Cooking Up An Adventure
Combine one food editor, her husband, and a 20-year anniversary. Toss in a bike trip through Napa Valley. Drizzle with culinary delights and local wine. Enjoy.
By Elisa Bosley
First of all, I am not an athlete. I like to exercise, but really only because it enables me to eat pretty much anything I want. And I love to eat. (I keep saying that, as a food editor, it’s my job, but it rarely convinces anyone.) In my line of work, I’ve discovered that food doesn’t just fuel our bodies—it informs us. Within food lies the stories and traditions of a place: coffee in Costa Rica, citrus in Arizona, dates in Saudi Arabia, Champagne in France. And though I’ve feasted my way through many locales, I know there’s still so much for me to eat … er, learn.
One such region I’ve hungered to know better is Northern California’s wine country.
4 must-pack items for biking in comfort
- Hydration system. Backroads provides two water bottles on every bike, but if possible, buy or borrow a backpack-style hydration system (such as Camelbak).
- Padded bike shorts. Don’t even think about skimping on these. Two or three pair should do it.
- Bike gloves. You’ll be surprised how much comfort these provide after hours of gripping the handlebars.
- Wind-resistant clothes. Jacket and pants, if possible. Lightweight and easy to take on and off, these make all the difference on cold, fast downhill rides.
As college students in the Bay Area during the early 1980s, my husband-to-be, Dave, and I were too busy and too poor to explore the area’s food riches in depth; instead, we fell in love over late-night pizza runs and the occasional Chinese food binge. For our 20th anniversary we decided to return to the birthplace of California cuisine, to experience the farm-fresh foods and exceptional wines that put the region on the world’s culinary map.
To avoid packing home an extra pound for each year of wedded bliss, we signed on with Backroads, an active-travel company renowned for providing across-the-globe excursions that feature inspiring scenery, superior service, and—of course—awesome food. For six days, at the height of California’s grape harvest, we biked and ate our way through a land that glowed golden with health, the air perfumed with ripened fruit and expectation. Here’s a peek at the culinary highlights and one-of-a-kind moments that made it such a memorable anniversary experience.
Day 1: Sunday
We arrive at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, a California-style resort with red tiled roofs and pink stucco graced by succulents and spiky palms. Our exceedingly fit tour guides, Justin and Joanne, adjust our bikes and send us off on a short ride around Sonoma, a charming Spanish mission town. Today’s route is easy and flat. Last month, Dave and I took a few training rides around our hometown of Boulder, Colorado, including pumping up some serious hills, so we’re feeling confident—dare I say cocky—that biking in sea-level California will be a breeze. The sky looks white-blue behind huge, fragrant eucalyptus trees. Grapevines grow everywhere, many heavy with fruit.
Dinner at Santé, the inn’s restaurant, proves an auspicious culinary start. Justin sets the tone by telling the group that all food is included in the trip price—including double entrées or triple desserts if we want. I refrain from whooping, but I sense immediately that this trip was an excellent idea. Tonight, we’re served a tender risotto flavored with goat cheese and kalamata olives, followed by a crisp salad dressed with light, fragrant olive oil and lemon juice, celery, and cherry tomatoes. My beef filet arrives with a bright green watercress sauce, delightful and less peppery than traditional horseradish. Three minidesserts finish us off; my favorite is a chocolate pot de crème, laced with cinnamon and coffee. A fellow tour member, insisting she’s full, offers her desserts to Dave and me. I like her already.
Day 2: Monday
So much for cocky. Justin warns us this morning that today will be the hardest ride of the trip—and he isn’t kidding. Up and over Sonoma Mountain we ride … except for when we walk, push, or drag ourselves and our bikes up, up, up. It is steep! The scenery does pay for much of the effort, however: cool blue skies with gauzy clouds, high-up vistas overlooking green and golden vineyards, timid quail scurrying behind scrubby bushes, and a silent and majestic redwood grove we pass unexpectedly on the downhill, illuminated by slanting rays of light.
I already like this method of travel. Being on a bike feels like slowly tasting every bite of a meal; there’s no rushing, no indistinct impressions. I like the sense of being on the land, among its elements, as we travel the distance bit by bit. Still, by the time we get close to our destination, the 14 miles we’ve covered feels like 50. Oh, dear.
All is forgiven at lunch. We meet at Matanzas Creek, a winery that boasts extensive lavender gardens, and the sweet whiffs I inhale while pedaling up the driveway almost make me forget my tired legs. This is our first up-close look at a winery in action: Workers are dumping fresh grapes from the fields, stems and all, into giant bins in preparation for crushing. The air, heavy and sweet, buzzes with bees.
Lunch is spectacular, arranged on picnic tables in Matanzas’ oak grove. We feast on spinach salad with toasted walnuts, velvety blue cheese, pears, and a balsamic vinaigrette; fresh pineapple and raspberries; make-your-own sandwiches with sourdough bread, turkey, Brie cheese, pesto, and arugula; and fudge brownies. Memories of the morning’s hard work fade with every bite.
After lunch, Dave and I, well-fueled, ride another 12 miles before hopping on the van to Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa, where we relax with the shimmering ocean in sight.
