The town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County is known for Gravensteins, the pretty yellow-green apples with red stripes. Even though many of the century-old apple orchards were uprooted in the last 25 years and replanted with vineyards you still come across plenty of old, gnarled Gravenstein trees when you're driving around the quiet roads here. Besides apples and grapes a bounty of other fruit is grown around Sebastopol. It was, after all, the place where Luther Burbank operated his experimental farm and developed more than 800 new varieties of fruits and vegetables. So, it's not surprising that Sebastopol became one of the leading producers of mushrooms a few years back when shitake, oyster, chanterelles and other exotic varieties started to pop up in supermarkets alongside the old standby white button mushrooms. Sebastopol-based Gourmet Mushrooms produces more specialty organic mushrooms than any other company in the U.S. One of its most popular mushrooms is the delicate, earthy Velvet Pioppini, which has dark caps and an intense forest flavor. (Look for the Mycopia brand at Whole Foods and other fine markets). Gourmet is not open to the public but, just south of Sebastopol there's a small mushroom operation -- New Carpati Farm -- where you can visit, talk to the mushroom grower and pick your own funghi. Steve Schwartz, the owner (photo above), named the company for the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe where his father was born. His company is a simple operation consisting of a small cave-like hut. Inside, shelves are lined with bricks made of oak saw dust, where he plants fungus spores. A wild assortment of fungi emerge, mostly varieties of shitake and oyster. Schwartz sells them at the Sebastopol farmer's market on Sundays but you can also call him (707-829-2978) and set up an appointment to visit the little hut. There, in the damp and quiet, you do as chefs sometimes do and pick your own mushrooms, the freshest you've tasted.
Up on Skyline Boulevard above Palo Alto, hidden inside the MidPeninsula Open Space District, is a little-known orchard full of old chestnut trees. No one really knows their origin, but the most reliable story seems to be that the trees were planted by a Spaniard about 100 years ago, says Hans Josens, who with his wife, Donna, runs the orchard under an agreement with the district. The grove consists of about 120 trees, including what Johsens calls the "honey tree" where the largest of the green, golf-ball-sized nuts grows. For only a few weeks in the fall, the orchard is open to the public as a u-pick operation. For certain ethnic groups, particularly Koreans, French and Italians, gathering chestnuts off the ground in the chill of the fall is a nostalgic event that usually culminates later in the evening with roasting the nuts over a fire. For those new to the whole process, the ranch provides gloves, buckets and tongs. For sale are roasting pans and special knives to pry open the pods. The orchard will be open Oct. 11-Nov. 23 this year. The price is $5.25 per pound. Call (408) 395-0337 (no Web site at press time). The only other chestnut orchard that I could find in the region is in western Sonoma County -- at Green Valley Chestnut Ranch, which is only open two weekends this fall. The first was this weekend and the second will be Oct. 11-12. The ranch, outside the town of Graton, covers several acres containing about 800 chestnut trees that grew from seeds from a Gold Rush-era tree planted by Italian immigrants in Nevada City. The variety is called Colossal, a type that produces large and sweet nuts. A friend and I on a foodie jaunt of the area passed by Green Valley (a lovely drive from Graton) the other day and, although the ranch was closed, I took some photos (including the one above) of the lush, gorgeous groves of trees, sagging with the weight of the pods, the ground covered with the nuts ready for the taking. For more information, check out the ranch's Web site. Before heading out to see the chestnut trees, we had a terrific lunch at a new restaurant, Eloise, in Sebastopol (reviewed recently in the San Francisco Chronicle), and, after seeing the ranch, stopped by another eatery that specializes in local ingredients, the lively pub, Ace-in-the-Hole, in Graton. Ace makes the first hard cider produced in the U.S. , much of it from local apples, including the beloved Gravenstein. The results are delicious.
After years of exploring and writing about Northern California, there's still so much to discover.
I started blogging when my book, Great Escapes: Northern California, was published.
I'm sharing my most recent wanderings, day trips and weekend getaways. Feel free to comment and subscribe. Happy travels. Laura Del Rosso
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