Wild, Local Food Rules NorCal’s Culinary Scene
The misty coast of Northern California is a place of diverse landscapes: rocky shorelines, redwood forests, the fields of rich, volcanic soil to name a few. This varied array of beautiful, rugged biomes results in more than just scenery– the region is a treasure trove of culinary and agricultural possibilities.
Our favorite properties tend to be the ones that use food and wine as a key ingredient in showcasing the beauty of the region, using seasonal, ultra-local food to bring a true taste of Northern California to the dinner table. At these properties, from Michelin-starred restaurants to family-run wineries, a strong sense of place is instilled into every dish.
Harbor House Inn quietly occupies a private cove about 16 miles south of the quaint town of Mendocino. Outfitted with redwood, the dining room– originally created as a showroom from the region’s logging days– overlooks the property’s gardens. Beyond that, the cove’s clear turquoise water laps at the foot of cliffs and a stunning arched rock formation commands the attention of the horizon.
Harbor House is a small inn with only six traditional rooms in the main building and five standalone cottages for extra privacy. Those staying at the inn are privy to early access to dinner reservations, but many come just for the food. Twenty seats are available each night Thursday through Monday for a tasting menu that typically features around 12 courses. The menu rotates nightly and is sourced locally. As many ingredients as possible are sourced straight from the garden on site, and the rest are products of local farms and ranches. Out of the 12 courses, there is typically only one land-based meat dish. The rest highlight fresh vegetables, produce and seafood.
“The ability to forage for seaweed, mushrooms, herbs and edible weeds in our backyard and the surrounding coast and forest has shaped the cuisine to be a true local snapshot of our area,” Chef Matthew Kammerer said.
Night after night, Harbor House plays with the ever changing flavors of the region, elevating not only delicacies like sea urchin, but also more humble items like seaweed harvested from the nearby coastline, or lace lichen plucked from overhanging trees. The creativity and vision is evident in every dish, earning the restaurant its rightful place as the only one with Michelin stars in Mendocino county.
Small Batch Production
A hundred miles further south in Sonoma, Beltane Ranch perfectly encapsulates the magic of small-batch wine production and farming. When you step onto the property, you’re greeted first by a friendly shaggy dog (and maybe the far off bleating of the babydoll lambs), and then by the warm presence of Lauren Benward, whose family has run the ranch for six generations.
The property was built on a colorful, ‘Wild West’ past. In 1879, a pioneer California viticulturist and winemaker named John Drummond planted Beltane’s first official vineyard. He utilized the property’s volcanic soil to graft the old mission style grapevines to fine wine varieties, including Cabernet and Chardonnay with cuttings from the French Chateaus: Margaux, Lafitte Rothschild and the Hermitage in Bordeaux.
In 1892, the ranch was purchased by Mary Ellen Pleasant, an abolitionist, feminist, and business magnate– unique titles for a black woman to achieve during a time of high racial prejudice. Pleasant was business-savvy and a well-connected social powerhouse– operating boarding houses, a hotel, restaurants, laundries, quicksilver mines, brothels, arranging marriages, and conducting numerous other ventures.
Today, the Beltane Ranch boasts 120 year of agriculture hospitality and remains one of Sonoma’s few small, family-run wineries. Brother and sister team Lauren and Alex Benward have expanded and diversified the property’s agricultural offerings, in addition to their wine production. New produce gardens, heirloom fruit trees, and heritage breed laying hens are just a few of the additions guests can see around the property and enjoy the fruits of in the dining room. Meals at the ranch are often exclusively fruits, veggies, olive oil and herbs grown on the property.
Forage for Your Own Wild Ingredients
One night by the fire at The Inn at Newport Ranch, I sat sipping a candy cap-infused old fashioned. On the plate in front of me, were the crumbs of a delicious hors d’oeuvre: a petite wild mushroom pastry. The next morning– clearly riding something of a mushroom craving– I would order a mushroom omelet. All of these refreshments were fueled by the fungi that I had the opportunity to forage earlier that day in the surrounding redwood forest. With an expert guide at the lead, we had set out on an ATV tour to see the property, plant redwood seedlings and forage the fruits of the forest. From fresh bay leaves to redwood sorrel, we filled our wicker baskets with wild ingredients for the kitchen.
Every evening, a three-course, seasonally-inspired dinner is served by the crackling fireplace in the main lodge’s dining room. Depending on what’s in season (or whatever the foraging baskets brought in that day), the menu could include anything from fresh abalone and oysters to honey glazed smoked duck with Mendocino mushrooms to a blood orange tart with toasted meringue. It’s more than just a meal; food is one of the most immersive experiences the property is able to use to share the diverse beauty of the surrounding land and sea.
Ready for your own culinary journey through Northern California?
See this sample itinerary: Sonoma and Mendocino: A Farm to Table Road Trip