There were raw Kumamoto and Atlantic oysters, freshly plucked from a tank at Hog Island Oyster Co. and shucked here at the table. Cowgirl Creamery had contributed a savory hunk of Red Hawk cheese, and another of St. Pat, wrapped in stinging nettle leaves. Cowgirl's deli at the Tomales Bay Foods barn had also served up a wedge of spicy rabbit pate, a fregola salad and a crackling bottle of white Bordeaux. A just-baked loaf of whole-wheat bread from Bovine Bakery was studded with sesame and sunflower seeds. For dessert there was a juicy tangelo from Little Shorty's Golden Point Produce.
And the setting was as superb as the cuisine a weathered table at the Millerton Point picnic grounds, overlooking Tomales Bay (whose waters nurtured those oysters), with the forested hills of the Point Reyes Peninsula in the distance. A steel-gray overcast sky was perforated here and there by patches of blue, and seabirds squawked overhead, undoubtedly desirous of some scraps of which there would be none.
The Point Reyes region, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, has been turned into a wondrous gourmet platter by artisan food producers and small-scale organic farmers and ranchers.
Tourists may come here for leisurely drives on Highway 1, the
"What Napa was for wine, we are - in a very, very sustainable way, based on a true relationship to the land - for food production," said Helge Hellberg, executive director of Marin Organic, an association of farmers and ranchers. He asserted that "basically all the vegetable and row crops are certified organic in Marin County,'' and several dairy and livestock operations are also on board.
The concepts have achieved international notice. Prince Charles of Britain, a staunch proponent of organics, visited the Point Reyes area last fall with his wife, Camilla, where they lingered at a farmers market and toured organic farms. It was reported to be a highlight of their U.S. trip, which otherwise involved a string of state dinners.
The champions of this movement have learned an important truth: Many consumers will go out of their way to savor the finest of foods, whether in small shops or out-of-the-way cafes, and will pay premium prices for the privilege. That has justified the region's general philosophy of placing a higher premium on quality of taste than on quantity of yield.
Michael Zilber, manager of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, gazed through a plate-glass window while leading a recent tour. Inside, workers were fashioning the creamery's signature Mount Tam and Red Hawk cheeses, both made from organic milk from the nearby Straus Family Dairy.
"It's all done by hand; no machinery is used,'' he said. "They will stir the curds for an hour and a half. There are no instruments to tell them when it's ready. Cheese-makers do it all by feel.''
The entire operation is housed in this small barn, limiting Cowgirl's output to about 2,000 pounds per week. Zilber chuckled. "A guy taking one of our tours said he works at a place near Modesto that makes all the cheese for Taco Bell. One million pounds a day. He asked, `When do you add the color?' '' (Answer: They don't.)
When sampling the artisan tastes of west Marin, stop here first. In addition to an astounding array of specialty cheeses, the barn also has a small produce stand, a shop selling hand-woven clothing, and the Cowgirl Cantina, which can send you out the door with most of what you need for a memorable picnic feast.
Apprised of our plans, Zilber said, "Let me show you a really good oyster wine," and we soon were packing a reasonably priced 2004 Chateau Sainte-Marie white Bordeaux ($15), which lived up to his assessment.
Just around the corner, on the main drag through Point Reyes Station, is Bovine Bakery, hugely popular with weekend bicyclists desiring the fuel of bear claws brimming with almond paste. Also popular are the scones (buttermilk, chile cheddar, vegan, whole wheat), stuffed croissants, muffins and coffee cake. And we were quite content with that hearty loaf of brick-oven bread.
The oysters of Tomales Bay are legendary, too, but you have to possess a spirit of adventure to experience this tradition optimally.
Two outlets on the east side of the bay - Hog Island Oyster Co. and Tomales Bay Oyster Co. - sell the little mollusks in bulk, by the dozen or more. Then it's up to you to shuck them. (The Palace Market in town sells oyster knives and leather work gloves; don't expect to get your home oyster knife through airport security.)
