A Taste of Marin: Culinary Tours Bring Appreciative Fans to Local Food Artisans
Elizabeth Hill is living proof that vision boards—those colorful collages people put together to realize their dreams—actually work. Well, a vision board, encouragement from culinary friends, a lifetime of experiences and a lot of legwork reaching out to potential partners for her passion project turned full-time gig.
Hill is the founder of West Marin Food & Farm Tours, launched in the summer of 2012. In many ways she seems the ideal candidate to lead guests on a leisurely jaunt through this pastoral setting, long known for its agricultural bounty and geographic beauty, and increasingly known for its good grub.
She’s got the culinary pedigree: Straight out of Stanford, Hill ran Lizzie’s Cookies, a successful baking business. In 2011, she attended Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts in Berkeley (also featured in this issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country), earning its natural chef certification. She is also an experienced educator: Hill received a teaching credential and a master’s in education at San Jose State and, in a former career trajectory, taught art, science and school gardening to youth. And, it’s worth mentioning that she is also a graduate of UC Santa Cruz’s Master Gardeners program.
Hill, 34, also has roots that go way back in this rural community.
“My great-grandparents started coming to Inverness in the late 1800s, my grandparents lived there and my mom built a house next door to my grandparents in the 1970s,” she says. “I grew up in the East Bay, but almost every weekend and every summer we were at my mom’s cabin. Literally, it was ‘through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.’ I have the best memories of sailing on Tomales Bay, picking huckleberries in the woods and picnicking on beaches. It was a special place for me as a child and I always dreamed about living here full time.”
Hiking the pristine hills of the Point Reyes National Seashore and swimming in the clear waters of Tomales Bay have clearly left an imprint on Hill. This rugged, remote retreat is in her blood. She developed her reverence for the land, livestock and the people who tend both in a childhood spent slurping oysters and tucking into local beef, milk and cheese in a region known for its rolling hills, grazing cows and majestic wildlife, including herons, egrets and herds of tule elk.
Her family also ran a ranch in Fort Jones near Mount Shasta, in Northern California, where she fed cattle, rode horses and drove tractors. It’s there, she says, that she gained a firsthand appreciation for the hard work of agriculture.
In the spring of 2012, Hill invited some of her fellow Bauman College classmates to spend a weekend with her in Inverness. She shared her favorite food haunts, along with her substantial knowledge of the area. Her friends were captivated, and with some nudging from them Hill began to see the possibility of creating a culinary tour company that would celebrate the best of the agricultural bounty of the area.
“We were sitting at the Marshall Store, drinking wine and eating oysters, it was the end of the day, and we were watching the sunset and kicking around this idea. My friends were, like, ‘This is what you need to do,’” recalls Hill. “So I wrote a business plan and just took a leap of faith and moved to Marshall.”
The local community quickly came on board. Hill wasn’t sure how she’d be received, since it’s a place that typically frowns upon commercial efforts started by outsiders and geared towards tourists.
“I was a bit hesitant until one of the old-time residents told me: ‘You don’t need anyone’s permission to start this business. And the best thing you can do for this community is be successful. If it doesn’t come internally from someone who really knows the area it will come from the outside and that would be awful.’”
There were some initial grumblings. “I did overhear a woman in town complaining about ‘some tour company,’ but when her friend assured her that it was OK because it’s Norma Wells’s granddaughter, she said: ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ People are concerned about outsiders changing the flavor of this community. I’m sensitive to that,” says Hill, who now lives in Point Reyes Station. “I want my guests to value this community and support local food businesses and sustainable agriculture. Education is a big part of what I do.”
Today, Hill works with more than 20 partners on the different themed tours she has crafted, shuttling intimate groups of up to seven guests from one local culinary highlight to the next. Her business has steadily grown since she launched. Two nice nods in the New York Times travel section, as well as other favorable press, has certainly helped. So has simple word of mouth: About 85% of Hill’s guests hail from the Bay Area.
As its name suggests, Hill’s Flavors of West Marin tour offers a sampling of the area’s finest edible offerings. Guests gather outside Cowgirl Creamery, located inside Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station, and are greeted by Hill, who is warm and welcoming, dressed in a crisp white chef’s jacket. This reporter also moonlights as a culinary guide elsewhere in the Bay Area, so she’s aware of all the myriad details that go into ensuring that an edible excursion runs smoothly, yet Hill shields her guests from any logistical considerations and sets a relaxed pace, pitch perfect for a day diving deep into the food culture of this rural enclave. Hill’s culinary chops also come in handy as she walks guests through cheesemaking, bread baking and oyster farming with ease.
A highlight of the Flavors of West Marin tour is a peek inside the inner workings of Brickmaiden Breads, normally not open to the public. Here, bakers in cramped, rustic quarters craft toothsome, naturally fermented loaves baked in a wood-fired brick oven.
Another standout: Heidrun Meadery, where the worlds of farming, beekeeping, fermentation and winemaking all collide in one delicious drop.
And the grass-fed meaty magic inside Marin Sun Farms Restaurant & Butcher Shop had omnivores salivating over the size and quality of those burgers. Lunch includes a goat burger piled with shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions and Laura Chenel’s chèvre. A lamb burger features lamb bacon, chimichurri and Manchego cheese. The black and blue burger is topped with Point Reyes Original blue cheese, red onions and arugula. Brussels sprouts, flash-fried in pork lard and sprinkled with Parmesan and a dollop of aioli and citrus, disappear in minutes among our group. Ditto the nicely crisp sweet potato fries. Nobody leaves hungry.
