As summer descends everywhere but here, the bibs come out for a nice long stretch of hearty eating at food festivals. It's the season when we can learn more uses for a single ingredient than we ever thought possible, especially at mammoth celebrations such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival. It's also a time when San Franciscans can feel some much-needed hot sun just by driving an hour away. Whether organized around just one edible theme or a celebration of the entire bounty of a region, these events are worth the short road trip. Don't forget to leave room in the car to bring back produce or souvenirs.
The Sonoma Lavender Food & Wine Festival (www.sonomalavender.com/festival.html) is headed to Kenwood on June 25 and 26. Your 90-minute drive into Sonoma County from San Francisco will be rewarded with the unmistakable scent of a five-acre lavender farm in peak season, plus various products on hand to sample and buy. There will be a chillout lounge where you can get wrapped in lavender or enjoy other beauty treatments. Meanwhile, cooking and growing seminars will inspire chefs to master the elusive art of using the plant delicately in the kitchen.
An hour northeast of the city, Brentwood Cornfest (www.brentwoodcornfest.org) takes over Brentwood July 8 through 11. More than 40,000 people are expected to take in the carnival atmosphere, which includes the largest traveling Ferris wheel in the United States, and enjoy wine and microbrew tastings with giant cobs of locally grown corn on the side. And even though Independence Day will have passed, Cornfest will offer a fireworks show on Friday, July 8, at 9:30 p.m.
Head southeast for an hour to Taste of Terroir — Livermore Valley's Wine & Food Experience (www.lvwine.org) on Thursday, July 21, in Pleasanton. Unlike the Cornfest, this is more of a haute tasting affair, an event set up as a culinary competition. Join a panel of expert judges in declaring a winning team assembled from the ranks of Livermore Valley growers and chefs.
If you're going to take a road trip to one food festival this summer, consider attending the granddaddy of 'em all on July 29-31. The Gilroy Garlic Festival (www.gilroygarlicfestival.com), now in its 32nd year, will open your mind to the possibilities of garlic, including how well it can work in desserts. You're likely to get a crazy sunburn from the scorching heat if you aren't careful with your SPFs, but you can start the summer tan you'll never get to finish in San Francisco.
Don't plan any out-of-town trips for Saturday, Aug. 20; save that date for the third annual San Francisco Street Food Festival (www.sfstreetfoodfest.com), which features food stands and roaming vendors offering international flavors. Like last year's event, the festival will take over several blocks in the Mission District, but this year adds additional space with the use of the Cesar Chavez Elementary School parking lot and Parque de los Niños Unidos. There's a heck of a follow-up event for food entrepreneurs on Aug. 21 and 22: The second annual National Street Food Conference at Fort Mason Center presents practical panel discussions and seminars on street food culture and how to make a living in it. The conference is sponsored by La Cocina incubator kitchen (www.lacocinasf.org).
Nearly as old as the Gilroy Garlic Festival is the 29th annual Zucchini Festival (www.haywardzucchini.org), just across the Bay Bridge in Hayward on Aug. 20 and 21. The South Hayward Lions Club puts on a family affair with kidcentric rides and entertainment, but the variations on the ubiquitous squash, including relish, bread, and good old deep-fried versions, will reward attendees with adventurous palates.
Just north of Brentwood is Oakley, where almonds are the major crop and the celebratory focus of the Oakley Almond Festival (www.oakleychamber.com/almond-festival), Sept. 9-11. The event combines almonds with a classic car show; we never realized there was a correlation.
Finally, as autumn approaches, Oakland's Jack London Square will celebrate the third annual Eat Real Fest (www.eatrealfest.com) Sept. 23-25, which offers healthy street food with seemingly endless options, extensive beer- and wine-tasting possibilities, food crafting classes and cooking demonstrations, a thrilling butchery contest dubbed Flying Knives, live music, and even a literary festival. You can pretend you're culturally well-rounded while completely stuffing your face. Go ahead and do it up to mark the end of one really well-fed summer.