At Hog Island, we had our pick among sweetwaters, Kumamotos, Atlantics and Europeans, the latter called "French hogs" by this establishment.
But some travelers might not be keen to fuss with all of this - shopping, shlepping, shucking - on a vacation. They shouldn't despair. A number of restaurants in the Point Reyes region are showcases for locally grown and produced foods.
An oyster bar, for example, is operated out of the Marshall Store on Highway 1. Patrons may find a seat on a patio decorated with nautical junk and eat oysters in any of three preparations: raw, barbecued or Rockefeller-style.
Across the bay, at Manka's Inverness Lodge, owner Margaret Grade was a trailblazing proponent of west Marin foods in the early 1990s. Her restaurant menu is crafted entirely from local ingredients, many brought to the kitchen door from the backyard gardens of area residents. Manka's promotional materials boldly declare that your prix fixe dinner will be "wholly composed of foods farmed, fished or foraged within a half-hour of your table."
The royal couple partook of one of these feasts while spending the night at this lodge on their visit.
When we dined at Manka's in June, the lineup included a frisee salad crowned with an Inverness duck egg, a lamb chop accented with "Andrew's huckleberry friends" and an almond cake dressed up with "strawberries wild and tame." In the morning, breakfast included "a rustic sausage fashioned from Dr. Pasternak's rabbit."
The Olema Inn's restaurant has also gotten firmly into this act, with salads featuring Bolinas organic greens, local beets and other seasonal vegetables. We were delighted with dry-aged New York steak from Marin Sun Farms, which raises its beef entirely on pasture grass, rather than fattening the steers up on grain the final three months, as most ranchers do.
"In general, grass-finished beef has a different fatty-acid profile," Marin Sun's David Evans said later. "It's a different mouth feel. You don't get that heavy, sticky fat; it's a lighter fat. And because they're finished on grass, they grow slower, so it's a more intense flavor."
Evans recently opened a butcher shop and eatery on Highway 1 just south of Point Reyes Station. It serves burgers, sausages, steak tartar, small plates, salads and cheeses, and also has a wine-pouring license. In the butcher counter, you might find a rib-eye steak that has been dry-aged 45 days - "You won't find that anywhere," Evans said - and wish you were within driving distance of home. (Then again, some accommodations in the area have barbecue grills and full kitchens, notably at the Olema Cottages.)
There are many other artisan tastes to be found in western Marin County. Many of the farms are so small that they cannot justify hiring staff for tastings and tours, but others welcome visitors on a limited, managed basis, often by appointment.
That is the case at McEvoy Ranch, which produces gourmet olive oil from its organic orchards. It conducts tours on Saturdays during the summer and early fall, but limits them to eight people and charges $20 per person.
You may have seen their extra virgin oil on a shelf at a Whole Foods market - easily recognizable because it is the rare bottle of olive oil that is packaged inside a box.
"The enemies of olive oil are oxygen, light and heat - just like a good wine," general manager Dick Neilsen said on a recent tour of the ranch. "You need a nice, cool cupboard."
A tour will take in the hillside orchard, the mill - where McEvoy uses two massive stone wheels for some of the grinding - and concludes with tastings of the final product. Be sure to duck into the retail shop, too, for home-produced honey, olive oil soap and some marvelous Meyer lemon marmalade.
Another worthy stop is Marin French Cheese Co. A plaque out front notes that Jefferson Thompson purchased this spread in 1865, established a ranch and began dabbling in cheese-making. It's been done here continuously for five generations.
Marin French takes great pride in the gold medal its Rouge et Noir Triple Creme Brie won at the 2005 World Cheese Awards in London. "The cheese that beat the French," crows a color brochure prominently displayed.
Five Rouge et Noir cheeses, accompanied by crusts of French bread, were set out for tasting when we popped in: original brie, pesto brie, garlic brie, chevre and chevre blue. This creamery also conducts tours at times when it is making cheese, generally Monday through Friday.
