Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant, Forestville, CA

Driving through vineyards, the leaves still green with just a hint of rust creeping in. Relaxing by the deep blue pool, the autumnal sun—lower in the sky, warming your toes. Lazing on a massage table as the therapist drives away the knots. Gazing on an endless blue sky and watching it turn into an inky dark, starry night, around a dancing fire. Enjoying the fruits of the season as they become spectacularly mouth-watering dishes under the magician’s touch of a world-class chef.

These are just some of the joys of sneaking away for 24 hours at the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, north west of Santa Rosa.


We’re in the midst of an endless summer. Hard to believe it’s mid-October, and not August, and yet I barely enjoyed this summer. Too much work and fun travel adventures outside of the U.S., mean that lately I haven’t explored close to home.

I heard about the Farmhouse Inn, owned by siblings Catherine and Joe Bartolomei, a while ago. Situated on the River Road (7 miles east off the 101) it’s built around a Victorian farmhouse which now houses a 14-table Michelin-starred restaurant. A recent building project to add a pool and more accommodations has come to an end, and the result is a peaceful, soothing spot, complete with a gorgeous spa which is housed in a barn-style building. Each massage room has a horse’s outline sketched on the wall, as if in charcoal, though surely not. When the top of the stable door swings open, you spot a horse, mooching about in his stall. The ambiance is restful, calm and restorative, just as it should be, even if your nerves are jangling and you can’t settle into your skin.


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burren cottage

Ireland: The Burren and around Loughrea

Ireland. Just the very mention of this country conjures up images of endless green fields, dramatic cliffs, rain, stone cottages and lots of sheep. Pubs. Rain. Whiskey. Guinness. Peat fires. Rain. Aran sweaters. Seafood. Celtic music. I could go on.

Until recently, my only foray to this land rich with tradition and heritage, was in my childhood when we spent a rainy week on a family holiday in County Cork. I must have been about 11. I remember riding horses with my dad (a rare occurrence), and eating amazing jam doughnuts from a bakery in Skibereen. My mum dashing out of the car, avoiding the rain as best she could, and returning with a plastic bag full of fragrant, doughy, sugary heaven. This, too, was a rare occurrence. My mum wasn’t one to buy us sweet treats but holiday rules were different.

When my brother announced he was getting married in Dublin (a long-awaited event), I decided to take a few extra days to explore. Initially I’d hoped to do a food-inspired jaunt down the west coast, definitely taking in Dingle and maybe going down as far as the south west tip – perhaps revisiting Skibereen – but the best laid plans can go astray.

My main mistake was renting a car, instead of hopping on a flight down to Cork. Weary from a red-eye flight, we decided to drive directly west from Dublin airport, aiming for a small village called Barna, just up from Galway. (Note: never rent a car from Dooley’s at the airport – appalling customer service, poorly maintained cars. Extra note: credit cards generally do not offer automatic car insurance in Ireland so I ended up paying an extra 133 euros just for the insurance.) My second mistake was underestimating how narrow windy roads can make a short distance take a long time. My third error? Failing to account for the fact we’d actually want to stop and savor all the destinations along the way.

The journey to Galway is about two and a half hours, and with little sleep in the prior 24 hours, driving was more like a commando expedition requiring keen mental alertness while fighting off the desire to curl up in the back seat with a blanket.  Thankfully we made it, although the outskirts of Galway didn’t exactly match up with my mental picture of a rustic and wild Ireland. Driving past KFC, Tesco and other big box retailers, I wondered whether Galway had been a good call.

We checked into our hotel in Barna and headed down to the beach for an evening stroll. It was really windy and a bit rainy – much like a winter’s day if (like me) you call California home.  And despite not being in the most picturesque village in Ireland, it was gorgeous.

pics from along the coast > Read more

Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

A Cooking Class at Spannocchia (part 2)

Towards the end of our garden tour, Carmen looks at her watch, exclaims we are running late and says it’s time for us to head to the kitchen. Promised a hands-on experience, we are excited to see what’s on the menu and roll up our sleeves. First we meet our teacher, Loredano, a bona fide Italian grandmother-type, who used to cook full-time at Spannocchia, but is now retired.

