Small Towns are Too Much Fun, Too Little Time by Are You That Woman
I am so blessed to live in northern California. My dilemma always, “Where to go, what to eat?” Less than 50 from California’s state capital, Sacramento, in any direction, farm and wine trails offer tours, festivals, music, flowers, art, and baskets brimming with edible delights. Day trips or overnight, bucolic communities wait with open arms.
This time, I choose to head out of Sacramento via I-80 east to the pastoral foothills of Placer County's famed Gold Country. At Rocklin, I turn onto Taylor Road/Pacific Street—also known as historic Highway 40—to travel back road routes towards my chosen destinations. I have a long-time love affair with this great American road, and slowing down is the best part of this journey.
The way is mostly quiet through the small rural towns of Loomis, Newcastle, and Auburn, whose combined populations top out at 25,000. Up at daybreak, I’m giddy with anticipation as I head for the Old Town Auburn farmers’ market, anxious to peruse fresh produce, jams, baked goods, and crafts. Every Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon, Placer Grown and regional vendors vie for space at this premier market. My recycled bags fill quickly: Snow’s Citrus Court Mandarin Fruit Spread, The Baker & the Cakemaker Meyer lemon rosemary bread, fresh roasted chilies, crisp watermelon radishes, and made-by-hand Jollity Farm Chèvre. Seasonally, local Satsuma Mandarins are in big demand and sell out fast. Away from the market, the Mandarin Trail provides endless possibilities for this healthful citrus, touted as a cure for the common cold. I can’t resist Nixtaco Taqueria pork belly street tacos with pickled onions. The feasting has officially begun!
Old Town Auburn’s historic sidewalks and brick and stone buildings speak to another place and time. However, a selection of retail shops and restaurants are strictly 21st Century. Fine art, antiques, wine, and museums provide a full-day’s exploration. Across town, less than a mile away, I am drawn to Mickey’s Boots. Specializing in custom-fitting for more than 35 years, Mickey’s tops the list for Western boots. I was drooling over the Lucchese Classic – handmade in Texas since 1883 – it’s the Rolls Royce of boots. General Gomez Arts & Event Center, Winston Smith Books, Auburn Alehouse, Victory Velo Bike Shop – it’s all about locals!
Located in the historic Union Saloon (circa 1855), Carpe Vino – award-winning wine bar, wine shop, and fine dining restaurant – is a northern California Top 100 according to Open Table, and favored by Wine Spectator. Guests select from more than 400 labels, 30+ wines by the glass, or a house flight. Chefs Courtney and Eric, wife and husband, trained in classical French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and describe their menu as, “refined New American using French techniques influenced by flavors from around the world.” Acquiring produce and meats from local farms, menus change every month. “This is the food basket of America. We embraced that the day we opened,” stated Eric. They walk the talk every Saturday at the farmer’s market.
Having lingered at the market, I’m behind schedule. When visiting Placer County, you soon discover why schedules are made to be broken. In this case, I am immediately derailed by the historic Newcastle Produce fruit shed. The assortment of locally sourced goods is dizzying: breads, cheeses, olive oils, produce, chocolates, and wine – truly your farm-to-fork one-stop shop.
Agriculture was Placer County’s second Gold Rush. In the early 1900s, Newcastle was the fruit shipping capital of the world, transporting more than 69 million tons of fruits and nuts. The diverse landscape – foothills and majestic Sierra Nevada – supports a wide-range of crops from stone fruits, flowers, grapes, persimmons, berries, and kiwi to celebrated Satsuma Mandarins. Locavores rejoice at Newcastle Produce! Deli staff prepares fresh soups, salads, sandwiches and more from local ingredients. This menu attracts hungry cyclists who pedal here daily. Before departing, I grab a latte and poppy seed scone.
Halfway between Newcastle and Lincoln, I navigate winding roads to sun-drenched Wise Villa Winery with 26-rolling acres of vineyards; the patio and tasting room are humming. “I just wanted to make good wine!” asserts Dr. Grover Lee, owner and winemaker. Clearly, he has succeeded. Just six years since the first release, the winery was awarded California State Fair’s Winery of the Year, 2015.
Estate grown and bottled, the winery consistently produces award-winning vintages, in particular, red wine. Partaking of a tour and full flight, I settle on the Touriga Nacional 2013, which has gold-medaled more than once. The complex flavors of berries, chocolate, vanilla and spice were luscious. The Bistro, under the guidance of Cher Tyler Huntley, is creating food and wine pairing magic. I enjoyed handcrafted flatbread with local tomatoes, house-pulled mozzarella topped with balsamic reduction, and house-cured olives with lemon, garlic and herbs. Other culinary delights, including house-made desserts, provide plenty of incentive to return.
Indulge your senses along Placer’s Wine & Ale Trail. Small-production, family-owned wineries and craft breweries offer intimate tasting experiences. The granite soil and Mediterranean-like climate has provided the ideal environment for Placer’s liquid gold. The burgeoning craft brewery trade shouldn’t be overlooked – family-friendly GoatHouse Brewing grows its own hops, 20 varieties. A new generation is rushing to these award-winning wine and beer riches.
Crisscrossing back roads, I arrive at Loomis and The Flower Farm. An inn, café, nursery, citrus and vegetable farm, produce stand, gift shop, winery, and events facility, it qualifies as a one-of-a-kind lodging destination. Taking a breather, I stroll around the property. The rooster makes himself known as I giggle over Gypsy Chicks, the resident flock of Silkies. Yes, farm living is the life for me!
