Most people visit the small town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, to taste wines. But the town of 12,000 offers special experiences for those who venture off the well-trod vineyard path. Here are a few of my favorites on my recent visit.
Taste of Tea goes way beyond a specialty tea shop. This tea lounge offers tea-based spa treatments, a tea boutique, the opportunity to sample tea flights, and a small Japanese restaurant. A bar serves non-alcoholic marTEAnis. “If you’re going to do something this eclectic and foodie-focused in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is the place to do it,” owner Donna Tokugawa told me.
I ventured into the relaxing spa room and sat in an easy chair, my feet soaking in a big bowl of green tea while asking Donna questions about her adventures in the tea biz. Donna was a financial executive in Southern California, buying and selling banks, but she was really in love with tea.
After extensive study of tea culture and horticulture therapy, she started importing and wholesaling tea. Two years ago her family made the big shift and opened Taste of Tea together. Her husband Nez is in charge of the kitchen and daughter Tai manages the tea lounge. But it’s an egalitarian enterprise. “We all take the title of tea docent,” Donna said.
This is an extremely detail-oriented business. The Tokugawas personally know all their tea farmers in Japan, China, and Taiwan. My Tiger Eye marTEAni included white ginger syrup made in Sonoma and rose sugar produced by a Japanese farmer in San Diego who grows all the flowers and herbs the tea lounge uses.
For tea lovers, Taste of Tea is a destination. Allow a few hours to try a green tea foot soak or face mask, browse the beautiful teaware, watch a video of the Tokugawas’ tea travels, try Nez’ ramen dishes and a tea flight or marteani, and talk tea with Donna.
Russian River Rose Company
Some of the roses growing at Russian River Rose Company are destined for perfume. Others are fated for baklava. Jan and Michael Tolmasoff’s rose business offers guided and self-guided tours, a nursery, and limited-edition rose perfumes and rosewater. Buy a bottle of rosewater and they’ll give you recipes for baklava, sorbet and other rose-tinged dishes. I tried the sorbet and it tasted like I was eating a rose. Which, I guess, I was.
I visited before the season opened, so the roses were just budding. “I don’t think anyone else in the US is doing anything like this. It’s too darn labor intensive,” Jan said as she led our group through Rose Alley, a walkway beneath arches of rose bushes. Jan pointed out Bulgarian, French and Persian roses and gave us lots of rose trivia, such as the fact that 90 percent of the world’s rose products are grown in Bulgaria.
April and May are peak times for Russian River Rose Company. In the early morning hours, the Tolmasoffs harvest up to 100 pounds of roses per day. But the yield is low: each pound of roses may produce a single drop of pure rose oil. Which makes that baklava all the more precious.
The Wholesome Wonders of SHED
This huge farm store is located just off the plaza in downtown Healdsburg. The light-filled, minimalist building won a 2014 James Beard Award for restaurant design. SHED’s mission, as co-founder Cindy Daniel explained to my visiting group, is teaching “how to be a good farmer.”
SHED caters to local and traveling foodies, urban do-it-yourselfers and chic back-to-the landers. The café does a brisk vegetable-forward lunch business. I had a flavorful and exquisitely plated carrot and kale salad. I can also vouch for the house-made shrubs, both pomegranate and tangerine. SHED also offers premade foods from its deli. Or shop in the farm store for ingredients to make your own gourmet dishes, and the kitchen tools to do it.
Upstairs, SHED’s modern interpretation of a grange hall has huge windows, roll-up doors and a view of Foss Creek. People rent the event space, or come to book groups and farm-related classes on natural dyes, chicken keeping, ricotta making, seed saving and beehive building. If you’re planning a visit to Healdsburg, peruse SHED’s schedule and reserve your class space.
As a non-drinker, I was fully satisfied by Healdsburg’s culinary offerings without ever hoisting a wine glass. Travelers who value artisan food products will find plenty to love about this town by the Russian River. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
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