Belgian-style ale. Estate-grown olive oil. Hand-roasted organic coffee beans. Fresh pappardelle. What do these products have in common? They’re all made right here in the Sacramento region, which is—it turns out—a hotbed of culinary inventiveness. We combed the area to find some of the best local food products, as well as the small-batch super-stars who make them.
F O O D I E P R O F I L E S:
Brian Douglass and Kristy Levings, Cache Creek Chicken Co. (pictured above)
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan wrote about the efforts of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin to raise chickens the old-fashioned way. Inspired by Salatin, Brian Douglass and Kristy Levings began raising their own small flocks of chickens on 7 acres outside Woodland. At Cache Creek Chicken Co., they have several breeds, including Cornish Rock Cross and Poulet Bleu, a rare French breed with an intense chicken flavor. The birds spend all their time in roomy fenced pastures, where they’re free to forage. “They get about 30 percent of their diet from foraging for bugs and beetles,” Douglass explains. The Poulet Bleu chickens also get a mixture of milk and polenta, which helps them put on weight. Cache Creek’s Poulets Bleus are served at The Kitchen, and its Cornish Rock Cross chickens are sold at Taylor’s, Corti Brothers, Davis Natural Foods Co-op and a number of local farmers markets.
Peter Hoey, Odonata Beer Co.
Local brewmaster Peter Hoey hit the ball out of the park when RateBeer.com pronounced his first release, Rorie’s Ale, one of the top 100 beers of 2009. Not bad for a 30-year-old who started making beer while still a teenager. Hoey learned the ropes at Sacramento Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Bison Brewing in Berkeley. Last year, he founded his own craft brewing company, Odonata Beer Co., renting space from local breweries to save on start-up costs. In addition to Rorie’s Ale, he has brewed a Belgian-style farmhouse ale called Saison, a dark Belgian ale and two Lambic-style sour ales. Making beer, it seems, is both an art and a science. “It’s why I like this industry so much,” says Hoey, whose Saison ale is carried by BevMo! and Whole Foods, Taylor’s and Nugget markets. “You get to be a chemist, a microbiologist, an engineer and an artist.”
Ginger Hahn, Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates
The past two years have been very good to Ginger Hahn. She competed on TLC’s “Chocolate Wars.” She studied in Belize with Mayan cocoa farmers and in France at Valrhona’s chocolate school, l’École du Grand Chocolat. Dessert Professional magazine named her one of the top 10 chocolatiers in America. Oh, and she had a baby. Hahn may be only 29, but she hasn’t stumbled since she opened Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, her chic L Street chocolaterie, in 2007. “I feel honored every day to work with chocolate,” says Hahn. She uses local products whenever possible: local lavender for her chewy lavender caramel; peppermint that she grows herself; organic milk from a local dairy. A perfectionist, she experimented with 10 different chocolates before she found the right one to avoid overpowering the lemon in her Meyer lemon truffle. “I take it very seriously,” she says. “Chocolate is like wine. It’s very complex.”
Michael and Vandy Passmore, Passmore Ranch
Last spring, shoppers at Sacramento’s Sunday farmers market under the freeway were startled to see live bass, carp, sturgeon and catfish for sale along with the organic beets and broccoli. The fish came from Passmore Ranch, a freshwater fish farm in Sloughhouse whose owners hope to change the public’s perception of farm-raised fish. “We want to get out of that feedlot mentality,” says Michael Passmore, a former Marine who’s pursuing a law degree. (His business partner, wife Vandy, is a schoolteacher.) They feed the fish a high-quality diet and raise them in clean, carefully controlled ponds with plenty of room to swim around. “More space equals larger, healthier fish,” explains Passmore, who supplies fish to a who’s who of local restaurants that includes Ella, Grange, Kru, Hawks, Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, The Waterboy and Spataro.
