Cheese & Wine Mongering in Glen Ellen
I hope this post doesn’t come off as bragging. I hope it comes off as thankful homage to my hometown.
This past weekend was by far one of the best I"ve spent in some time. I didn’t leave my hometown, Glen Ellen. Rather, I reveled in its special attractions and was reminded that Glen Ellen is more than just a wine country village. It’s a sybarite’s retreat.
Without leaving town this weekend, I visited a cheesemonger, a chocolatier, a seller of fresh vegetables and herbs, and olive oil producer and a "deli" no New Yorker would recognize. It was in every way sensory overload of the best sort. And it got me appreciating the notion of the Culinary Vacation.
This is the term I would hope folk visiting Sonoma County and Napa Valley should adopt when visiting these regions where wine is the star. On a purely climatological and agricultural plane, it makes sense that where grapes grow fine you’re likely to find other fine locally grown products. But what’s the deal with finding a superb chocolatier? A Cheesemonger that likely ranks among the best in the country. An olive oil producer that is responsible for some of the most highly regarded bottlings in America?
The answer is obvious: People who live among a community of winemaking artisans and visitors who travel to a place where consumption of wine is the raison d’etre are likely to be people looking for even a culinary experience that transcends the ordinary. Hence, this place will attract those willing to provide these folk with what they are looking for. It makes for a "culinary community" and that unique spot on the globe that can called a "culinary destination."
How does my little town of Glen Ellen stack up? First you have to consider that this town holds only about 3000 folk, many of them sequestered up in the hills surrounding the main village and residential areas. The town lands smack dab in the middle of the Sonoma Valley in a part called the "banana belt, meaning it’s generally a bit warmer in this narrower part of the Sonoma Valley. It’s not a tourist destination. We have perhaps 100 hotel/B&B rooms here. And, the town is off the main road (highway 12) that runs through the famed Sonoma Valley.
Yet still it supports, for example, a number of culinary destinations. Consider Raymond & Co Cheesemongers. I visited this little shop for the first time on Friday and Saturday as I prepared for a dinner party. You will not find here cheeses that can be found in the best markets. What they sell are micro-produced cheeses from around the globe. In many cases they are the only importers of the cheese to America. In other cases they are micro-produced cheeses from across the United States, like the remarkable "Brie" I purchased from a small Georgia cheesemaker. The owner talks to customers about things like herbage and goats, about proper aging techniques, about the exact right moment to consume cheese about the need to expand his own aging room. We are talking fanatic here. I bought three cheeses for the cheese course of the dinner party. Despite my heroic culinary efforts on the other three courses, the cheeses were by far the star of the show.
The next stop on Saturday was the new chocolatier in Glen Ellen. Their specialty is truffles, about 15 different sorts. All made onsite. They only use a combination of Vahlrona and Scharffenberger chocolate to produce these luscious morsels. But what the hell is a chocolatier of this quality doing in the little town of Glen Ellen? While I care about this question, I’m more concerned that they stay.
To pick up the tomatoes for the Bread & Tomato salad I headed off to Oak Hill. It’s still a bit of a secret. Located off highway 12 in an old red barn, Oak Hill grows tons of veggies, herbs and flowers. Much is sold wholesale. But inside the red barn they sell the finest produce in the land, most picked no more than hours before they land in the hands of customers. The tomatoes I bought were sweet with a hint of acid. The were quartered and combined with cubed then olive oil infused and toasted Italian country bread and mixed with chopped garlic, fresh basil (from my garden) olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Culinary destinations and culinary vacations are will continue to grow in popularity, this a result of the growing trend toward homegrown, local culinary creations and the expansion of wine industries across the country in states not normally associated with wine production. It will grow a the demand for the organically produced increases.
The Dinner Party was great fun, due mainly to the guests as the success of any Dinner party is dependent upon. However, for the host the part was great fun on another level. It gave me the opportunity to drive around my town and enjoy the amazing array of culinary resources this little town has inspired and that will keep me here until I can’t take it any longer and just fall down dead from too many years of pleasure.