Category

Food Culture

A Taste of Sonoma’s Food and Beverage Scene

Sonoma food and beverage

Sonoma County often plays second fiddle to nearby Napa and its fabled wines.  But the depth of Sonoma’s food and beverage scene pushes it past Napa for the sheer diversity of food and beverage businesses that call Sonoma home. True, Napa and Sonoma (and Sonoma’s more suburban neighbor, Marin) both got their start as agricultural suppliers for the big cities to the south. While Napa tilts ever more deeply into wine as its primary value-added agricultural offering, Sonoma has expanded beyond grapes, pushing into diversified products and their next gen counterparts, packaged goods.

WHAT IS SONOMA KNOWN FOR?

DAIRY and CHEESE

Sonoma has a centuries-long history of dairying and its winding roads are are dotted with family farms. Through land trust arrangements organized through Sonoma and Marin Land Trusts, the green pastures and fog-swept coastal cliffs are protected, helping to ensure a steady supply of  the raw materials needed for cheese, cider and other value-added foods.  That makes for some happy cows. And goats. And sheep.  Businesses like Bellwether Farms, Clover Sonoma, Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery, and Sonoma Creamery are just a few of the family farms producing organic milk, award-winning, internationally recognized cheeses and fresh, innovative products. (We will look at each of these business’s products later this month.)

APPLES and CIDER

With help from the Slow Food movement, the area’s local apple, the Gravenstein, has found a secure future as a heritage crop. Placed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a “living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction,” the Gravenstein also has its own fair. A few farmers (six, according to Slow Food) work to preserve their Gravenstein orchards by selling the fruit to local cider houses, including Tilted Shed. Manzana Products, the parent company of North Coast, runs an historic apple cannery. And the Barlow, a former apple cannery in the heart of Sonoma, now plays host to a diverse array of food and beverage businesses ranging from kombucha and yerba mate to coffee and vodka.

POULTRY and EGGS

Less recognized is Sonoma’s role as a home for heritage chicken farming. But companies like Rosie and Rocky thrive here as innovators in sustainable poultry farming and egg production. Honoring both the region’s agricultural heritage and its role as innovators is Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days, a festival highlighting the city’s entrepreneurial and artisan spirit.  Hip Chick Farms, a new producer of chicken nuggets, fingers and meatballs, is a chicken-based extension of Sonoma’s deep commitment to supporting a future for local agricultural.

Of course you can visit most of these farms as part of a Farm Trails experience or stop in at Healdsburg’s SHED to purchase these and other locally-sourced packaged goods.

As northern California gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which, in 1967, kicked off at the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival on Marin’s Mount Tamalpais, it is worth remembering the agricultural past that helped nourish and inspire what has become northern California’s thriving food scene. Say what you will about hippies and communes, but from Vermont to Wisconsin to California, they had a profound impact on America’s food scene. Thank a hippie for organic produce, granola, fermented foods, handmade cheese and fresh cider. Their counter-cultural spirit took root here in northern California and continues to inspire the area’s food and beverage producers.

To Eat is Human; to Eat Spicy Foods is Divine

spicy foods, sriracha

First there was chipotle. No, not the company, but a jalapeño that’s been smoked and dried. Dusted onto potato chips and sneaked into sauce, chipotle and its subtle, smoky heat nudged its way into consumer packaged foods more than a decade ago. I credit this one small slice of spice for softening the American palate for the chile wave to come. From Thai chile to harissa, gochujang to habanero, we are eating it up and the spicier and more spiced the better. Predictions of Sriracha’s imminent demise a few years ago proved to be totally overblown. In today’s packaged beverage market, companies are launching product lines to capture the customer that seeks out spicy and spiced, and are including at least one heavily spiced or spicy product in their assortment.

Indian Spices are Ancient but New Again

Chaasi

As America becomes more diverse, ethnic flavors are becoming commonplace, moving into packaged foods and beverages. Chaasi developed a line of ‘Indian-style spiced yoghurt drinks’ that riff on lassi, a spiced yogurt drink from the Indian subcontinent. Blueberry Cinnamon Rose has a mild flavor but the added sea salt, as in a traditional salted lassi, gives the dish a pleasant savoriness. Cashew Spiced Chai blends ginger and black pepper for a hit of warm heat.

Turveda

Building on the health benefits of turmeric, a rhizome ground into powder and used as a seasoning across India, Turveda developed a line of “curcumin rich beverages” (curcumin is the beneficial substance in turmeric). Built around the power of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of natural healing, Turveda incorporates traditional Ayurvedic spices into its turmeric sparkling beverages. Seasoned with ginger and black pepper, two other ingredients that add warm spiciness to food, these drinks offer a window into the changing perception of spice in the beverage category.

 

The Juice Movement Helped Normalize Spicy Heat

Modern Alkeme

Packaged in a black-wrapped bottle that looks fresh in the refrigerated section of the store (more on that soon), Modern Alkemes line of tea-based tonics are adapted from an ancient Japanese recipe. These drinks were designed to be used as part of a cleanse to eliminate toxins but are making their way into daily use or as “maintenance,” post-cleanse. Sure, the base is mildly sweet coconut water but the added ghost chile pepper gives the drink an “unforgettable hint of spicy.”

Sap on Tap

Ginger and lime were once considered seasonings only for Asian meals. Turns out the powerful one-two of sour lime and spicy ginger make for what’s next in water. Sap on Tap built Maple Water with Ginger and Lime flavor around its classic maple water base which softens the pungency of the other two ingredients. But the Maple Water with Ginger and Lime is punchy without being too aggressive. It makes a nice intro to the world of spiced and spicy beverages.

 

Spiced foods, those containing aromatic or pungent seasonings, and spicy foods, those seasoned with chilies, are on a roll. There are health benefits to eating these foods which may be driving their appeal but the greater exposure of most Americans to a wide range of cultures and flavors is also helping build interest in these foods and beverages. I expect to see an even greater range of well-seasoned and spiced beverages and packaged foods in the future.