A Foodie's Insider Tour

Food & Wine Trails organizes tours that explore cultures through cuisine

By: Candace Murphy

SONOMA, Calif. They had all scrubbed in. Their prep work, finished. There was nothing left but to take the time-honored pledge to the profession. “Raise your right hand and repeat after me,” intoned the instructor to the group of 19 fresh-faced students. “I will ... from this day forward ... have nothing to do ... with people ... who use green bell peppers.”

The Oath of the Green Pepper is a requirement in this classroom. For the students gathered in this kitchen just off a leafy, shaded stretch of Sonoma’s West Spain Street are on a four-day epicurean adventure through Sonoma County that has been organized by Food & Wine Trails.

Based in Sonoma and a division of HMS Travel, Food & Wine Trails organizes tours from Tuscany to Tahiti that explore the world and its cultures through food and wine.

It is nationally respected experts like the leader of the green pepper oath in this case, John Ash, who was one of the first to put Sonoma County on the map back in 1980 with his eponymous restaurant that have made these tours a cult hit among those passionate about food.

“Developing a niche like this was necessary for survival in the travel industry,” says Food & Wine Trails President Larry Martin. “The baby boomers have done the beach trip. The days of lounging around on a vacation are gone. Now it’s all Palm Pilots and cell phones. The only thing that can compete is enrichment travel. It’s multitasking people learn while they enjoy their time.”

Though the overseas trips typically last eight to 12 days, the Sonoma County tour is only four. But just like the other tours, there is barely time to breathe.

Throughout the four days and nights, the travelers, who hail from points as distant as Texas and Florida, will enjoy a private tour of the Davis Bynum Winery and a Thai cooking class.

They’ll rise at the crack of dawn to see the backstage workings of the Della Fattoria Bakery. They’ll sidestep droppings at a sheep farm as they make their way to a rusty shack to make homemade mozzarella cheese.

And no less than Kathleen Stewart, formerly of Chez Panisse, will teach a private lesson on how to make apple galettes at Healdsburg’s Downtown Bakery.

At Bellwether Farms, in Valley Ford, Calif., Cindy Callahan and her son, Liam, tromp around in rubber boots as they make creme fraiche, ricotta, crescenza and carmody cheeses by hand in small batches.

Food & Wine Trails shines the spotlight on family farms, artisanal products and the practice of sustainable agriculture. In essence, they are tours that define the slow food movement, which stresses the importance of taste, preparation and presentation of food and drink, and the importance of the source and quality of ingredients used in food preparation.

Back at John Ash’s cooking class is the sustaining of the rant of the ills of the green bell beast. “Green bell peppers are one of the most disgusting foods in the universe!” Ash screeches. Then, pulling a different green pepper from a bowl, he cradles it in both hands and lifts it to the heavens.

“Now repeat after me,” he says. “Poblano peppers ... ”