In late April while the snow continued to fall here in Northern New Mexico, I flew West, to San Francisco at the invitation of a couple of dear friends who had both relocated to California after years of living in the High Desert.
Toni Leigh, the owner of Desert Blends Skin Care, now lives in her hometown of Sacramento, near her mother, daughter and grandkids. spending part of spring and fall planting, wild-crafting and harvesting in Taos. Loretta Chuzum is in Sonoma County. At one time both these women had businesses next door to one another, at the end of Bent Street, in the heart of Taos’ Historic District. I can walk there from my studio. These days I need to travel a lot further to see these two, but I don’t mind. I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, so any excuse to flee snow and land on a beach, or close to one, is a good excuse for this land-locked beach girl.
After two days in San Francisco and in the Redwoods of Marin County with Toni (who once lived there and misses the Bay Area as much as I miss the African Cape), we drove to Sonoma County where I would stay with Loretta for a few days before heading back to Taos, where I live quite happily despite the lack of sea and sand, surrounded by my kids and grandkids.
Two days spent on Muir Beach (at the Pelican Inn) and a couple more in an Airbnb tucked into a Redwood Grove (up a narrow, winding road that someone actually drove their car off while we stayed there), had put me into the Northern California groove. I felt as if I were ten pounds heavier from the moisture my body and skin had absorbed like a plant, and I was moving slower, feeling more languid. Not that Taos is fast, it’s the land of manana up here – but after half a lifetime in NYC, I am fast.
Now I was not and consequently I began to take note of the lush vegetation all around, wherever we went. “Things grow here,” became my mantra.
“Things really grow here.” Said Loretta when we met for a late lunch one day at a nondescript fish place in Sausalito, where we ate oysters that tasted just like the sea itself, briny and juicy and perfection washed down with a cold glass of Pinot Grigio.
A day later we were breakfasting at a roadside French Patisserie, across from a heavily planted vineyard.
“The wine is over there,” she nodded across the street, “my olive oil comes from next door and those happy cows across the way are the source of some my favourite cheese.”
“Everyone here is making something.” She added.
The coffee I sipped was delicious. I’m not eating grains at the moment but the pastries and breads looked out of this world and I could only imagine how the light, airy croissants melted in the mouth.
Toni was headed back to Sacramento so after coffee we drove the short distance to Lolo’s house where she gave us a quick tour before Toni headed home.
The house Loretta rents from a landscape architect now based in LA, is a bit of Mid-Century Paradise just minutes from the gorgeous Sonoma Coast. A sprawling Ranch-style brick house, it has been restored, renovated and brought into the new Millennium by its owner without sacrificing one iota of its original charm. Black walls and pegboards in the open kitchen against warm wood and local stone finishes ooze a relaxed elegance just perfect for Loretta who loves to cook and entertain and is brilliant at both.
After settling in, we went shopping. Everything we bought was local. Sourdough bread (I allowed myself the fermented grain) divine cheeses, a couple of perfect tomatoes, an avocado. Some colourful carrots and greens. Olives, wine and oil. A little Salami. Prosciutto. Yogurt, berries, honey, cream and good coffee for breakfast.
We planned to eat lunches on the beach and go out for our evening meal. There were a couple of places Loretta wanted me to try.
We wound up eating at home mostly, but did go to the Handline one evening, where we ate oysters (again), juicy burgers and handcut french fries to die for. Everything was fresh and local. Farm to table perfection.
I had eaten well with Toni in Marin. We too had gone shopping and wondered at the amount of produce available year round, but in Sonoma, it was even more of a cornucopia of abundance.
Taos has such a short growing season and here there was so much, it almost felt decadent and overwhelming but I could get easily get used to it. It reminded me of my childhood, picking stone fruit off the trees in summer, eating too many all at once.
Or as a teenager wandering around with my hippie pals, stealing huge bunches of grapes from vineyards in Constantia as we climbed up the mountain behind the Rhodes Memorial, above the University and the Botanical Gardens, eating them as we hiked, dropping the bruised ones for the birds, descending to Camps Bay on the other side of the mountain, and the beach.
Driving to the beach through the small communities dotted along the Russian River Estuary, I lost myself in the lush vistas surrounding us on all sides. We stopped at a sweet little eaterie clinging to a cliff above the river’s mouth, and Loretta ran inside to grab a menu and check it out, but we never went. After an afternoon in the sun (it was 80 degrees every day I was there), we were happy to make a salad and turn in early.
Lazy days spent on Goat Rock Beach until the afternoon winds picked up and the tide began to rise, restored my inherent beach-girlness. I was reconnected to my true self as we sipped champagne and stealthily nibbled on those heavenly cheeses and bread we’d packed and brought with us.
Seagulls circled us but we were sneaky and quiet and not once did they attempt to rob us of our repast.
Another woman further along the beach was not so lucky. As she opened a bag of chips, gulls flew in from all directions and swooped down, soon surrounding her, noisily squawking and demanding she share her snacks.
We decided she did it on purpose and rather fancied the attention she got from the birds, as we uncorked our bubbly and spread more (triple cream) cheese on hunks of freshly baked, crusty bread.
Loretta Chuzum is the publisher of the Essential Guide for Sonoma, Napa and Marin. Her second book goes to press this week.
All photos of the roadside Patisserie, the Cowgirl Creamery cheese, the Handline in Sebastopol, the Russian River and the coast, thanks to Loretta Chuzum
Photo of Lolo the beach babe lifted from her Facebook page by moi.