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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."
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