When it comes to fresh produce that is enticingly displayed--no games, no lines, no coupons--my favorite market may be bountiful Sonoma County.
There is little on my list that is not sold along its two-lane country roads that ramble from sea to wine slopes just 50 miles north of San Francisco.
Farm stands, wineries and cheese makers offer home-grown wonders and a bunch of rare tastes. Berries are plump and plentiful: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, loganberries, raspberries and even olallieberries--a name I love, but a berry I've not yet tried.
Tart and juicy Gravenstein apples are honored with a fair each summer in Sebastopol, a major apple-growing area just 10 minutes west of Santa Rosa. Rome Beauty apples are harvested in November, and glow like small red balloons on roadside stands.
Pumpkins and Persimmons
In October the roads are tawny with rows of fat pumpkins and baskets of ripe persimmons.
I like to start shopping at the green plaza in the heart of Sonoma, a town that wears yesteryear well. Trees are tall and old. The northernmost of the California missions is here, and so is the big Sebastiani winery, as well as the state's oldest winery--Buena Vista--founded in 1857.
This is a good place to pick up a free map of Sonoma County Farm Trails and to plot your main course and wild appetizers. The map--updated each spring--lists 170 "agri-destinations" by their specialties, and by the harvest seasons.
Many farms and vineyards have shady picnic areas where you can savor natural juices or wine with stone-ground crackers and goat cheese. Figs a' Plenty in Sonoma offers ripe, you-pick black Mission figs in September and October.
The Sonoma Cheese Factory is a favorite stop for wheels of dry Sonoma Jack, which has a nutty flavor that reminds me of Parmesan. They also make a tempting soft cheese laced with jalapeno peppers. I usually leave a trail of Christmas orders.
Farm signs splay out from Sebastopol and through the neighboring towns of Forestville, Bloomfield, Valley Ford and Freestone.
They boast of exotic vegetables: designer mushrooms, red Russian kale, giant kohlrabi, celadon cabbage, speckled butter lettuce. Organic farms sell grasslands of fresh herbs for cooking, and for diet and health. A few farms are by appointment only.
From May to November there are lively farmers' markets in Healdsburg and Petaluma. Such European-style markets are open throughout the year in Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Besides fruits, there are sausages, vinegars, potpourri, bees, pigs, chukars, rabbits, honey, jams, jerky, gourmet popcorn, Christmas trees and plants.
Some farms raise puppies and kittens. Exotic game birds are the specialty at Oak Crest Farm in Sebastopol, which lists Toulouse geese and Rouen ducks as well as Hampshire hogs. Those large items I could resist, as I was traveling by plane.
Petaluma, once known as the egg capital of the world and then the arm-wrestling capital, has branched out with farms that sell fresh oysters, miniature horses for pets or show, Indian corn, fancy gourds, Monterey pines, Douglas firs, cactus and bromeliads. They still offer alder-smoked chickens, turkeys and lots of fresh eggs.
Business names run from the straightforward (Petaluma Mushroom Farm or Grossi Family Pumpkins of Santa Rosa) to the precious (Chicken Crossing, Lucky Duck, Family Tree).
One of my Santa Rosa favorites is Adams and Friend, which is owned by Barbara Adams and Ilene Friend. They sell rabbits, live and dressed, as well as Angora for spinning. Naturally, where there are farms, there are crafts.
Sonoma's farms may be small, but the rich, rolling county is one and a half times the size of Rhode Island. So slow down a bit when marketing there. The pleasure should not be rushed.
I know all too well. Last time I had only a weekend. I'm already out of kohlrabies.