There was one other Point Reyes taste offering that was such a surprise we didn't even slow down to consider it. Wine? Surely not here, this close to such an inhospitable coast.
But Point Reyes Vineyards is making a heroic go of it, farming a half-dozen acres of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes and making sparkling wine from them. Later, at Manka's restaurant, a glass of the winery's blanc de blanc sparkling wine indicated they're doing some fine work, though vintner Scott Doughty admitted he imports a fair amount of fruit from neighboring Sonoma County for that bottling.
The vineyard was planted in 1990 by his father, Steve Doughty, on the east side of Tomales Bay. Grape-growing here, Scott admitted, "is really pushing the envelope farther than it should be pushed. Wind is a tremendous factor. Fog. Powdery mildew. The birds - we have to net. Yellowjackets. Just about everything Mother Nature can throw at us, we've had."
You've got to admire their pluck, though - which mirrors the dogged resolve of the region's other farmers, ranchers and food producers, who have eschewed chemical sprays and mysterious additives. They're guided instead by the palate, not entirely the purse.
The beneficiary is the hungry traveler, passing through.
RELATED STORY: CHARMING COTTAGES, LUXURY CABINS IN THE POINT REYES AREA
OLEMA - In a bookcase near the sleigh bed was a selection of videotapes and DVDs, and among them was "Groundhog Day." We drifted off to sleep the first night as Bill Murray wrestled with the curse of being trapped endlessly in the same day.
At dawn, we wished we could have shared his fate.
The Olema Cottages is an enchanting, pleasantly funky little enclave of accommodations about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. It is convenient to Point Reyes National Seashore, and is an ideal place to take up residence for an unhurried sampling of the various artisan tastes of western Marin County.
Emphasis on residence. The property has three cottages and two guest rooms, and two of the cottages have fully appointed kitchens; the remainder have mini kitchens, with just about everything but a range. The cottages also have barbecue grills, and guests of the other rooms may use one in the yard.
So it's quite possible to stock up on goodies on a rambling tour of the region - oysters from Hog Island, steak from Marin Sun Farms, bread from Bovine Bakery, cheese and side dishes from Tomales Bay Foods - and settle in for a home-cooked feast.
Over a two-night visit in June, we got quite comfortable in the Sunflower Cottage, which has its own fenced yard with a bistro table and chairs. In the living room was a wood-burning stove, well stocked with firewood, though the summer evenings weren't nearly cold enough for that. The view through the windows took in a horse corral and a bucolic hillside topped with a mature cypress tree.
It is all overseen by Kelly Emery, who perfectly balances the innkeeper art of being cheerfully gracious but not the least bit intrusive.
We appreciated her little touches most of all: window boxes bursting with flowers, cut flowers in the room, old garden implements used as decorations on the grounds, many of them overflowing with shrubs and blossoms. To enter the fenced yard from the parking area, meanwhile, you pass through a door cleverly framed here out of doors, without walls.
At any hour of the day, that yard is pretty lively, with chickens, ducks, cats and a laconic old dog.
The dog's name is Yogi, and he's got an unusual habit. He'll find an egg that one of the chickens has laid and gingerly carry it around in his mouth, sometimes for an entire afternoon.
"I guess because he's the land steward, he roams around, and when he finds an egg, he recognizes that it is a special thing," Emery said.
And if Yogi drops it, "He gets so sad. I don't think he thinks of it as food. I think he looks at it as something to be looked after."
Nightly rates at the Olema Cottages start at $145. Coffee and tea is provided in the rooms, so if you pick up fresh pastries at Bovine Bakery and fruit at Toby's Feed Barn in nearby Point Reyes Station, you're set for breakfast.
Up the road from the Olema Cottages, along the east side of Point Reyes National Seashore, is Manka's Inverness Lodge, a World War I-era hunting lodge that has been transformed into a woodsy, upscale inn of 14 rooms (rates from $215).