We soon discover that the kitchen is her home. She’s deft, brisk, in charge, a tad bossy, very chatty and hyper efficient. Loredano speaks only Italian and we listen to her via a translator, Arianna, who is one of a handful of interns at Spannochia. The entire building has a medieval, built of the ages (and stone) feel to it, and the kitchen is no exception.

kitchen sink at spannochia

In the center of the kitchen is a huge well-worn square marble work table, which we all gather around. To the left, a much-used commercial cooking range, and under the window, a beautiful shallow, yet huge kitchen sink. This too is made of marble, and sensibly, the water faucet is operated by foot pedals on the floor. Side note: it strikes me that in the U.S. we install Carrara and other marble surfaces in our kitchens and then try to keep them pristine, panicking when a splash of lemon etches the patina or red wine marks the surface. But I think we’re missing the point. They are meant to do a job: keep dough cool, offer a smooth work surface and last for centuries.

Back to Loredana’s kitchen.  While it looks like it produces a lot of food, it doesn’t have the militaristic order of many commercial kitchens. Used pots are placed on the floor, and the sink is quite full of dishes and vegetables – overall it feels busy but homey.  We examine the menus after donning aprons. It looks delicious and ambitious – it’s already 10.45am and I’m starving.

-    Crostone pere e gonzola (toasted bread with pear and gorgonzola cheese)

-    Gnocchi al pomodoro (gnocchi with tomato sauce)

-    Rotolo di petto di pollo (rolled, stuffed chicken breast)

-   Sformato di bietola (swiss chard “pie”)

-   Panna Cotta con le fragola (no explanation required – with strawberries) > Read more

gelato from Grom

10 Favorite Things To Do in Tuscany

Traveling from the U.S. to Italy often means scurrying around your destination, hungry to take it all in, but finding time, and possibly money, in limited supply. For one thing, the standard annual leave in the U.S. is a measly ten days. “That’s crazy!”  I hear those of you in Europe exclaim. Sad, but true. The other thing is that until recently – when the Euro dropped to around 1.19 to the dollar – the exchange rate has not been kind.

No matter, there are still ways to get around and in our case, get a great taste of Tuscany.

To get around we rented a car – it wasn’t too expensive – around $200 for seven days, and while I was dreaming of a little Fiat 500, we got a zippy Alfa Romeo instead, which did well on the freeways. Incidentally, I am a big fan of paying tolls to use the freeway. They’re well maintained, not too crowded, and take you mostly directly to where you want to go. We covered a lot of kilometers during our trip – relying pretty heavily on Google maps to find out location. The one thing that isn’t cheap is US carrier data roaming fees. No matter, here are my favorite things to do and places to visit:

1)   Take a cooking class on a farm

We saw a cooking class taking place inside the main food market in Florence – all gleaming stainless steel and uniforms – but what appealed far more, was visiting an organic farm and cooking in its historic kitchen. We went to Spannocchia, just outside of Siena. The class starts at 9am with a tour of the gorgeous terraced vegetable gardens before heading to the kitchen to cook. The group of around 8 eats the meal prepared – a lovely lunch with wine. Tutte bene! Detailed write-up here. The price is 90 Euro per adult and half that for kids. Monkey came along and really enjoyed himself.

Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

Gnocchi made during a class at Spannochia

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the view

Spannocchia – A Tuscan Organic Farm

Tuscany in June, it turns out, is a mixed bag of weather. One minute it’s thundering and pouring rain, the next the sun is shining hot and bright.  Coming from California, where our farmers would dance a merry jig with multiple downpours, it’s interesting to hear a different point of view from the farmer in charge of the vegetable gardens at Spannocchia, a working organic farm and lodging not far from Siena.

Carmen, a beatific, expressive, salt of the earth type, who apologizes in perfect English for her lack of good English – really it’s excellente – is touring us through the areas she farms at Spannochia before we take a cooking class in the kitchen where we’ll prepare a typical Tuscan meal. We gather on the grassy terrace lined with poplars, next to the gorgeous stone manor house.

In front of us are huge terracotta pots, planted with limone trees where a few straggling lemons still cling to the branches. Behind us, a wonderful, lofty limonaia, with huge glass doors and high ceilings. This is where the lemon trees live in the winter –  it’s too cold for them to stay outside so they are hoisted with tractors and kept from freezing. In the summer, the space is dedicated to visiting art students. Whether you’re a lemon tree or an art student, it seems like a pretty awesome place to hang out.

gate and limone at spannochia

Our group, a friendly bunch who quickly reveal their knowledge of organic gardening—it’s clear if you find yourself at Spannochia, you have some kind of affinity for slow, real food—is guided by Carmen through a well-worn gate. “Please close the gate behind you!” she sings out. Apparently, there are all sorts of animals who roam around from cinghale – wild boar – to deer, who are only too happy to feast on the produce being grown in the terraced garden.

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