January 19, 2007

Of cheese, vegetables and figs

It was a short and pleasant drive to our next stop, downtown Sonoma, where the enormous plaza or town square with it's serene duck pond is the focal point of the town. Driving around the plaza took me back to that time 10 years ago when we stopped here on our way back to SF from a ski trip in Lake Tahoe. It was just as I remembered it...quaint and peaceful. The square is rimmed with old adobe buildings, converted army barracks, chic boutiques, restaurants, the historic Sebastiani Theater and the Mission (which I will talk about in my next post).

We pulled up behind the Sonoma Cheese Factory, the home of the Sonoma Jack. Before we sampled any of their cheeses, we chose to have lunch in the patio of the Plaza Grill. It would have been a shame to stay indoors on such a beautiful day. There were sausages and burgers already sizzling on the grill, the smell wafting up and taunting our already-grumbling tummies. I couldn't help it, all that food tasting had opened up our appetites!

I chose a turkey burger, but could not decide on what cheese I wanted with it as there was so much to choose from and each one sounded like the perfect choice. After much deliberation, I decided on the Jalapeno Pepper Jack and was very glad I did because I like my burgers with a slight kick (like the Kamikaze burger with wasabi mayo), and this had just the right amount of heat for my juicy burger.

Contentedly wiping the crumbs and grease from our chins, we headed back inside to sample the various cheeses.You're probably wondering where I would put it on top of all that I had already sampled that morning plus the burger (and cold mediterranean pasta salad!) I had just cleanly put away. Well if there's one thing you should know about me, I always have space for cheese and dessert.

So there they were...wedges and tubs of cheesy goodness. On top of each flavor group are tupperwares containing cubes of cheese for sampling. Aside from the traditional Sonoma Jack, we tried the various flavors such as the very spicy Habanero Jack, sun-dried tomato and olive-flavored Mediterranean Jack, Portabella Jack with portabella mushrooms of course (these three were my favorites), and all sorts of cheese spreads and teleme - the softer and tangier cousin to Jack.

The store area is huge and one can find everything expected from a deli and cheese store but it also doubles as a souvenir shop. In addition, there is also a gelato bar and a coffee corner from where we bought the coffee we took outside to the plaza with us later. All this is managed by the Viviani family who carry on the time-honored cheese-making methods of Celso Viviani , an Italian immigrant who founded the company back in 1931.

Not yet cheesed-out, we walked past the Mission down a tree-lined road and turned left towards the Vella Cheese Factory, a true Sonoma treasure. The building made entirely of stone was originally built in 1904 to house a brewery but was later converted into a factory that has been churning award-winning artisan cheeses for 75 years.

As a bonus, we even met the man himself, Ig Vella! It was like a celebrity sighting. He walked into the store wearing his trademark suspenders and white paper cap and I immediately recognized him from the brochures. He nodded his hello then disappeared through a door at the back. I was star-struck. I read that he learned the craft from his father who was responsible for the popularity of aged cheeses in the Bay Area and beyond. Now anyone who makes good aged cheese is definitely a celebrity in my book!

Vella's Traditional Dry Jack is a favorite for its nutty flavor as well as the Mezzo Secco, it's softer offspring. Now for me, tasting is believing. So I tasted and became a believer. The dry jack brings to mind parmesan but with a milder taste and without all the salt. The asiago was nutty, buttery and slightly sweet, perfect in my opinion. The Mezzo Secco is tangy and absolutely delightful.After we made our purchases and stepped out into the sidewalk, I saw this sign (above) across the street and just had to check it out. It was a very simple self-serve produce stand filled with autumn's bounty. The first thing that caught my eye were the fresh figs in their crates! ( Joey can totally relate! She had even coincidentally posted about her experience on her blog on this very day.) The taste of fresh figs were a mystery to me until then. I let out a shriek and made a beeline for them.

The kind man in charge was thrilled that I was thrilled and he immediately transferred some into a little plastic basket, which is how they measure and price them, and asked me how many I wanted. I stammered something about 3 or 4, paid him and grabbed a basket from him. He said to go right ahead and try them, so I did. I bit into one and felt a little bit closer to paradise. I closed my eyes and really tasted it. It was incredibly sweet! It's unique texture is a combination of it's smooth thin skin, crunchy seeds and soft chewy flesh. It was gooooooood! And very well worth the wait. :)We stopped to check out the Fruit Basket along Sonoma Highway. It turned out to be a place to buy much more than just fruit or vegetables. There were wines for sale, assorted breads and biscuits, hordes of pre-packed nuts and candies and other miscellaneous items. Ok, so I really just wanted to stop for a picture with the haystack decorated with pumpkins, which is actually what caught my attention and caused me to swerve into the driveway. But look (second pic below), doesn't it make a pretty picture!? :)

The Fruit Basket

"warty" gourds in all colors and patterns

clockwise from top right: pre-packaged pasta in various shapes, candy corn,
nuts and other goodies, beans of all varieties, and an abundance of squash

Sonoma Cheese Factory
Sonoma Town Square

Vella Cheese Factory
Second Street East
withing walking distance from the Plaza

The Fruit Basket
Sonoma Highway

Up Next: Misson Solano


oggi said...

Figs, wonderful figs! Every year I look forward to their arrival in our groceries. My favorite is the super sweet Italian honey.

joey said...

Nens!!!! I want to buy everything I see in your pics (of the markets)! I miss the fresh figs! Weren't just so so good? :) I still can't get over the fact that the day I posted about my first figs was the same day you tried yours! That is some connection ;)

christine said...

Oggi, you're so lucky they're available in your grocery! There's so many things I want to try them with like, wrapped in prosciutto and eaten straight away or grilled first. Not to mention all the other fig/cheese combinations i want to try and that recipe for fig clafoutis I saw somewhere. I would go nuts!

Jo, I know! When I read your blog post that day I was so surprised! But then again, you were in my thoughts a lot that day because I knew you would love everything in Sonoma as much as I did and was wishing you could have been there with me too.

Baking Soda said...

Beautiful write-up Christine! We've been in the area (long time ago) and I can't believe we missed all this!

Santos said...

i have a couple of fig trees in my backyard--asian variety, but they taste very much like the european variety. if they grow here in guam, they definitely should grow there. i got my trees from branches cut off from a local grower's trees, and although they are just little things, they produce a couple of fruit every month or so. i wonder if you can find a source there....

(photos are divine, btw, it took me several visits to read the whole post, i was just ogling the photos)

christine said...

Thank you, Karen. :) Well the area has so much to offer so unless you stay longer, you would inevitably miss some of the good stuff. I know I have to come back again someday and explore some more.

Santos,how lucky you are to have fig trees in your backyard! And that is an interesting thought. I wonder if many here have tried and succeeded at growing their own fig trees.I'll have to ask around, maybe the fruit growers at our farmers market would know.
Thank you for the compliment, very kind of you. :)