Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2009

Sonoma County Farm Trails

joe-matos-2a2Looping around the gentle hills of Sebastopol are country lanes full of farm visit possibilities. This area of Central Sonoma County has bushels full of fruit orchards, vegetable farms, nurseries, beekeepers, dairy producers and livestock ranches. Many are members of Sonoma County Farm Trails, an organization which has a great on-line resource and printed guide to visiting the area (see web address below).

One of the yearly highlights here is the mid-August Gravenstein Apple Fair. This old-time country get-together seems miles away from the chic wineries spreading up from Santa Rosa. Families from the surrounding small farms gather at the fair for exhibits, tasting and activities, while welcoming visitors to join in.  Missed the fair? How about a drive through back roads full of delicious stops.
Joe Matos Cheese

Down a gravel road between dried pastures, past a weather-beaten sign once reading “Cheese Factory” and behind an unassuming house, is a hard-to-find door. Open it and what sounds like a fire bell goes off. You have entered a closet sized sales room with one counter, a cash register and one opened wheel of wonderful, old-world style cheese. This is the Joe Matos Cheese Factory and you wait for Mary, his wife, who has been summoned by the bell.

I pulled up alongside a van with Wisconsin license plates. The owners were in buying cheese. “Wanted to see what the competition was like. There aren’t many like this anymore. Gotta be a real foodie to find this guy”.

Joe Matos makes only one type of cheese. The rustic setting seems just right for his farmstead St. George, a semi soft joe-matos-1acows milk cheese made in the Portuguese style of his birthplace, the island of St. George in the Azores. The cheese is made of milk from his own herd and formed into wheels of 10-20 lbs. The wheels are aged for up to seven months on wooden shelves in two rooms behind the sales room. While I waited for Mary, I took a quick peek and calculated 500 wheels resting peacefully.

I had tasted St. George before, amidst a huge offering of international stunners where it was overwhelmed. But here, isolated from competing tastes, it was all buttery subtleness, a little nutty, with flavors recalling a light cheddar and the open texture of a Havarti.

As Mary wrapped my piece of cheese, two local fellows dropped in. “We always come by for a chunk for our family get-togethers. We just throw it on the table” they explained. I was thinking of sandwiches or melted over pasta, but they might have the best idea for serving St. George… just throw a chunk on the table.

Apple-A-Day Ratzlaff Ranch

I was looking for gravensteins, the signature apple of the county. Driving lanes through small hillside orchards interspersed with oaks and pines I happened on Cherry Ridge Road. Although on a ridge, there were no cherry trees in sight. I could see vineyards creeping up the slope where orchards might once have been.  I made a mental note to ask about cherries.

The next stop was Apple-A-Day Ranch. Like another apple grower I visited, Twin Hill Ranch, you are welcome to drive into the farm and park anywhere. The farm dog wags up to you. You look around and eventually find an “open” sign on an old building. Go in to find someone not only welcoming, but willing to take an unhurried walk out to see the apples. Eric was on hand to say “hi” and find a half gallon of unpasturized apple juice for me. His father, Ken, gave me a tour.

Ken’s mother had been born on this property, and he has managed the land since the 70s. They own 25 acres, 10 of which are Gravenstein apples. There were thick, knarled trunks mixed with supple young replants. All bore smallish green apples just beginning to show the red striping of a mature gravenstein. Ken plucked a large specimen, wiped it on his sleeve and offered it to me. Tart juice spilled from the delightful crispness and we agreed that maybe next week they would be perfect to start picking.

The heavy late rains this spring had flooded the roots and killed about 10 trees. Apples are grown on hills that drain off excess water. They need the soil to be pretty dry when they leaf. I asked about Cherry Ridge. Cherry orchards were prominent in this area until the early 1960’s when a blight killed off the trees. Replanted cherry trees were also affected. So, everyone switched to apples. But the yield is low and what they get for a ton of apples isn’t high.

Some farmers have switched to grapes. The profit is enormous compared to orchards. But Ken cautioned that now would be late to make the switch to vineyards, as the market is flooded with grape juice. As much as I love wine and wine country, I was secretly pulling for the continued existence of the unmanicured, random-looking orchard like I was standing in.

Willie Bird Turkeys

I can’t count how many orders of poultry bearing the name Willie Bird, have come through the doors of catering and restaurant kitchens in which I have worked. This company has been the top free-range turkey and smoked poultry producer in The Bay Area for the last 30 years. Now I was stopping at their small retail shop and deli on Sebastopol Highway 116, off the Santa Rosa Highway 101 .

Willie Bird grows their own turkeys at 4 nearby locations . Turkey shows up as sausages, packages of turkey necks, ground meat, seasoned loaves and all manner of parts and bits. Willie Bird also smokes poultry from other top notch local growers, such as ducks from Grimaud Company. All of these wondrous possibilities are available at the shop.

I could have ordered a Willie Bird sandwich and sat at one of their umbrella tables on the edge of the parking lot. Or, just ordered a smoked turkey leg, small smoked game hen, or even a smoked chicken. Instead I carried a whole smoked turkey out to my car trunk already full of apples, cheese and other Sonoma County goodies. The drive home was not quite long enough to plan all the many ways I could use up my turkey… for just 2 people.
For a well-designed web site and printed guide to Sonoma Farms, see

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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