Day 3: Tuesday
It’s cold and foggy in Bodega Bay, and the picturesque fishing village looks sleepy. We ride parallel to the coast on historic Highway 1; windswept hills slope away on our right, gray waves break against the beach on our left. Ten miles later, we turn inland along the Russian River, then pedal on to Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. One of the few remaining stands of old-growth coast redwood trees, these 805 acres were set aside in the 1870s by a lumberman stirred by the area’s rapidly disappearing natural beauty.
Joanne has spread out a lunch that includes heirloom tomatoes with a basil–olive oil vinaigrette and bagels with lox and cream cheese, plus crimson pomegranates the size of softballs. We eat and rest beneath the majestic trees that tower over us like silent hosts. Later, Dave and I stroll hand in hand through the forest, the springy turf moist and fragrant. There’s a sign by one massive tree that notes its age: 1,300 years. Mere seedlings by comparison, we are awed by its perseverance.
That night, at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, I order the halibut, and even though it’s fine, I harbor regrets when I get a bite of the potato gnocchi: It’s fantastically good, zipped up with fresh corn, heirloom tomatoes, and basil. Then, remembering Justin’s everything-is-included speech, I order gnocchi, too, and savor every bite.
Day 4: Wednesday
When I wake up, I say to Dave, “I’ll bet today will be a nice day.”
“They’re all nice days,” he says.
We wind our way on a narrow road past vineyard after vineyard, now feeling a cozy familiarity with the landscape. After we pedal up a gradual climb (observed, at one point, by a shy coyote), we stop at a few wineries, though I find I’m mostly in the mood for water. We lunch among oaks at the Field Stone Winery, where Dave samples the tawny port, as smooth and richly colored as rubies.
Most people take the post-lunch shuttle to the Villagio Inn & Spa in Yountville, where we’re staying the next two nights. But Dave and I, feeling young and happy, decide to pedal another 10 miles—the prettiest ride yet, on quiet streets lined with towering trees. At times, I can hardly believe we’re in California; there’s barely a car in sight.
For dinner, an on-your-own event tonight, Dave and I head for Mustards Grill, a casual and good-humored Napa hot spot. We start with delectable sweet corn tamales; for the entrée, I choose herb-crusted rabbit (I’ve never had rabbit, so this counts as research) on tender polenta with cherry tomatoes and green and yellow pole beans. It is fabulous. Nearly every place we’ve eaten this week has its own garden—I’ve walked among rows of basil, eggplant, squash, pomegranates, figs, tomatoes, and of course grapes. The freshness makes a huge taste difference, as if everything is infused with California’s famous sunshine.
Day 5: Thursday
We bypass the group’s winery stop today and head straight for my personal mecca: The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), housed in the palatial Greystone building. What a place! I feel like an art lover at the Louvre. I spend at least an hour poking around the gift shop, until Dave starts humming and looking at his watch. Restraining myself from major purchases, I buy only a recipe-writing book, a denim CIA apron, and a green spatula.
Along with cooking classes (today’s syllabus: sour-cream coffee cake), the CIA boasts Greystone Restaurant, a training ground for up-and-coming chefs. Its centerpiece is an open kitchen theater with several chefs all cooking around each other, grabbing pots, stirring sauces, chopping, straining, prepping. We sit at the curved bar and order Today’s Temptations: five tapas-size bites that vary daily, depending on the whims of the chef. Fortified by three types of fresh bread (all you can eat) and a ramekin of toasted almonds, we’re served salmon tartar with chopped tomatoes; paper-thin carpaccio with dill and cilantro; prawns and sliced celery marinated in sweet verjus; cream of mushroom soup with a toasted cheese crouton; and, the most interesting and delicious, a duck- confit tostada with aioli. As we sip our fresh lemonade, I have to admit that it’s nice to eat something small and light for a change.
But what kind of foodie would I be if I didn’t try the desserts? So, dutifully, we order what the restaurant optimistically calls Last Temptations, six minisweets. The greatest triumph is a buttermilk panna cotta with macerated berries (check out the recipe, below), satiny smooth and good enough to make me wish I could order a great big one and not share it with Dave.
After almost three hours at CIA, we finally mount our bikes. I notice the tires appear to need pumping.
Plan your own adventure: For more information on Backroads, visit www.backroads.com or call 800.GO.ACTIVE. Day 6: Friday
After a cool, misty morning ride, everyone gathers for our farewell lunch at an outdoor café. We sample several varieties of wood-fired pizza, two salads, and huge homemade cookies. (And I get a glass of milk—because I want one.) Having ridden these roads mile by mile, I now feel I understand the wine country’s allure: Like a fine elixir, its smells and tastes have gone to my head, imparting a sense of optimistic joy. “Of course you love me,” the land seems to say; “how can you not?” As we prepare to leave, I also realize that this expansive place has opened up a neglected space in my mind and heart. Here, now, I have time to remember how much I love Dave, how good it is to be together. For us, the only remaining question is where to eat—and to fall in love again—next. I hear Vermont is luscious in the fall.