On a somewhat dreary day this fall, I walked up to Lauren Herpich and was immediately greeted with a big smile — as well as a sweet, flaky morning bun. Picked out fresh that morning from La Farine on College Avenue, the pastry was a lovely start to the the Rockridge Food Tour, for which Herpich is a guide.
Launched in June 2014, this trek is a relatively new addition to the East Bay’s line-up of food tours — Savor Oakland, Edible Excursions, and Dishcrawl all carve out their own neighborhood niches — and it is the first to feature the Rockridge neighborhood.
Herpich is no stranger to the world of food-focused excursions. Before moving to the area last January, she was a tour guide for Chicago Food Planet, which has been leading hungry diners around the Windy City since 2006. Chicago Food Planet emphasizes the inclusion of well-researched neighborhood history into their food tours, and Herpich has brought this focus to Oakland.
As Herpich says, the tour “offers not only an opportunity for guests and vacationers to discover one of the Bay Area’s hidden neighborhood gems, but also for local residents to learn more about the history of the area in which they call home.”
Herpich hand-picked the stops on the tour based on her favorites and those that help “tell a good story” about the neighborhood. In other words, this jaunt around the hilly neighborhood was going to be about more than just eating.
Indeed, the Rockridge Food Tour involves a lot of walking. We covered about three miles over the course of the three-hour tour, including the journey back to my car after the last food stop, so that initial sugary rush from the La Farine pastry was completely warranted.
While we ate our morning buns, Herpich nodded up the hill at the Claremont Hotel and gave us a quick overview of its history. She told us of the gold rush, childhood dreams of a castle, a devastating fire, and a consequential game of checkers. The Claremont Hotel is also an important source of clients for Herpich. She’s made friends with their concierges, who send recommendations to their guests.
Our first official stop was the ultra-premium olive oil store Amphora Nueva, but the tour has since changed its starting point. Now, Herpich meets her guests outside of the Oakland Public Library before venturing over to A16 Rockridge. There, guests taste samples from their new brunch menu, like their frittata and Neapolitan pizza. They meet Isaiah Martinez, the pizzaiolo, who demonstrates how their pizza is made. Sometimes they’re lucky enough to chat with executive chef Rocky Maselli.
Pizza is a much different culinary experience than the olive oil tasting. Led by shop manager Claire Bradley, we swirled, sniffed, slurped, and swallowed our way through a line-up of three freshly pressed oils from South America (according to Bradley, the freshest oils at the time). Each oil increased in pungency, so by the end of the tasting, each of us had started to cough. High polyphenol oils will do that, said Bradley.
While wandering through the store, we sampled some of Amphora’s oil “fusions,” which are flavored oils made by pressing aromatics through the mill along with the olives, producing a fully integrated and flavorful end result.
But even high-quality olive oil does not make a meal, so we headed down the hill towards College Avenue for some heftier tastings. Our first stop was the family-owned butcher shop, Ver Brugge Foods. They’ve been operating out of their storefront since 1979, long enough to have seen a sea change in the neighborhood. And they’re adapting to changing times. Ver Brugge does, of course, sell meat (and they’re more than happy to talk to their customers about sourcing), but they also sell an array of prepared foods, centered around their sous-vide line of products.
Co-owner Michael Balliet explained the process: sous-vide dishes are prepared by sealing choice ingredients like duck legs or short ribs in a vacuum-seal bag, along with cooking oils and aromatics. The bag is then submerged in a temperature-controlled water bath for an extended period of time. The proteins emerge perfectly cooked and conveniently packaged in airtight containers ready to be sold to customers.
Ver Brugge has found that these products really appeal to the young families in the neighborhood — they’re quick to prepare and make it easy to eat restaurant-quality food at home. We sampled some of their duck confit atop French lentil salad, and the duck was fork-tender, moist, and flavorful.
A quick visit into neighboring La Farine followed, and then the tour dipped into the neighborhood for a look at some Julia Morgan-inspired architecture. At this point, it had become clear to me that this tour was nothing like the excursions that focus on newer and trendier destinations. The Rockridge Food Tour instead gives guests a taste of the historic neighborhood and the restaurants that started the “foodie” revolution on College Avenue.
One such destination is Rockridge Market Hall. Its open-air concept and staggering array of speciality foods is a tempting oasis for any food lover. We took a quick look around its Pasta Shop before landing at the cheese counter.
This relatively small corner of the store has been dedicated to all things cheese since Market Hall opened in the mid-1980s. Their selection of cheeses changes with the seasons, but on any given day, you can find upwards of 150 varieties from fresh spreadable cheeses to crumbly wedges of Parmesan.
Our cheesemonger that day was Jason Plunkett, whose said the favorite part of his job is “building a rapport with regular clients. Nothing is better,” he said, “than a new cheese instantly bringing to mind a great customer.” Plunkett shared two cold-weather cheeses with us: Wagon Wheel, a lightly aged, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, and Challerhocker, an alpine-style cheese from Switzerland. Each cheese was paired with fruit; the Wagon Wheel was topped with a sweet, earthy fig jam and the Challerhocker a tart cherry.
Up the hill from Market Hall is Zachary’s Pizza, home of the most substantial sample on our tour. We took a seat and learned the story of the restaurant while waiting for our deep-dish spinach and mushroom pizza to arrive. Zachary’s was opened in 1983 by Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel, two Wisconsin transplants with a love for Chicago-style pizza. Since 2010, Zachary’s has been 100% worker-owned.
Their pizza is “stuffed,” that is, it has an extra layer of dough sandwiched in between the cheese, toppings, and sauce. And like all traditional Chicago pizzerias, Zachary’s puts their sauce on top. It’s a messy fork-and-knife affair, but the substantial slice is a welcome snack after all of that walking.
For dessert, Herpich always includes ice cream. But she doesn’t take guests to the new, consistently packed Smitten shop. Instead, we walked up to the headquarters of Dreyer’s Ice Cream to get one final history lesson.
Oakland trivia experts likely know that Dreyer’s, now the world’s largest ice-cream company, is an Oakland institution. As a relative newcomer, I had no clue.
The company was founded on the cusp of the Great Depression, and became famous after inventing “Rocky Road” ice cream. This flavor made use of William Dryer’s creativity and co-founder (and candy-maker) Joseph Edy’s confectionery experience. The duo is also credited with the invention of toasted almond and mint flavored ice creams, but we stuck with the classic for our tasting.
Eating a few bites of what is now mass-market ice cream was surprisingly pleasurable. Instead of fretting over its massive sugar content and conventional “dairyness,” I was transported back to my early childhood, when all ice cream came in extra-large tubs and no one cared about its pedigree.
As Oakland continues to grow and change, I realized that it is important to reflect back on its food history for a reminder of the place from which new trends come. The Rockridge Food Tour helped me do just that.
Rockridge Food Tours take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. and on Sundays at 11 a.m. Tickets are $49 and are available at www.rockridgefoodtour.com. Private tours can be arranged ahead of time for large groups. Each guest receives exclusive coupons to use at each of the locations on the tour. $1 of every ticket sold goes to the Alameda Food Bank. Connect with the Rockridge Food Tour on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.