Vacation stops
Find out who's making California specialty foods

A big part of getaway travel for most people is the food — the discovery of this or that hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the exhilaration of finding fresh produce at bargain basement prices, or maybe the education one gets by talking to the people who actually grow or make the food item.

As you travel through California, there is no shortage of home-grown or locally produced products and now a website can help point you in the right direction. SavorCalifornia.com offers visitors a one-stop resource to learn "what"s good, who"s making it and where to find it," according to website"s founder, Jane St. Claire. It's handy information for anyone planning a California vacation.

The site focuses on the diverse specialty food producers in California, offering locations and profiles for companies in several parts of the state. The site features various California food producers, many of them in Northern California and the Los Angeles area. More are being added all the time, according to St. Claire, who spends a fair amount of time traveling the state in search of just the right food items for her website.

"I go into food markets looking for products that might be local to that area," explained St. Claire. "And I go to food shows and expos where I can taste the product without really telling anyone what I do. I can also overhear what other people are saying."

When she gets a lead on a good locally produced product, St. Claire then turns into a private investigator. She checks out the company"s website, takes a look at the product"s distribution and retail locations and generally just puts her ear to the ground to learn anything she can about the product before ultimately contacting the producer about inclusion on her website. Make no mistake, St. Claire does charge the producer to be on the site — but she says she"s picky about who she asks to be on the site.

The result is an amazing array of California producers with products ranging from olives to fish to honey to sticky buns. The products don"t necessarily have to be natural and good for you — there are plenty of bakeries and brewpubs to make the rest of us happy. The common denominator is that these food products are all high-quality, produced in California and generally have an entrepreneur somewhere in the picture who has devoted his or her life to making the product go.

The website allows visitors to search for either certain types of products or get a list of products by geographical area. Each specialty food producer has a page with their story, as well more information about specific products. Sidebars are updated periodically to include recipes, serving suggestions, events and seasonal specialties. It it"s going to be a while before you can travel, no need to wait — the website offers complete ordering information so that you can have the food product mailed to you.

St. Claire got the idea for the website when she was working in Northern California"s wine industry, planning wine tastings. Often she would invite producers to bring their products to her events. "That"s how I got familiar with many of the food producers in California. I found that they were good at making whatever they made, but they weren"t very good at marketing. I set up the website to let more people know about these great products."

The current site has a lot of emphasis on Sonoma County, where St. Clare resides, and so we asked St. Claire for a suggested itinerary we could follow on our next trip to Northern California and she was quick to oblige. What follows is her recommendation for a kind of food tour of the Northern California Coast, making your way from Point Reyes Station northward to Eureka.

Point Reyes Station — This charming little town, just a few miles from the incredibly beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore, also is home to the Bovine Bakery and its famous sticky buns. There are lots of other pastries offered as well, including at least three types of vegan pastries that are made with the locals in mind. As proprietor Bridget Devlin puts it, "this bakery could only be here." Nearby is the Cowgirl Creamery where Sue Conley and Peggy Smith sell cheese in a converted hay barn now known as Tomales Bay Foods. You can watch them make the cheese and they"ll sell you cheese books, cheese knives, cheese boards and special cheese condiments.

Bodega Bay — Not far up the coastal highway is this seaside town of Alfred Hitchcock fame — where the movie the "Birds" was filmed — and down dockside is a place called Lucas Wharf Restaurant where visitors can buy live local Dungeness crab, fresh wild King Salmon, halibut and albacore, all depending on the season. Jim and Peggy Lucas, opened the restaurant in 1984 after years spent in the local fishing industry.

Fort Bragg — Up the coast we go, through and past Mendocino, and soon we come to Fort Bragg. For jam-and-jelly people, a stop at Carol Hall"s is where you"ll find the results from many years of Carol making these jams at home on her Mendocino County farm. The peach cobbler jam has won national awards and she also is known for her sweet and slightly hot pepper jellies which make a great snack served on cream cheese with crackers. Many more varieties are available.

Also in Fort Bragg is the North Coast Brewing Company where Mark Ruedrich, Joe Rosenthal and Tom Allen were pioneers in the craft brewing industry. The brewery opened for business back in 1988 back when micro-breweries were just becoming popular. The trio chose one of Fort Bragg"s historic downtown buildings to locate their Tap Room and Grill, which has since become one of the city"s most popular gathering spots.

Whitehorn — Headed toward Eureka, we now experience California"s "Lost Coast," where the sisters of Our Lady of the Redwoods Abbey live a simple monastic life making honey and jams. Located in Whitehorn, the Abbey is where the sisters make Monastery Creamed Honey, which comes in five flavors — original, orange, lemon, ginger and cinnamon. The honey is known for its creamy texture and you can buy gift boxes right at the Abbey.

Eureka — Completing our journey up the Northern Coast, we come to Eureka, where you"ll want to keep an eye out in the local markets for Henry"s Olives, which are the result of Henry Robertson"s experimentation with curing olives at home. He tried a batch and brought them to a family Thanksgiving dinner — the reaction was so positive, he kept producing more olives each year until, today, he now does 8,000 pounds per season. While you can"t tour his facility, this Eureka-based product is available at several local stores.

Final stop on this Northern California vacation, again in Eureka, is the Lost Coast Brewery. Barbara Groom is the only woman brewer in the United States who started her own brewery. A trained pharmacist, Groom gave that up because she said it was too boring. Today, Groom"s brewery offers a full line of beers and the Lost Coast Brewery is housed in a historic Eureka building once owned by the Fraternal Order of the Knights of Pythias. Groom says not to worry — secret handshakes are no longer required for entrance.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: SavorCalifornia.com has products from all over California, but currently has more listings in Northern California. The Southern California locations are generally located in the Los Angeles area, but the number of products is constantly growing. No matter where you take your California vacation, you're likely to find a number of fascinating local food producers.

WHAT: An easy way to plan a trip that includes stops at some of the most interesting food producers in California. Whether you like to visit spa resorts or just take cheap vacations, the site can help you enhance your visit by telling you what food producers are in your vacation area.

WHEN: Food travel is good anytime of year — but pay special attention to the seasons and how many products are only available at certain times of the year. SavorCalifornia.com offers information about each product"s seasonality. And of course, remember that the best travel deals and vacation packages are always available in the off-season.

WHY: Because people like to experience new and different tastes when they travel. Visiting food producers is also a fascinating study in how people have come to make a living by producing these particular products. With the importance of agriculture in this state, a California vacation just naturally should include emphasis on local produce and food products.

HOW: For more information, visit www.savorcalifornia.com or call 707-431-1814. Addresses and phone numbers for the producers listed above are included on the SavorCalifornia.com website.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a food tour through Sonoma County is your kind of a California vacation, be sure and check out California Weekend's articles on the Fresno Fruit Trail, Napa Valley and Temecula Wineries.

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