By Teri Tith Concannon and Denise Creek Garcia
Make no mistake, though you have probably never heard of it, the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail does exist. There’s even a map and an app to boot. You can find them at www.CheeseTrail.org. As with all things printed, the map is a bit out of date, but we highly recommend the app. This is a great day or weekend trip spent exploring the backroads of Sonoma and Marin Counties and tasting handmade artisan cheeses along the way. Plan your trip well in advance and be sure to call the cheesemaker before you visit.
Cheesemaking is tied to the seasons because cheese is made from the milk of animals that are tied to the land, something you don’t think about when buying commodity cheese at the grocery store. Ewes lamb in the spring and milk production is at its highest volume at this time. Milking and cheesemaking becomes a daily practice – seven days a week – during the peak months, which is approximately six months for sheep, eight for goats, and longer for cows.
Our first stop was Bleating Heart in Tomales, Calif. We wondered if we would ever get there. There were few road markings as we traveled up the final path – a windy road taking us past tall rows of Eucalyptus and Cypress trees, across three cattle guards, and finally to be greeted by two Great Pyrenees dogs who act as guardians of the sheep. At last we got to meet Dave Dalton and Seana Doughty, the cheesemakers/owners. Bleating Heart makes primarily raw sheep milk cheese, and this season they made just seven pilot batches of a new raw sheep’s milk blue cheese called Ewelicious.
Seana was in the middle of making an experimental batch of cow’s milk blue cheese from Jerseys when we arrived. She said she was thinking about naming it Moolicious. Seana is known for creating cheeky names for her cheeses as she is also the maker of Fat Bottom Girl, a cheese whose distinctive shape was a happy accident. Every wheel she produces has a heart-shaped stamp on it. Every cheese is made with love. The blue cheeses, for example, are hand-filled into hoops to form the rounds, then each one is rubbed with salt, pierced to allow the blue veins to develop in approximately seven to 10 days, then set on California redwood planks where they age to ripeness. For the holidays, several batches of Shepherdista were getting a special rind treatment in vats filled with zinfandel grape pumice, where they will continue aging for about a month.
Our next stop was the Petaluma Creamery. We joked that we were going to be cheesemakers for Halloween as we once again donned hairnets, white smocks and disposable booties to keep the cheesemaking environment protected. Sarah Lanatti lead us on a tour of this larger-scale production environment where they make organic pressed cheeses such as specialty Monterey Jack and Cheddars and a lesser known commodity, cheese curds. Cheese curds are relatively new to the California marketplace. They melt well and make excellent grilled cheeses according to Sarah. “The Firehouse Cheese Curds are great in lasagna because they already have some seasoning,” she added.
The Petaluma Creamery also produces an organic Spring Hill labeled line of butters and cheeses. Owner Larry Peter has helped local dairymen thrive by making available their production and equipment to foster the industry. Petaluma Creamery cheese is made from the milk of many local farmers. When he bought the creamery in 1986, there were only 73 dairies left in the region; now the count is at 300. A large contributor to this change is the consumer-driven demand for locally grown and produced food products and the interest in organic. At the end of our tour we got a special treat when visiting their onsite store. You can grab a quick lunch there and sample more than a dozen handmade ice creams that Sarah has produced. She also does custom flavors for clients upon request. You may see her specialty Maple Bacon Ice Cream at casinos in the near future.
The last stop of our day was Achidinha Cheese, where Donna Pacheco makes fine goat’s milk and goat-cow cheeses with the help of her entire family. Her sons Daniel and David, and daughter Elizabeth were on hand to demonstrate the goat milking. They have all six varieties of goats in their herd. The eldest son, William, is very proud of the 40 Jersey cows that he maintains for the family business.
Bröncha and Capricious, which won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society in 2002, are two of their semi-hard cheeses. These cheeses are aged on locally-harvested Cypress planks, using only indigenous, naturally-occurring molds to create the unique flavor for her cheese. The aging room smells wonderful, and is currently stacked higher than you can reach with her hand-formed cheese rounds. They resemble irregular loaves of bread lined up vertically on end, row after row.
Donna and husband Jim shared their favorite recipe, made using their own label California Cheese Curds stuffed and baked inside a mushroom button. We shared these, along with some fruit and wine in their party barn at the end of our cheese-filled day.
Exhausted but determined, we set off the next morning to find Barinaga Ranch home of Basque-style sheepsmilk cheesemaker Marcia Barinaga. Marcia tends two kinds of sheep in her flock, East Fresian and Katahdin. We got to see her milking parlor, and an impressive cheesemaking set up cleverly done in three customized shipping container vessels. The containers are elevated, with a complex system of capture pipes underneath to collect runoff and whey, which is fed to her market pigs. Nothing goes to waste. Her operation is sustainable and environmentally friendly. She has been awarded a special animal welfare approval certification.
You can visit this farmstead operation year-round. Marcia offers farm and cheesemaking tours once or twice a month on Saturdays, but she warned they fill up months in advance. Ask your local cheese monger for a taste of her Baserri and Txiki (pronounced “cheeky”) cheeses. You’ll become a customer.
The sign in the cheese shop at Nicasio Valley Cheese Company reads: “Cheese Trail Starts Here,” but it was our last stop along the cheese highway. Two cheese mongers can only take in so much information in an intensive 24-hour period! We lucked out and got to meet cheesemaker Brian Ackerly, who was just finishing his shift in the cheesemaking room. This room can be viewed from the store through a large window, which has been thoughtfully installed so visitors can view the cheesemaking operation. This year they won a second place ribbon from the American Cheese Society for their San Geronimo cheese, a cross between a Fontina and a Raclette. Brian makes an impressive array of bloomy-rind and wash-rind cheeses for the Lafranchi family, which owns the company. They are located just around the corner from the Nicasio Ranch Bar and Restaurant, a music venue and great place for lunch and dinner, located just across from the Lafranchi baseball field.
Artisan cheesemaking is artfully handmade by passionate farmers and dedicated cheesemakers, using the freshest milk possible, when it is plentiful. Not all cheesemaking operations are big enough to handle special tours, or sell their cheese direct to the public. But if you’re lucky, you can find their cheeses in a cheese case near you. Or, head out on the backroads of Sonoma and Marin and experience the cheese trail for yourself.
Teri Tith Concannon and Denise Creek Garcia are co-founders and proprietors of an emerging cheese business, Cheese Therapy, in the San Francisco East Bay, based in the Livermore Valley. Look for their Artisan Cheese plate at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore and check out their facebook page to mark their progress.