The saying is trite but true: Some folks eat to live and others live to eat. While many people plan their vacations around museums or scenic vistas or historical landmarks, there are plenty of others who will plan a trip, literally, from meal to meal to glorious meal — with multiple options for midday pastries or farmers' markets built in.
Yet even for those who find the very notion of a "foodie" insufferable, these excursions can offer unexpected pleasures: not just eating freshly picked strawberries for a price that's cheaper than you'd find at your neighborhood supermarket, for example, but also enjoying the fresh air and learning about local agriculture. So as you look ahead to your summer plans, think not so much about where you're going to go, but what tasty treats you might uncover while you're there.
The Bay Area is one of the country's most destination-rich regions for day trips within, say, a two-hour driving radius — and wherever you end up visiting, there are likely to be plenty of delicious adventures to be had.
Pretty much any drive down Highway 1 is going to offer spectacular views — something to do with that intersection of precipitous cliff, lush vegetation, and infinite sea. (If you make it as far as Big Sur, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven.) Between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, there's an especially nice stretch of coast where you'll find the Swanton Berry Farm, home to some of the best-tasting organic strawberries you can buy at the Berkeley farmers' markets.
This summer, instead of paying $3.50 a basket at the farmers' market — or, alternatively, buying cheap, flavorless berries from the supermarket — you might consider making the trip down the coast to pick your own. Swanton has two "u-pick" locations, one at its farm stand near Davenport and another at its Coastways Ranch, about twelve miles further north on Highway 1.
According to Barrett Boaen, Swanton's on-farm sales manager, the advantages of picking your own strawberries are myriad: You get to establish a closer connection with the food you're eating, especially as you're out there among the plants getting your hands dirty. And since strawberry plants don't have any thorns, if you have kids, you can feel free to give them a basket and just set them loose.
What's more, a berry that you pick yourself is going to taste better — and not just for psychological reasons. Boaen explains that most supermarket strawberries, and even some of the ones sold at farmers' markets, are picked three-quarters ripe and then refrigerated in order to transport them more easily and to make them last longer. A berry like that is going to be a pale shadow of what a strawberry is supposed to taste like.
At the farm, Boaen says, "You get to pull one right off the plant that looks absolutely perfect and put it in your mouth. That's a magical moment."
Indeed, that's the biggest piece of advice that Boaen would offer to prospective u-pickers: Look for fully ripe berries that are the perfect texture and the perfect shade of red — don't pick ones with white shoulders or green caps. Other tips are to dress in layers (it gets windy out on the coast!), to wear sturdy shoes, and to allot plenty of time.
Boaen says Swanton's farm stand u-pick (25 Swanton Rd.) should be in full swing by mid-May. And the Coastways Ranch (640 Cabrillo Hwy., Pescadero), which is the prettier of the two sites, should have its u-pick up and running no later than the beginning of June. You can always check the Swanton web site (SwantonBerryFarm.com) or call ahead to make sure.
From the East Bay, the best way to get to the farm is probably a straight shot down 880 and then across the San Mateo Bridge to hit Highway 1. At the end of the day, when you're perhaps in less of a hurry, you can complete the loop and head up 101 and through the city.
A nice detour on the way home would be Pillar Point Harbor, in Half Moon Bay. For most of May and parts of July, it'll be king salmon season — the first decently promising season for local fishermen for a few years now. During the winter, walking down the pier to buy live Dungeness crabs is one of the Bay Area's great luxuries, but getting fresh salmon directly off a fishing boat is certainly nothing to sniff at.
You could just show up at the pier on a Saturday and see what's available, but the better way to ensure that you're getting fresh fish is to call a day or two ahead. Bill Webb, who usually docks his boat, "The Cricket," at the harbor on weekends, is particularly reliable and accommodating. Webb suggests calling him (925-813-1591) during the week to let him know when you want to pick up a fish, and he'll make sure he sets one aside.
As far as price is concerned, Webb says it all depends on this year's catch.
"If there's any fish, I think we'll find them for sure," he said.
Webb and most of the other fishermen sell the fish whole, but those who don't have use for an entire king salmon might consider splitting a fish with a couple of friends. Just bring your prize across the street to the fish market at Princeton Seafood Company (9 Johnson Pier, Half Moon Bay), where for a mere $5 — or $10 for a fish heavier than 20 pounds — they'll cut it up however you like.
Sonoma County deserves every bit of its reputation as Napa's more down-to-earth little sister, and for food lovers Healdsburg is arguably Sonoma's most happening place. Beyond the exquisite wineries lining bucolic Dry Creek Road, where for a minimal fee you can sample some of the best Zinfandels you'll ever taste, the area is also home to one of the Bay Area's most impressive tomato farms: Verdure Farm, aka "Tomato Heaven."
