Spring in Sonoma/ Music and Foodie Explorations: Part 1

Under the auspices of a generous Professional Development Grant from Hofstra University, I recently traveled to California to meet with the legendary jazz oboist, Paul McCandless. I have listened to his lyrical and soaring improvisations for many years with the group Oregon, The Paul Winter Consort and countless other groups. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet together in person.

Reed maker extraordinaire Chris Philpotts and excellent English Hornist with the Cincinnati Symphony had given me Paul’s contact info.

Not sure what to expect or how our sessions would develop, I took a deep breath and decided to plunge into the experience with an open mind and much humility.

I was accompanied for the sessions with my dear friend Carol who is a gifted and talented visual artist. She offered to take pictures and videos and to take notes. As Paul opened the door to his beautiful warm home, I immediately sensed his gentle and intelligent nature. He had set up two chairs next to his bass clarinet and soprano sax and I realized that his intention was to share his knowledge with me. I took out my oboe and he asked me to improvise a simple melody. Over the next two days, he offered tips and advise on the art of improvisation and how he envisioned the use of the oboe as a jazz instrument. His comments were always carefully phrased, insightful and full of useful intention. I came away from our sessions together invigorated and motivated. I will always treasure this short time that we spent together.

I also enjoyed greatly talking to Paul; discussing our careers in music and sharing stories about teachers from our past. It turns out that we both studied with the legendary oboist Robert Bloom. He played tracks from some of his favorite improvisations, including a piece from a recording that he made with The Paul Winter Consort and the exquisite Brazilian singer, Renato Braz. Listening to Paul’s lyrical and soaring lines along with the singer’s soulful voice was moving and inspirational beyond words.

At some point, almost inevitably, the conversation turned to food. Paul asked where we had dinner the night before and we described the excellent Butternut Squash Gnocchi with sage brown butter topped with crushed Amaretti cookie crumbs that we had a cozy small restaurant in Healdsburg called Spinster Sisters.

As we described the flavor and texture of the dish, Paul’s eyes lit up in recognition. His group Oregon had been on a tour to Italy, traveling through the part of the alps that borders Austria and Italy. A local restaurant owner was a fan of their group. To honor the group, he created an entire menu with dishes inspired by some of his favorite compositions; one of the entrees was butternut squash ravioli; a magical blend of music and food!

After our all too short time together, Carol and I set off on a planned foodie exploration in the surrounding Napa Valley.

Our base was the small unpretentious town of Santa Rosa; home of Charles Schultz, the creator of the Peanut’s comic strip. We flew into the tiny Santa Rosa airport, nick named the “Snoopy Airport”; the bathrooms walls were lined with Peanut themed mosaics!

Statues from the Peanuts comic strip were placed throughout the town of Santa Rosa.

One of our favorite lunch spots was a charming plant-based restaurant Little Saint in Healdsburg. We shared an artfully arranged salad dressed with winter citrus and herbs and dressed with a delicate Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

Along with a mug of frothy hot chocolate made with almond milk, I enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich made with cashew cheddar on crunchy sour dough bread flecked with sea salt; with a side of marinated carrots and spicy home made whole grain mustard it was a perfect combination of tastes and textures!

Carol had an equally delicious black bean burger, but it was the dessert that was the unexpected star of the day. We shared a small vegan chocolate tart made with whipped ganache, almond paste and candied orange. It tasted rich and decadent; hard to believe that no butter, cream or eggs were involved. I asked if it might be possible to get the recipe, the answer was the expected polite “sorry, but, no”!

After lunch we had a short rest at our lovely small hotel, the historic Hotel La Rose built in 1907. The staff was friendly and helpful, the building was charming and full of character, the rooms spacious and clean with the price of the rooms surprisingly affordable.

Hotel La Rose- Santa Rosa, CA

Courtyard Hotel La Rose- Santa Rosa, CA

And then, it was time to head out to our dinner destination, the Glen Ellen Star in the idyllic small town of Glen Ellen which is nestled in the hills of Sonoma Valley. Glen Ellen is the home of the American novelist Jack London, who wrote Call of the Wild. He lived there from 1905 until his death in 1916.

On the way to Glen Ellen, we stopped often to take pictures and to admire the stunning landscape. Because of the long drought that California has endured, the hills would normally be rusty brown. This year in early March, as a result of the abnormal rainfall, the landscape was a verdant green.

The Glen Ellen Star Restaurant was a little gem, with an excellent farm to table menu. We started the meal with a round of freshly baked sour dough bread topped with grated parmesan and served with herb butter.

This along with roasted cauliflower with a sauce of tahini, dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend of nuts,sesame seeds, coriande and cumin) and sunflower seeds would have made a complete meal!

But the menu was too tempting, so we soldiered on and ordered tender roast chicken served over creamy polenta made with sweet red cornmeal.

We managed to find the room to share one dessert; delicate Panna Cotta with salted caramel sauce. It was cool, smooth and not too sweet- a perfect ending to a beautiful day!

I did find a few California candidates for “Tree of the Week. This is one of my very reptilian like favorites!

Part 2 of our California Foodie Exploration coming soon!

Montini Preserve- Sonoma, CA


Author: Judith Dansker

Professional oboist and chamber musician- member of Hevreh Ensemble and Winds in the Wilderness, Professor of Oboe Hofstra University; observer of people, art and nature; passionate food and travel explorer.

4 thoughts on “Spring in Sonoma/ Music and Foodie Explorations: Part 1”

  1. I enjoyed this blog very much, Judy. Your session with Paul McCandless sounded wonderful. I have to admit, though, that the food section just had me enthralled! I’m envious of the food you had on this trip, to be sure! Wow!
    Fine writing. I look forward to more.

    Liked by 1 person

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