California truly is a special place. Where else can you go from bone-chilling fog to Jurassic forests, on to snow-capped mountains, then to bone-dry desert, and end at blustery beach bluffs in a single day?
Or discover a brand new kind of ice cream buried deep in the middle of it all?
One recent morning we found ourselves waking up in one of those extremes: a tiny town seemingly lost in time nestled in a dense redwood forested area of Sonoma County north of San Francisco called Occidental. We spent an impromptu night in this isolated old gold rush era rail town, enjoying the quiet seclusion and comfort of a cozy fireplace. Once a fairly bustling place, with steam trains whistling through and the streets bustling with gold diggers and lumber jacks, today is a sleepy town with a few hippy stores, a couple of rustic inns and lodges, some fabulously old-school restaurants, and no cell service.
After a relaxing night at the hippy-chic Occidental Lodge and a big hearty breakfast at Howard Station Cafe, we’re on a winding road heading out of town by 8 A.M., making our way from the hilly forest to the ocean. For a while, it is a surreal journey through Pan’s Labyrinth, but eventually we break through the trees and come upon the lush green rolling pastures of the famed Point Reyes dairy region. Cows, goats and sheep dots the hills in the distance, and somewhere beyond you know there are little farms making magical cheeses that carry price tags that will make your jaw drop.
We continue following the signs for Route 1 towards Bodega Bay (of Alfred Hitchcock fame), and suddenly find ourselves lumbering into Point Reyes town proper. Still rustic, though certainly more “on the grid” than Occidental, there are perhaps four streets of interest versus one. The majority are occupied by establishments that are the stuff of every carb and cheese-lovers’ dreams. This is the home of Cowgirl Creamery, as well as several wonderful bread shops. Also, as the oyster capitol of the Bay Area, you can shuck your heart out at any number of local restaurants and oyster stands from here to nearby Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay.
However, it’s about 9 A.M. on a holiday weekend and our only other company today are intrepid long-haul bikers and hikers passing through for supplies and sustenance for their long journeys ahead.
Undeterred by all the “closed” signs, we stopped at the local Palace Market grocery store to scope out the wares. It was here, buried way in the back behind the meat and seafood counter, I made the most magical discovery of the entire weekend: Buffalo milk gelato.
It was identified by no more than an unexceptional sign announcing “Local Soft Serve” and featuring a fairly unappetizing picture of a Buffalo cow (yes, Google confirmed they are called cows, too). Undeterred by the signage or the early hour, I ask for a sample.
HOLY COW. This is creamy perfection. My little sample of vanilla is creamy, rich, and dense. The vanilla flavor is subtle and soothing, and lovely balance against the creamy dairy flavor.
I finish slurping down the sampler cup, pace around the meat counter a few minutes debating how much I might regret having dessert after breakfast (decision: not enough to stop me), and go back to the counter to order a small chocolate-vanilla swirl in a cup for the insanely affordable price of $1.99 (unheard of in California, outside of a cone at McDonald’s!).
The butcher / ice cream scooper returns with what might as well be a whole pint. I can’t imagine what a large looks like!
But once I dig in, I realize it won’t be nearly enough to satisfy! The chocolate is dark, rich, and pronounced. The cocoa comes through in a way I have never before tasted in a soft serve, where it is typically rather bland and artificial. Together with the vanilla, it is about as perfect a pairing as chocolate and peanut butter (and in my world, that’s saying something!). This creamy treat has some serious staying power, too. I could still taste it in the back of my mouth a full 30 minutes later.
So what’s the story with buffalo milk? It turns out buffalo milk is commonly consumed in other parts of the world, particularly south Asia, with India, China and Pakistan being the biggest producers. In terms of composition, Buffalo milk contains less water and slightly less lactose, and more fat and protein than cow’s milk. This is what gives it its creamier, thicker consistency.
My cupful hails from Double 8 Dairy, one of two water buffalo dairies in California, located in the Sonoma County town of Petaluma, CA. Apparently, at one point they had their own scoop shop in Point Reyes Station, but it has since closed. Now you have to go seek it out, or do what I did and just get lucky stumbling upon it somewhere. This, in a way, is a part of the allure. I feel like I’ve stumbled on some rare, exclusive underground foodie find!
Of course, now that I know it exists, I’m on the lookout for it everywhere. So far, I have discovered at on the menu at Pizzeria Delfina in Burlingame (though the ice cream machine was down the day I was there – bummer!). I also recently learned they they are the secret behind Bi-Rite Creamery‘s super-creamy soft serve. I will go personally investigate and confirm in a future edition.
Moral of this story: it’s worth going off the beaten path sometimes; you never know what magical treats you will discover.
Also, it’s never too early for ice cream.
Total score: 4.6 scoops