Vincent Sterne, Two Rivers Cider Company
For years, Vincent Sterne dreamed of opening a brewery. But after several unsuccessful attempts, he decided that the beer market was saturated. On the other hand, nobody was making cider. So he started a microcidery called Two Rivers Cider Company and began producing 50-gallon batches of draft hard cider. Sterne starts with fresh apple juice from Barsotti Ranch in Apple Hill, which goes into stainless steel fermenting tanks along with yeast. The result: a sweet yet tart cider with an alcohol content of 61/2 to 71/2 percent. Sterne makes fruit-flavored ciders such as pomegranate, blood orange and huckleberry, as well as a seasonal cider, aged in American and French oak barrels for two years to create subtle oak overtones reminiscent of wine or Champagne. Some of his ciders are available in bottles at Taylor’s, Nugget and Whole Foods markets and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
Jason Azevedo, Testa Duro Salumi
Jason Azevedo has a beef with America’s industrialized meat system. “Why do hogs have to be shipped 500 miles for slaughter, shipped somewhere else for processing, then shipped back to the supermarket?” asks Azevedo, the chef at Stonehouse Bistro & Pizza in Rancho Murieta. So he started an informal “meat CSA,” selling locally raised pork and lamb through his Facebook page. What began as a favor for a few friends went viral, and now Testa Duro Salumi has more than 200 customers. Once or twice a month, Azevedo sends out a “feeler e-mail” to assess interest, then buys whole animals from local farmers and butchers the animals himself. One hog is split between four customers, who each pay $85 to $100 for an assortment of cuts that can include shoulder, loin, ribs and chops. Azevedo also makes sausage, ham and bacon that are so good, they’ve been compared to salumi from Berkeley’s Fra’ Mani.
Janet and Bob Lake, River City Root Beer
You’ve heard of artisanal bread and artisanal cheese. But artisanal soda pop? Yup, there is such a thing, and Janet and Bob Lake are making it. They’re the brains behind River City Root Beer, a handcrafted soda made locally in small batches. The couple, who own a specialty soda distributorship, started making their own soda last year. They spent 12 months developing the recipe for their root beer, which has a rich body and a complex flavor that’s heavy on the vanilla, with just a hint of molasses and a touch of anise. They use cane sugar and natural quillaia extract, which gives their soda a nice, foamy head. Packaged in an old-fashioned glass bottle and sold at Taylor’s Market, Corti Brothers and Nugget Markets, “it’s pure nostalgic soda pop,” says Janet.
Jason Griest, Old Soul Co.
In 2006, hard-core coffee fanatics howled in protest when the city briefly shut down Old Soul Co. for lacking the proper permits. Earlier that year, Jason Griest and his partner, Tim Jordan, started their wholesale coffee-roasting business in an alley off 18th Street, and except for that short-lived closure, they’ve been going strong ever since. Part of the “Third Wave” coffee movement that views coffee as an artisanal product, Griest sources the best and rarest green beans in the world from small coffee estates and fincas, then roasts them in a 12-pound roaster. His signature style is noticeably lighter than that of other coffee roasters: He roasts the beans only long enough to bring out their character. Old Soul coffee is available at local coffeehouses (including three owned by Old Soul) and Whole Foods.
Jaymes Luu, Fat Face
Jaymes Luu was thinking about starting a food business—something simple, like selling french fries or corn dogs. A friend suggested popsicles. No way, said Luu. But after sleeping on it, she decided it was a brilliant idea. So in 2005, she began selling gourmet popsicles from a cart at the Davis farmers market. Using produce from local growers, she makes ice pops with such inspired flavor combinations as honeydew/wasabi, Thai tea/sweet potato and fig/caramel/crème fraîche. There are 50 flavors in all, including more conventional ones such as strawberry/lemonade. “I don’t want to be weird just to be weird,” she says. “I want things to taste good.” A year ago, Luu opened a tiny popsicle and sandwich shop, called Fat Face, in an old industrial building in Davis. “Popsicles are crazy-hot right now,” says Luu, who hopes to create a bacon/caramel/chocolate ice pop. “I’m expanding the boundariesof what people view as a popsicle.”