It's been a decade now since Tamara Scalera, a former San Francisco-based database manager, opened up her little farm stand (2476 Westside Rd., Healdsburg), where in a typical year she'll sell more than two hundred different varieties of tomatoes — heirlooms, almost exclusively. Make no mistake: These are good-tasting tomatoes, but it's the sheer variety of the bounty that provides half the fun.
"There really are thousands and thousands of varieties out there," Scalera said. "There's such diversity in size and shape and acidity and sugar balance. ... It's hard for me to narrow it to only two hundred, to tell you the truth."
Sometimes she'll host tomato tastings where she lines up as many as 150 kinds of tomatoes for visitors to try, and even people who don't think they have sophisticated palates are astonished by the range of flavors they experience.
Some of her favorites include the deep-purple "black" tomatoes, like the Russian variety called the Paul Robeson, which Scalera says has an awesome, complex flavor. She also loves the Aunt Ruby's German Green, a beautiful chartreuse-green tomato that's ripe when it's that color — "makes for a heck of a BLT," Scalera said, "and I often will mix red lettuce and green tomato to kind of mess with people's minds." And for a tomato that just has a good old-fashioned classic tomato taste, she likes the Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, a tomato reputed to be so wildly popular that it allowed its auto-mechanic namesake to finish paying for his home.
Because of the risk of frost, Scalera is only now planting her tomatoes, which means the farm stand won't be open for business until the end of July at the very earliest — but it also means she'll have tomatoes well into November. It's always good to call ahead to see if she's open. The tomatoes have sold for $3.25 a pound in the past, but Scalera said she's considering a discount this year in honor of the farm's tenth anniversary.
If you do make it out to Verdure Farm, you can also check out the selection of Italian peppers, cucumbers, and heirloom melons. And whatever you do, make sure you have Scalera snip you some of the freshest basil money can buy, off a plant just a few steps away from the stand.
After you've stocked up on tomatoes, drive through the city's main square and onto Dry Creek Road proper. Amid a cluster of small tasting rooms, you'll find one of the few formal olive oil tasting rooms that you'll come across, operated by the Dry Creek Olive Company (4791 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg). The company produces a bunch of different award-winning, unfiltered olive oils — mostly blends — but the fun here is in the tasting process itself, which Michelle Robson, the company's marketing director, confirms is 100-percent free: "We're not Napa. We don't believe in charging."
At the Dry Creek tasting room, you'll find a bunch of different oils lined up, with freshly baked bread for dipping, like you would at any number of artisan olive oil shops or farmers' market stands. But the key here is to not be a coward. If the nice fellow or lady who's manning the tasting room asks if you'd like to sip the olive oils, say, "Yes, please!" You'll learn to let the oil sit on the tip of your tongue, then tilt your head back so the oil — slowly, slowly — rolls to the back of your throat.
And, as Robson explains, "If you cough, that's a good thing because it makes for a far more peppery, pungent oil, which the Italians absolutely love."
During a memorable tasting room experience two summers ago, there was one particular olive oil that made this reporter cough uncontrollably for a solid five minutes. And yes — it was delicious.
The nice thing is that those of us in the East Bay don't even need to go anywhere, aside from maybe walking down to a local park, in order to have some food-related expedition or adventure.
Walnut Creek resident Kevin Feinstein runs the Wild Food Walk classes for ForageSF and also offers some custom walks on his own. For $30 a person, Feinstein will lead a group of intrepid foragers-in-training on a two-hour walk, through a local — usually urban — park or sometimes on private land someone has given him permission to use. In that two-hour span, he'll point out dozens of different edible plants and teach people how to find them, how to prepare them or cook them, and also what dangers might be associated with them.
Feinstein, who says he first started foraging because of growing concern over the unsustainable nature of the food system, has been teaching these classes for four years now. Most of the people who sign up are "foodies," he says — people who are looking to find cool things that they can bring home and cook for a dinner party, as opposed to, say, "camping people" or "hard-core survivalists."
And while it isn't legal for participants to gather plants and take them off park premises, Feinstein will cut one down every now and then and offer everyone a taste. And although people are sometimes a bit reluctant to try these edibles, Feinstein says they're often surprised at how good the plants taste. He lists a few of the tastier examples: fiddlehead ferns, miner's lettuce, and — his own personal favorite — the thistle.
"People that never had thistles — well, that's most people — are blown away," Feinstein said. "There's just something about the texture of it and the nuttiness of it that kind of reminds you of asparagus when it's cooked. When it's raw, it's actually more like a cucumber or celery."
Feinstein's next two East Bay walks are scheduled for May 14 and June 12. All of the classes take place at undisclosed locations that will be revealed a week in advance only to those who register — a process designed to discourage interlopers looking for a freebie (or snoopers from Parks and Rec).
For more information, or to register for a class, visit Feinstein's web site: FeralKevin.com.