There are hidden California treasures nestled in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, where vineyards unfurl along the hillsides and the tiny town of Boonville offers a foodie paradise. Culinary inspiration is contagious in this hamlet, where everyone knows everyone, and we weekenders can dabble in all the deliciousness.
Sampling Table 128’s paella, Pennyroyal’s goat-sheep laychee and Paysanne’s lemon cookie ice cream — and the addictive Piment d’Ville chile peppers being grown on the outskirts of town — raises a critical question, one we keep coming back to all these weeks later.
Can we just stay here?
Much of this adorable town — and its social and culinary life — revolves around the Schmitt family’s Boonville Hotel. Owner Johnny Schmitt’s parents, Don and Sally, opened Yountville’s French Laundry in 1978 — reservations were hard to get then, too, even in the pre-Thomas Keller days. Today, many of the dishes served at the Boonville Hotel’s Table 128 — named for the highway that runs through this hamlet — were created in Yountville.
The family and its friends also run the Apple Farm in Philo, one town up, and their projects are everywhere, from the cidery that produces Bite Hard cider to the Farmhouse Mercantile, an airy houseware and gift shop across from the hotel. There, you can pick up olive oil, jams — including the farm’s incredibly good blackberry jam, the best thing to happen to buttered toast since we don’t know when — and small squat jars of crushed piment, which we’d call gold dust, were it not so deeply crimson.
Also in town: An antique store next door, an ice cream shop — Paysanne, where the ice cream is organic and the ceiling strewn with gold stars against a sky of dark blue — and a couple of just-right-for-lunch cafes.
Down the street lies Pennyroyal, Sarah Cahn Bennett’s solar energy-powered goat farm that produces incredible cheese, thanks to a herd of 109 ridiculously cute goats, who crowd the fence, puppy style, to greet visitors.
On this particular weekend, we grab fresh-pressed juice and thick, fruity smoothies at the hotel juice bar, then head off to explore Bucket Ranch with Schmitt’s business partner, Roger Scommegna, who began growing those Basque chile peppers — Piment d’Espelette — seven years ago. The d’Ville name is a nod to the peppers’ Boonville provenance.
Scommegna calls piment “the secret sauce.” Deep red, savory and sweet, piment is the magic weapon in chefs’ kitchens around the world, adding warmth and flavor without the high heat of other peppers. At the hotel’s Table 128, “we were spending $100 per month on this pepper — and using it sparingly!” Scommegna says. “Johnny said, ‘They can grow grapes here. They can grow pot. Why can’t we grow peppers?’ ”
So Scommegna and his foreman, Nacho Flores, got their hands on 10 seeds — from a seed bank, no smugglers involved — and planted them at Bucket Farm.
Scommegna is a marketing guy, a Milwaukee-born salesman, who moved to California “to live my Wine Spectator dream.” Flores is his farm whisperer, a foreman with a passion for anything that grows, from grapes and olives to an obscure Basque chile pepper beloved by chefs.
“We grew 10 plants that first year,” Scommegna says. “A hundred the next and 1,000 the year after. We did 38,000 this year, which makes us 8 percent of the world market.”
If you use Blue Apron, chances are high that you’ve tasted this pepper. The Richmond-based meal kit company practically cleaned out last year’s supply of Piment D’Ville — or rather, whatever remained after chefs from New York City to Seattle and San Francisco had nabbed theirs.
“I call us your crack dealer,” Scommegna says. “You get addicted to it.”
Plump, crimson peppers hang from the greenery, ready for plucking by “the pepper ladies,” who harvest and dry them on the racks in a quonset-shaped greenhouse. It’s hot — in the low 90s — outdoors on this harvest afternoon. Inside the greenhouse, it’s hotter still. The pepper ladies often start their days at 4 a.m.
Once dried, the peppers go in a dehydrator, winding up “potato chip crisp,” Scommegna says. They’re ground and packed, with the vintage displayed on the label. Then they wind up in dishes such as the enormous paella the Table 128 crew produces on Sunday evenings in the summer and early fall and other prix-fixe family-style feasts served year-round — and, if you’re lucky, on your plate at home, too. (We’re now dusting pretty much everything — except cornflakes — with piment these days.)
Back in town, we take a farm tour at Pennyroyal and sample Pennyroyal estate wine — made at the family’s Navarro Vineyards up Highway 128 — as well as delicate Laychee, Bollie’s Mollies, Velvet Sister, Boont Corners and Boonter’s Blue cheeses in the farm’s airy new tasting room.
We stroll the shops, pop into Paysanne and, of course, stock up on piment at the Mercantile. Then head out to explore the rest of this glorious valley, where dozens of wineries and vineyards await.
IF YOU GO
Boonville Hotel and Table 128: Juice bar and patio paella nights during the summer and early fall, prix fixe family-style dining year round; reservations required. The hotel also has a shop that stocks Piment d’Ville and Bite Hard cider. 14050 Highway 128, Boonville; www.boonvillehotel.com
Farmhouse Mercantile: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 14111 Highway 128; www.farmhouse128.com.
Paysanne: This tiny ice cream shop is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Wednesdays, at 14111 Highway 128; www.sweetpaysanne.com.
Pennyroyal Farm: Open for tours by appointment at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and cheese and wine tastings daily at 14930 Highway 128; www.pennyroyalfarm.com.
Piment d’Ville: Find piment at specialty markets, the Mercantile and Boonville Hotel, and online at www.pimentdville.com.