Dave Brochier, Pasta Dave
In local food circles, he’s known as Pasta Dave. That’s Dave Brochier, the pasta maker at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, who sells his celebrated fresh noodles at Taylor’s Market. “Pasta making is typically relegated to the person at the bottom of the food chain,” says Brochier, recalling his first day at Mulvaney’s. After he tweaked the recipe, his new boss declared it the best pasta he’d ever tasted. One of his innovations: upping the number of egg yolks to increase flavor and suppleness. Working out of Mulvaney’s kitchen, Brochier makes silky pappardelle, fettuccine and long, spaghettilike strands called chitarra, which sell for about $16 a pound at Taylor’s. He’s meticulous and very particular about his ingredients, using a soft pasta flour from Italy called “double zero” and free-range eggs from Vega Farms. Eventually, he hopes to open his own pasta shop. “One of these days,” he says.
Kira O’Donnell, The Real Pie Company
When Kira O’Donnell closed her small downtown pie shop back in 2008, Sacramento foodies mourned. But she’s back in business, baking pies, galettes and tarts out of Corti Brothers’ kitchen. “I really missed the shop,” says O’Donnell, known for interesting flavor mashups such as nectarine-wild blackberry pie and apple-quince-wild blueberry galette. What she didn’t miss was the daily bakery grind. This time around, she’s doing things very differently. She bakes only on Fridays, and customers must preorder from a menu that O’Donnell e-mails on Sundays. (Sign up at realpiecompany.com.) Her product, however, hasn’t changed a bit. She still sources fruit from small, local farms, and she makes her all-butter crusts entirely by hand. “I could do it in the big Hobart mixer, but I don’t like the way it turns out,” says O’Donnell, who also reviews restaurants for Sacramento magazine. “I’m a control freak.”
F O O D I E F I N D S:
Nathan and Alice Shreve trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park before starting The Baker and the Cakemaker. (He’s the baker, she’s the cakemaker.) Using organic unbleached wheat flour, they produce superb European-style artisanal breads and pastries out of their wholesale bakery in Auburn.
Lundberg Family Farms, a third-generation operation, grows its highly regarded certified organic and eco-farmed rice in the Sacramento Valley. Magpie Caterers Market and Cafe uses Lundberg Black Japonica, a field blend of black and mahogany rice, for its popular black rice salad.
Twin Peaks Orchard strawberry jam from Newcastle will remind you of the heavenly stuff your grandmother used to make, from the homey glass jar and the label with its spidery handwriting to the soft, sweet preserves inside, made with only three ingredients: fresh berries, sugar and pectin.
Stuart Spoto runs a small but esteemed boutique winery out of the garage at his Arden Oaks home. He sources his grapes from Oakville and sells his Spoto Wines—primarily Bordeaux blends—on his website (spotowines.com) and at a handful of the city’s top restaurants.
Made in Davis, Pub Bites Extra-Tasty Gourmet Peppers are addictive little nibbles, perfect for predinner cocktails. The breaded jalapeños, stuffed with cheddar or blue cheese and fire-roasted sweet corn, come frozen and ready to pop in the oven. Careful: They pack a lot of heat!
6 Every winter, Karen Thompson of Newcastle Produce makes mandarin marmalade from her family’s own crop of mandarins. Unlike orange marmalade, which often has bitter undertones, this is tangy but sweet.
Sacramento’s Prince of Pork, hog farmer John Bledsoe of Bledsoe Natural Pork was the first local meat producer to become a celebrity, thanks to championing by locavore chef Patrick Mulvaney. Bledsoe sells his divine porcine products at farmers markets in Sacramento and Davis.
Frank Lienert of Lienert’s Quality Honey has been gathering wildflower honey for 47 years, employing a couple of hundred hives scattered around Sacramento County. Grange pastry chef Elaine Baker uses his honey in her desserts.