West Marin Food & Farm Tours’ oyster-centric tour is a briny bivalve lover’s delight. It’s informative too: Hill schools us in the different farming techniques employed by local oystermen—not to mention the wide-ranging flavors of the oyster varieties we sample along the way. This reporter has covered oyster culture here and still learned a lot about farming these fruits of the sea, in addition to background on the region’s geography, history, agriculture and local lore.
We begin the tour at Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Signs that say “Save our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” line many of the roads in that part of the county, triggering questions from some of the guests. Hill doesn’t shy away from discussing the dispute, now winding its way through the courts, which pits marine sanctuary purists and the federal government against sustainable agriculture advocates and the Lunny family, who bought the farm in 2005 and also own a nearby cattle ranch. [Note: At press time, the oyster company was dealt another legal setback and its future looks tenuous at best; an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected.]
Controversy covered, Hill shifts gears and her hospitality skills kick in as she sets out a picnic overlooking Drakes Estero, where guests nibble on all manner of locally sourced treats including jerky, preserves, cheese, produce, bread and, of course, sea-kissed, succulent Drakes Bay oysters, as they contemplate the stellar scenery.
Next, a shucking lesson and salty, slurpable samplings at Tomales Bay Oyster Co. before we head to Hog Island Oyster Co. a bit farther up Highway 1. There, we learn about Hog Island’s distinctive oyster production system (see the Summer 2013 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country for more on Hog Island). Then it’s time to enjoy raw oysters and barbecued versions coated in chipotle-bourbon butter. Finger-licking good stuff.
Our tour ends at Saltwater Oyster Depot, where the chef has created an oyster dish featuring orange blossom mead butter that he’s dubbed “Oysters Elizabeth,” in our guide’s honor. It’s here, over a glass of wine, that guests compare and contrast the tastes and textures of the day.
These days, Point Reyes Station is packed on weekends and holidays with day-trippers, weekend warriors and out-of-towners (one reason why Hill can only offer her oyster tour during the week). And yet there is still a sense of getting away from it all in this country idyll. And much to learn: Who knew of the Bovine Bakery owners’ connection to the local oyster farming community? Or the back story behind Point Reyes Station. Or what happened when Martha Stewart came to town. Hill shares these and other fun facts along the way. No spoilers here: Sign up for one of Hill’s tours for the inside scoop.
Hill’s partners’ value her role as an ambassador for the area. “Singing praises of Elizabeth and her caravan of foragers is easy because she understands the West Marin ethos and cares to see this community and our rural way of life thrive,” says Gordon Hull, owner of Heidrun Meadery, which relocated from Arcata to Point Reyes Station in 2011. “Elizabeth isn’t so much a guide as she is a teacher, providing her ‘students’ an insightful and respectful social narrative regarding the work we do. She gets the word out by bringing the curious traveler to us, and that’s essential when you’re a small producer far from the bright lights of the big city.”
Hull’s sentiment is echoed among other partners. “Elizabeth tells our story to a broad variety of people, while providing a greater context to our customers about the community of growers that make up West Marin,” says Garret Hamner, who manages the oyster bar at Hog Island. “Because of our weekend volume, it’s difficult to facilitate small groups. Elizabeth caters to these guests, helps them navigate the crowds, and has them sample the very best of the best. Our whole team appreciates how Elizabeth works with our staff to make her tour visits seamless. They also like the cookies that she brings them.”
The admiration is mutual. “I have a real appreciation for all the effort that goes into making these quality food products and into raising animals and produce in a sustainable way,” says Hill. “I think most guests come away feeling like these businesses really are a labor of love.” In her first year, Hill conducted more than 100 tours and shepherded more than 750 guests through the area. She also donated over $5,000 to local nonprofits.
“It’s really important to me to give back to this community. I couldn’t do what I do if it wasn’t for MALT [Marin Agricultural Land Trust] or Marin Organic. I want people to know that I’m invested in the community and I’m here to stay.”
Hill has come a long way in a short time since she envisioned her new life on that vision board.
“I love my partners, the people who take my tours, and the fact that I’m always learning about this area—plus I get to eat really good food every day,” says the gourmet guide, who is cooking up fresh, new tour ideas for this year including the Quattro Formaggio tour (goat, sheep and water buffalo, oh my!), a Meat Lover’s tour, a Food and Photography tour, as well as monthly farm-to-table dinners.
“Everybody I work with is passionate, authentic and inspiring. I still get excited every time I lead a tour. I have literally created my dream job.”
WEST MARIN FOOD & FARM TOURS
FLAVORS OF WEST MARIN: Tour Hill’s local culinary favorites, including Bovine Bakery, Cowgirl Creamery, Brickmaiden Breads, Hog Island Oyster Co., Marin Sun Farms Restaurant & Butcher Shop, Table Top Farm, Heidrun Meadery and Point Reyes Vineyard.
OYSTER LOVER’S TOUR: See oyster farming and production at three working oyster farms and visit a restaurant with close ties to the local oyster industry. Stops include Drakes Bay Oyster Co., Tomales Bay Oyster Co., Hog Island Oyster Co. and Saltwater Oyster Depot.
CHEESE LOVER’S TOUR: Visit four award-winning creameries and get the inside story on artisan chee- semaking. Stops include Cowgirl Creamery, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., Marin French Cheese Co., Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. and, occasionally, Baringa Ranch.
WINE AND CHEESE TOUR: Explore two creameries and two wineries including Cowgirl Creamery, Marin French Cheese Co., Stubbs Vineyard and Heidrun Meadery.