Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Poky Road to Mendo

I'm not an early riser but I've found that adding a little extra time into driving plans makes a weekend qetaway more pleasant. When you can stop along the way for a long lunch, a walk or a visit to a park or museum -- and not rushing to get somewhere -- it feels like a real vacation. The strategy is to get an early start on Saturdays and Sundays; on weekdays, hitting the road early could backfire. It might mean bumping into commuter traffic.
Last Saturday, an early start served me well. I'd told friends in Fort Bragg, Mendocino County, that I'd arrive a little before dinner time. The next morning, I left San Francisco at 8 a.m.
I wasn't sure what my plans were, except to stop at the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg for breakfast and then take Highway 128 through Boonville and slowly make my way to the coast.
I never made it to the bakery because when I got off Highway 101 in Healdsburg, a big sign pointed to the town's Saturday morning farmers' market. The market was in full swing, a jazz band playing and hefty slices of tangy, delicious carrot cake being passed around to shoppers to celebrate the market's 30th anniversary. The array of produce and fruit was astounding, all of it tempting. I bought some local juicy peaches, tomatoes and tiny, deep-red strawberries.
Back in the car, my small cooler now half full, I headed toward Cloverdale and the drive northwest. The Anderson Valley, one of my favorite places in California, was glorious on this mid-summer day. I loved milling around at Bates and Maillard Farmhouse Mercantile and getting a snack at the Mosswood Market. I wasn't in the mood for a lot of wine tasting but stopped at Husch (photo below) because I enjoy their sauvignon blanc and the friendly atmosphere of its cozy, flower-covered tasting room, on old grain shed.
When you're in the area, make a quick detour to the Philo Apple Farm, (photo at the very top, left) a popular place for its cooking school, but open to visitors who want drop in for cider, jam and other apple products. If no one is around the honor system applies: just sign your name, write your purchase on the log and put your money in the cigar box.
The drive to the coast, through the shady redwood groves, is always a thrill, particularly the first glimpse of the Pacific at Navarro. I stopped at Russian Gulch State Park (photo below) for a quick look (tell the ranger you aren't planning to stay long and they'll let you in without paying the $6 day use fee)

and then headed to Mendocino, where the annual Music Festival had the streets and sidewalks busy. If you get to town and are looking for some wonderful bread for a picnic stop by the bakery at the town's most heralded restaurant, Cafe Beaujolais. A tiny bakery at the back of the restaurant's pretty garden opens at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. most of the bread (and there is a large menu of varieties, including bagels) is sold out. You get to peek in and see the bread being pulled out of the brick hearth.
Finally, I wanted to take another look at the Point Cabrillo Light Station, where last year, while researching the book, I spent an hour. This time, I walked the gentle sloping half mile road from the parking lot to the light station and took my time in the museum, which has some fascinating photographs of the Native American tribes who lived in the area and the wreck of the Frolic, the opium-running ship that ran aground near the shore here -- factor in the founding of Mendocino. The light station was home to three hard-working lightkeeper families, who operated the large lens -- with hundreds of prisms -- with kerosene lamps. The entire station has been restored, including the families' homes that have been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn -- and the lens is back in operation, its light visible up to 15 miles from shore.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jammin' in Rough and Ready

Rough and Ready, the Gold Rush-era hamlet just outside of Grass Valley, is known for its rabble-rousing past. In 1850, its residents rebelled against taxes and other laws, deciding to secede from the United States. The “Republic of Rough and Ready” lasted only three months before townsfolk rejoined the Union. (Legend has it that the move that was prompted at least in part by the refusal of saloonkeepers in nearby Nevada City to sell liquor to the “foreigners”).
The tiny town today is known for Sunday morning jam sessions of the Fruit Jar Pickers, a loose-knit group of musicians who congregate in an old gas station at 10 a.m. The building -- you can't miss it with the bright blue banner proclaiming "Pickers Palace" -- is home to the local volunteer fire department and also doubles as a concert hall.
On a typical Sunday you might find 20 musicians on stage playing a wild assortment of homemade and professional instruments. When I was there recently (My article about it ran in the San Francisco Chronicle Aug. 10), musicians with elegant violins performed along one jamming on a funky handmade bass whose strings came from a weed whacker.

During the two-hour session a crowd slowly gathered, about 100 people, some bringing their own chairs because the 50 or so metal folding chairs often fill up. There were a few newcomers, but most were veterans at the hall and they knew the routine: at the door, pick up the group’s red, three-ring binders filled with song sheets, grab a seat and sing with gusto, swaying and dancing. It’s free, including donuts and coffee, although donations are gladly accepted.
The Sunday morning sessions started eight years ago across the street at the old general store when a couple of musicians began informal jams. Nevada County is home to a large community of professional and amateur musicians and word soon spread. The number of musicians and audience members grew. They couldn't fit in the store any more. So, a few years ago, the move was made to the old fire house.
The group is lead by Everette Burkard, who plays a homemade steel guitar and leads the sing-alongs. Everette changes one wacky hat for another as he tells corny old jokes between songs. The selections are country, pop and gospel -- “songs your grandpa sang on the porch," he says. On the morning I was there, they included standards such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’.” It's a blast from the past. At noon, everyone left the fire house smiling.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nevada City bon temps

Saturday mornings in Nevada City these days center around the new weekly farmers' market on Union Street from 8 a.m. to noon (until the end of October), which brings in scores of locals for a block-long happening that has a festival atmosphere. There's usually a folk, bluegrass or jazz band playing, drawn from this area's large community of musicians. (When you're in the vicinity tune your radio to KVMR, 89.5 FM, the local community radio station with its fun, quirky programming, including the Tibetan Radio Hour, the Patchouli Haze and lots of world music).

Last Saturday, over the long Fourth of July weekend when hazy, smoke-filled skies from wildfires cast a bit of a pall over festivities, local produce vendors displayed a bounty of fruit and vegetables. Flour Garden, a local bakery, sold some delicious organic breads. After wandering and sampling a bit, I headed to my favorite breakfast spot in town, Ike's Quarter Cafe, up the hill a couple of blocks on Commercial Street. The shady patio, enclosed by a white picket fence, was full on this warm summer morning but a table soon freed up. Ike and Adrienne, the owners, are not from Louisiana but they were inspired by New Orleans to create a restaurant with creole and cajun influences while using naturally raised meats, organic eggs, grains, flour and vegetables. All breads are made in house and, whenever possible, the produce is local. The menu is almost overwhelming, with a large selection of frittatas, egg scrambles, potato boats, flapjacks and biscuits and gravy. There's also something called "gasserhousers" that were new to me: pieces of toast with eggs that are nestled inside two holes and topped with peppers, onions, sausages or a variety of other options. I settled on the roasted corn flaps, flapjacks with roasted corn inside with a side of bacon and got two nicely done pancakes oozing with corn. My traveling companion ordered cornmeal crusted oysters topped with a delicious mild green salsa sauce. The spirit of the place is friendly and fun. As it says on the menu "Laissez le bon temps rouler."
There seems to be no shortage of that attitude in Nevada City, which has a calendar full of events (Wednesday evening Summer Nights Festival of music is one) this summer and beyond.