When Melisa Owens would give her homemade toffee as Christmas gifts, her friends would say, “You ought to sell this!” So when she got laid off from her job, she decided to take their advice. Owens makes her ¡Ciao Bella! Gourmet Toffee by hand out of a commercial kitchen in Newcastle. Packaged prettily, they come in three flavors: milk chocolate almond, dark chocolate almond and white chocolate cashew.
Commercially prepared fresh ravioli is generally a disappointment: thick, doughy pasta encasing a blah cheese filling. Not Vannelli ravioli. Made in Rocklin, these large, square ravioli feature thin, tender sheets of pasta and a subtly seasoned ricotta filling.
A vegan, Rey Ortega hadn’t eaten a cookie in years when he founded Sun Flour Baking Company 16 years ago. The company makes vegan and gluten-free cookies, brownies and cakes that are sold both fresh and packaged.
California has more than its fair share of olive oil producers, but perhaps none is more celebrated than Bariani Olive Oil. (Martha Stewart’s a fan.) The Bariani family makes estate-grown oil from Manzanillo and Mission olives grown at its orchard just outside Sacramento. Every bottle bears a label with both a harvest date and a bottling date.
Patti Mott set out to make a nutritious scone mix for her mom, who had heart disease. Now her Woodland-based company, Ella Baking Mixes, produces an entire line of vegan mixes that are low in fat, high in protein and omega-3, and cholesterol free. Just add water and bake. Flavors include blueberry, cranberry, lemon ginger, orange currant and choco-latte.
Often, store-bought salsas are either too thick or too thin. Gardner Gourmet salsas are just right. Made without preservatives by local state worker Sash Gardner, they strike a fine balance between the two extremes. The four varieties—mild, medium, hot and tomatillo—feature chunks of freshly roasted garlic.
The invention of slice-and-bake cookie dough was one giant leap for mankind. Taylor’s Market riffs on that modern innovation with its 1-pound log of chocolate chip cookie dough, made on-site with all-natural ingredients.
16 Mai Pham, owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant, has a line of convenient simmer sauces. I like Lemon Grass Kitchen Thai Green Curry Sauce. Add vegetables and coconut milk and you’ve got dinner in a jiff.
Staci Gallardo began making vegetarian tamales back in 1983 on a dare from her grandmother, who said she couldn’t make a good tamale without lard. Take that, Grandma! Emma’s Tamales, made with expeller pressed oil and a 50-50 blend of organic and conventional corn for the masa, are simply delicious, meat or no meat.
Ron and Terri Gilliland founded Lucky Dog Ranch in Dixon in order to supply their restaurants, Roxie and Lucca, with high-quality beef. Raised from calves on open pasture, their primarily Black Angus cattle eat a mixture of alfalfa, molasses and brewer’s grains. The result: full-flavored, well-marbled meat. (Sold at farmers markets and Taylor’s Market.)
At Temple Fine Coffee and Tea, owner Sean Kohmescher sources sustainable and organic coffee beans from around the world, then roasts them in small batches to bring out the bean’s inherent characteristics and flavors.
Supermarket tortillas can’t hold a candle to Mi Abuelita Bonita fresh tortillas, made in Sacramento. Thick and charmingly irregular, they come in traditional flour and corn varieties, and in flavors such as green chili, blue corn and garlic butter.
Who’d ever peg Sacramento as the U.S. capital of caviar? Zabar’s of New York, for one, which carries Sterling Caviar, produced from farm-raised white sturgeon and processed according to traditional Russian methods. Similar to osetra from the Caspian Sea, it has a creamy, buttery, nutty taste.
An Italian cannolo is a tricky treat: A delicate fried tube of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta, it must be eaten as soon as it’s made or it turns into a sodden mess. Corti Brothers solves that problem with its cannoli kit: two light-as-air pastry shells, a container of filling and a maraschino cherry for garnish. Here’s your chance to tell someone to go stuff it.
From her cake “studio” in midtown, The Frosted Cake Shop’s Tessa Lindow creates custom cakes for weddings, showers and other big occasions. She’s known for her überrealistic-looking sugar-paste flowers.