickly with the return of the California drought in January.
When all else fails, McReynolds buys mushrooms from the queen of mushroom foragers, Connie Green, who helps him blend the wild with the sophisticated, and make food that speaks for the landscape of Sonoma itself, whether forest, field or farm.
Still, all is not rosy in the Mayacamas Mountains. Local residents object to the automobile traffic that events, such as the winter mushroom and wine paring, bring with them. Kathy Pons, the president of the Valley of the Moon Alliance, warned that wine tastings at Silver Cloud could set a bad precedent and encourage other vineyards to follow suit. The Sonoma County Planning Commission will take up the issue later this year. A spokesman for Stone Edge, which owns the property at Silver Cloud, pointed out that the farm grows biodynamic and organic vegetables at its main site just outside the town of Sonoma. Indeed, the Stone Edge gardens have served as a model for innovative, environmentally conscious farmers and have attracted visitors from near and far. More debate, more meetings and more angry words seem likely to come. Indeed, the clash that’s taking place in the Mayacamas is echoed in dozens of other locations all across wine country and with no quick easy resolution in sight.
Jonah Raskin, a long time member of Slow Food, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He writes for the Bohemian and The Press Democrat, grows his own tomatoes and basil, makes tomato soup in summer, freezes it and then thaws it, heats it and enjoys it in winter.