The turn-of-the-century farmhouse offers relaxing spaces and three cheerful rooms upstairs. Shaded by century-old trees and flowering shrubs, serenity reigns. Just steps away, four cozy cottages are surrounded by expansive lawns and adjacent to citrus orchards, Bocce courts and blessed relaxation. Sun porch or front porch, there are endless places to soak-up farm life. I collapse in my Climbing Rose Cottage, enjoying a quiet time in the spa tub before embarking on my dining adventure.
Loomis Basin Brewing, less than five miles from The Flower Farm, sits nearly unseen in an industrial park off Highway 40. In the dark, even I resort to GPS! With no food truck and the back patio empty, it’s a quiet scene tonight. Inside, the tap room feels like old home week, and regulars invite me to their table. Looking for something light, the bartender recommends the Swetzer Pale Ale with notes of pear and citrus. On tap, bottled or growlers, brewery selections range from IPAs and wheat beer to stouts and porters. It’s all local!
With the day winding down, I’m happy dinner is less than a mile away. Someone has suggested the Green Elephant, specializing in Burmese food. The lone server and owner, Rachel Lunt, greets me enthusiastically. The dining room is empty, which gives us time to chat while I peruse the menu. I was told the Green Tea Salad is a must. “The younger tea leaves preserved with ginger, garlic and spices are imported from Burma,” Rachel says, “The salad is only available depending on the supply.” It includes cabbage, peanut oil, lime, tomato, peppers and an assortment of twice-roasted nuts. “Twice roasting makes them crunchier,” explains Rachel.
It's been a full day of indulging, the sizable salad qualifies as dinner. Fresh and flavorful, there was a party happening inside my m outh! There’s a wide variety of items on the menu including Thai, Chinese and Japanese, and nearly every item can be made vegetarian. By the time I depart, the restaurant is full and clearly many are regulars.
After a good night’s sleep, I am up with the roosters. A country breakfast is included with the room, and I’m ready to eat, again! San Francisco tablemates, Harry and Kate, are on a hiking adventure. We’re dining in the café, which is open to the public for breakfast and lunch. Eggs, applewood smoked bacon, homemade jam, local organic toast, and country potatoes; I’m a happy camper. The menu includes vegetarian and gluten-free options and is crafted around what is grown in the one-acre vegetable garden. “We love this place,” says Kate, “We’ll be back.” I agree, but so much more awaits.
A short drive away, I pass over small bridge and head down a private road. Pulling up to Alpacas All Around, five or six baby alpacas are racing around the pasture while moms quietly graze. I immediately start to ooh and aah, completely enthralled by their antics. Tours are available on select weekends or by appointment. Owner, Susan Peterson, is a gracious and informative host, and the alpacas provide endless entertainment. While they don’t like to be touched, some are curious and sniff me out. Wonderful alpaca products are sold in a tiny farm shop. My feet love their new toasty alpaca wool socks.
There’s a lot of good living packed into Loomis’ 7.2 square miles and agricultural production, including Blue Goose Produce and High Hand Nursery & Café on Taylor Road. Part of the region’s fruit shed heritage, owners have taken locavore to the next frontier. Not just produce, but meat, cheeses, wines, art, clothing, and plants.
The historic Blue Goose Fruit Shed was preserved by the South Loomis Heritage Foundation and, today, houses Blue Goose Produce, Sarah Whitcomb Antiques, and The Loomis News. Blue Goose Produce is open year-round and specializes in Placer Grown fruits, vegetables, and nuts, including their own Westview Growers’ Satsuma Mandarins. Recently opened, Popie Wines’ tasting room is open weekends, noon to 5:00 p.m.
A sensory experience, the centerpiece of High Hand Nursery & Café is an arboretum-like garden and nursery; High Hand-grown plants fill the greenhouse. Allow plenty of time to eat, shop, relax, and to be amazed. Lunch or brunch, the café and deli are surrounded by light and greenery. Culinary delights crafted from the local best have me drooling. Shaded by trees, a glass of wine, a Rotisserie Chicken wood-fired pizza, and slice of Whiskey Pear Almond Tart – seriously, it doesn’t get much better!
High Hand Art Gallery, the oldest section of the fruit shed (circa 1901), houses leading artists of the region: art glass, textiles, sculpture, jewelry, and paintings. A fantastic collection of shops include everything from flowers and garden art to olive oil and antique and vintage goods. The Tin Thimble, a creative sewing and fiber arts shop, tops my list. Hand-dyed felted wool, handcrafted children’s clothing, and vintage notions – it’s truly inspired. For the creatively challenged, classes are offered!
For this very local excursion, farm stays, bed and breakfasts, VRBOs, and Airbnb are a harmonious alternative to hotels and motels. On VRBO, the “Carriage Loft” included farm-fresh organic eggs, veggies self-picked from the garden, swimming pool, hot tub, foothill views, and luxurious décor. If comfort and close to the action is your preferred lodging, rest your head at the award-winning Auburn Holiday Inn. Elegantly remodeled, the new decor it's all that (snap) and more! Amenities galore you can wine, dine, swim, workout and relax in the heart of Placer's gold country.
“People are nice here – a small town is like a big family,” observed one resident. In Placer County, small towns deliver big on a promise of too much fun and too little time. I can say without hesitation, “It’s true!”
Originally published Food & Travel Magazine