There are four free-standing cabins, a boathouse down on Tomales Bay that has two units, and some lodgings tucked away on a ridge.
Manka's is exclusive to the point of being secretive - on its Web site, you won't find an address, driving directions or a map. Prospective guests are also advised to make reservations months in advance, and the cancellation policy is punitive (14 days in advance or you pay the full rate).
But if you desire seclusion and an opportunity to fully unwind, you've come to the right place. Even the rooms and cabins that are close together are screened with riotous shrubbery, such that you're likely to feel like you're the only residents of the hillside.
Our unit (Room 7) had a Japanese soaking tub on its deck, one of four accommodations so equipped, and it provided a divine spot to decompress from a day exploring the countryside.
The historic lodge ambience was maintained in every corner of the room, with leather chairs, dark-wood paneling, red-plaid pillows, a trophy deer head mounted on the wall and a stone fireplace. Old, leather-bound books lined shelves - the poetry of Wordsworth in multiple volumes, for example.
You might be stunned at how late you sleep here, which can be attributed to the dark canopy of mature oaks, the setback from the main road and a supremely comfortable bed, outfitted with a generous featherbed pad, like a detachable pillowtop.
The bathroom furnishings are true to the historic period, though everything works. There was a claw-foot tub, plus a massive walk-in shower with a rain-pan showerhead directly overhead. The time warp is so thorough that even the hair dryer is hidden away in an antique box.
-- Eric Noland
|IF YOU GO|
|BOVINE BAKERY:||11315 Highway 1, Point Reyes Station. Open Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (415) 663-9420.|
|COWGIRL CREAMERY:||80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station (in Tomales Bay Foods building). Open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tours offered Friday at 11:30 a.m.; limited to 16 people, reservations recommended. Cowgirl Cantina is located on the premises. www.cowgirlcreamery.com; (415) 663-9335.|
|HOG ISLAND OYSTER CO.:||20215 Highway 1, Marshall. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Picnic tables on site (advance reservations required). www.hogislandoysters.com; (415) 663-9218.|
|MANKA'S RESTAURANT:||At Argyle Street and Callender Way (just west of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard,) Inverness. Open to the public for dinner Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. (one seating only); open for lodge guests Monday evening; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. www.mankas.com; (415) 669-1034.|
|MARIN FRENCH CHEESE:||7500 Red Hill Road, Petaluma. Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours offered between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., based on staff availability (customarily at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday). www.marinfrenchcheese.com; (707) 762-6001.|
|MARIN SUN FARMS:||Butcher Shop and Eatery is at 10905 Highway 1, just south of Point Reyes Station. Open Thursday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. www.marinsunfarms.com; (415) 663-8022.|
|MARSHALL STORE:||19225 Highway 1, Marshall. Oyster bar and deli open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.themarshallstore.com; (415) 663-1339.|
|McEVOY RANCH:||5935 Red Hill Road, Petaluma. Two-hour orchard tours offered Saturdays at 10 a.m. through Oct. 7. Cost is $20 per person. Occasional garden tours offered. www.mcevoyranch.com; (707) 769-4138.|
|OLEMA INN RESTAURANT:||10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Olema. Open for dinner nightly except Tuesday, for lunch Saturday and Sunday. www.theolemainn.com; (415) 663-9559.|
|POINT REYES FARMERS MARKET:||Held every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Nov. 4 at Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station.|
|POINT REYES VINEYARDS:||12700 Highway 1, just north of Point Reyes Station. Tasting room open Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.ptreyesvineyardinn.com; (415) 663-1011. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations on the premises.|
|TOMALES BAY FOODS:||See Cowgirl Creamery.|
|TOMALES BAY OYSTER CO.:||15479 Highway 1, Marshall. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Picnic tables on site. www.tomalesbayoysters.com; (415) 663-1242.|
|NEXT IN THE SERIES|
| Perking up in the coffee country of Kona, Hawaii, Oct. 1.
Review other installments in The Culinary Traveler series at www.greatescapes.com