Local artisans milk the land for quality, taste and variety
Photos by Tim Porter
True, cheese has not gotten its poetic due, especially compared to its frequent gustatory companion, wine. The popularity of the distilled grape as subject of sonnet and stanza is due no doubt to its power to inspire—and, yes, loosen—both tongue and pen. After all, there are no odes to “cheese, women and song.”
Ask any cheese maker worth his or her bloomy rind, though, and all would say they prefer a bevy of buyers for their brie over a couple of couplets about their camembert.
The cheese makers of Marin and Sonoma counties have, in some ways, the best of both. Their products, from the melt-in-your-mouth mounds of Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam to the earthy flavors of Redwood Hill Farm’s California Crottin, have gained national renown as well as an enthusiastic local following that enables these ranchers and artisans to survive in what quite literally is a their-hand-to-your-mouth business.
“The proximity to a major urban area with many restaurants and sophisticated, well-traveled consumers has been key” to the success of local cheese makers, says Janet Fletcher, the Napa author of The Cheese Course and numerous other cookbooks.
Marin and Sonoma cheese makers also benefit from a “hospitable landscape,” says Fletcher. “Many areas of Europe become known for a particular type of cheese, like the Alps, which is suited for cattle. We don’t have that sort of rigorous landscape, so what we’re seeing in the region is diversity. They’re not coalescing around a particular style or particular type of milk. They’re reserving their right to make different types of cheeses.”
The cool, coastal grasslands that roll north from Bolinas to Mendocino have always been dairy country—and that means cheese country. These pastures don’t follow county lines. Stand on a hilltop in Sonoma’s Bellwether Farms, and you can see Marin just south. Look down a two-lane road from Andante Dairy in Marin, and there is the Petaluma city limit. That’s why any discussion of “Marin” cheese must include “Sonoma” cheese. The cows, sheep and goats that graze this land just aren’t into political boundaries.
What matters is the cheese. And, as Fletcher points out, the region produces a varied bounty—creamy camemberts, even creamier triple creams, biting blues, sharp chèvres, and more (see accompanying list)—that is more than enough to tantalize any turophile and concern any cardiologist.
As you might expect, local cheese makers are as diverse as their wares.
The Marin French Cheese Co. dates to 1865; Cindy Callahan, a former nurse, started Bellwether Farms in her 50s; Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy was a biochemist. For some, cheese (and other dairy products) are economic tools that enable family farms to survive at a time when rock-bottom milk prices are forcing many dairy ranchers out of business— Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (Giacomini family) and Achadinha Cheese Company (Pacheco family) are good examples.
Indeed, says Fletcher, “everyone’s story is different, which is what makes cheese so delightful. Behind every cheese is a story.”
Andante Dairy Goat, cow, sheep and blended-milk cheeses, from soft triple creams to hard aged rounds, all with musical names such as Nocturne, Pianoforte and Acapella. andantedairy.com
Cowgirl Creamery Cheese from Straus Family Creamery organic cow milk, including triple-cream Mt. Tam and Red Hawk, clabbered cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Creamery tours. Stores in Point Reyes, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. cowgirlcreamery.com
Marin French Cheese CO. Classic brie, camembert and breakfast cheeses, some flavored, as well as artisan cheeses. Landmark building, picnic grounds and pond on Red Hill Road west of Novato.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. Raw-milk blue cheese made on the 60-year-old Giacomini family dairy farm. pointreyescheese.com
Achadinha Cheese Company Outgrowth of the Pacheco Family Dairy on Chileno Valley Road in Petaluma. Several types of goat milk cheese, including washed, semi-hard Capricious and Broncha, said to come from a family recipe. achadinha.com
Bellwether Farms Cow and sheep milk cheeses, from buttery Carmody (named after the road that abuts the farm in Valley Ford) to peppercorn-studded Pepato, as well as crème fraîche, ricotta and goat’s milk yogurt. bellwetherfarms.com
Bodega Artisan Cheese Goat milk cheese from fresco (the “goat cheese of the Andes”) to aged charolais to ricotta. Sold at farmers’ markets. Tours available. bodegaartisancheese.com
Redwood Hill Farm Goat milk cheese, including chèvre, feta and cheddar, as well as yogurt and kefir. Sebastopol. redwoodhill.com