THE CALIFORNIA CHEESE TRAIL: Who knew??
“Life is great. Cheese makes it better.” –Avery Aames, author of The Long Quiche Goodbye
I don’t know about you, but I just LOVE cheese! Last week we spent a few days away in wine country. In planning our trip, I discovered that California has a “Cheese Trail” (!) where small dairy ranchers are creating delicious artisanal cheeses. Who knew? It makes sense though, because the state produces more milk than anywhere else in the country.
Cheesemaking was introduced in California in the 1750s by Father Junipero Serra. During the Gold Rush years (1848-1855), immigrants from Europe built dairies in Point Reyes so that miners would have milk and butter. The rich pastures and gentle climate were ideal for dairy ranching, and eventually some dairies began also making cheese. In 2010 the “Cheese Trail” was established to promote Marin County farmers. Now ten years later, located between Central California and the Gold County, there’s almost fifty creameries producing over 250 varieties of handcrafted cheese. That’s a lotta cheese! (Okay, I had to say it.) Check out this cool link to the California Cheese Trail—it's a map and an interactive app (https://cheesetrail.org/).
Normally, the creameries have tastings and tours. With Covid-19 that was off the table, but we still visited three retail shops along our itinerary. One was a bit of an adventure, but at each we bought some fantastic cheese. And it was fun to discover the “origin stories” behind these creameries. Somehow, knowing their history makes the cheeses taste even better!
Our first stop was Marin French Cheese. Using sustainable practices, they make award-winning French-style soft-ripened cow’s milk cheeses like Brie and Camembert. Located on the Hicks Valley Ranch only ten miles from the ocean, this creamery has been in continuous operation since 1865.
We bought three cheeses from their Petite Collection, which are little 4-ounce rounds of brie. The Petite Supreme is made in small batches and aged for 9 to 14 days. With its white rind, luxurious creamy texture, and a tangy, slightly grassy/salty flavor, this is a fantastic addition to a cheeseboard. We ate it as part of a picnic, drizzled with local honey--heavenly!! Next time I'll serve it with California Sparkling wine, as suggested by the cheesemaker.
The award-winning Petite Truffle has black truffles in it. As you’d expect, the flavor is earthy and delicious. We ate this on crackers while driving—we just couldn’t wait! But this cheese would also be fantastic in a panini with roasted turkey and arugula. (https://marinfrenchcheese.com/recipes/truffle-brie-panini-with-roasted-turkey-and-arugula/).
The Petite Breakfast is a fresh, un-aged brie, with a slightly firm, almost curd-like texture and a tangy flavor. The company has made this cheese since 1865. We crumbled it over a green salad with fruit, nuts and a fruity dressing: perfect! I imagine it would also be amazing in this omelet (https://marinfrenchcheese.com/recipes/petite-breakfast-asparagus-omelet/) paired with Sauvignon Blanc.
Our next stop was Matos Cheese Factory in Santa Rosa. In the 1960s Joe and Mary Matos emigrated to the U.S. from an island in the Portuguese Azores called Sao Jorge. Eventually the couple, who were 5th generation cheesemakers, started making St. Jorge cheese from a family recipe. The family--now 7th generation cheesemakers--use organic and biodynamic farming techniques to produce farmstead cheese from the milk of the 50 cows they raise. (Farmstead means both the milk and cheese were produced by the same farm.)
Calling this small producer a “factory” is a stretch, but they do make wonderful cheese! We tasted and purchased some from a diminutive house ringed by a muddy dirt driveway, surrounded by a fenced cow pasture, a large junk-filled garage, and a yard full of chickens and geese. The door to the house was guarded by an old barking dog. When we first pulled in, we missed the sign for the tasting room, and had to circle the “factory” a second time.
In any case, tasting made the adventure worthwhile! Matos Cheese Factory makes three cheeses, all St. Jorge. The difference is in the aging. The Original St. Jorge is a raw milk, semi-hard cheese, like a cross between Cheddar and Monterey Jack. It has a mild, grass-fed flavor, perfect for melting. The Picante St. Jorge is the original cheese but aged for 9 months. The aging process results in the formation of crunchy white tyrosine crystals, which indicate complexity of flavor in cheese. It tastes sharper, a bit saltier, with a “warm caramel flavor”. Patrão St. Jorge is again, the Original, but aged for 16 months. Sharper and drier than the others, it has an even more pronounced salty, caramel flavor. Delicious!!
Our final stop was Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, another family business that uses traditional recipes, this time from Maggia, Switzerland. In 1919 Fred and Zelma LaFranchi purchased a dairy ranch in Nicasio. Their eldest son Will eventually ran the ranch, raising his six children there. During trips to Switzerland, Will became enamored of the local artisan cheeses, and dreamed of making them at his ranch. In 2010 the family founded Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. With the help of Swiss Master Cheesemaker Maurizio Lorenzetti, they learned how to produce traditional alpine cheeses. The creamery, with it’s lineup of nine award-winning cheeses, is now run by Scott LaFranchi and his siblings.
We bought three cheeses here. Foggy Morning is a fresh, soft, creamy cheese in the Fromage Blanc style. The cheesemaker recommends using it on pizza, pasta or salads, in mashed potatoes or with fruit or jam. We topped French toast with syrup, cooked berries and Foggy Morning—delicious!
Nicasio Reserve, aged for 6 months, is a “classic Swiss Italian Alpine” cheese. It tastes like fresh cream, hazelnuts, fruit and grass. It melts beautifully, so you can use it for grilled cheese, fondue, in a frittata, polenta or risotto. (https://nicasiocheese.com/blogs/recipes/128330371-baked-risotto-with-nicasio-reserve-asparagus-and-spinach).
San Geronimo is a semi-soft raclette-style cow’s milk cheese with a washed rind. It’s won three National Awards for Raclette style cheese. With a mild, tangy, custardy, slightly salty flavor, it’s perfect for fondue or melted over tomatoes in a sandwich. Serve it with beer or a dry white wine. (https://nicasiocheese.com/blogs/recipes/79518531-open-faced-san-geronimo-and-tomato-sandwiches)
There are dozens of artisanal creameries in Central and Northern California. If you get a chance, stop by a few. You'll be amazed by the process of cheesemaking and by the passion of it's makers. In the meantime, check out the listings below for where to buy the cheeses I've mentioned. Also note that the websites often have recipes on how to incorporate their cheeses into dishes.
Hopefully by the time we head to wine country again, all the creameries will be open for tasting and tours. Because in my mind, there’s nothing that goes better with wine than great cheese!
Marin French Cheese: 7510 Petaluma Point Reyes Road, Petaluma, CA 94952 (http://www.marinfrenchcheese.com/). Purchase online, at your local cheese shop, specialty grocery stores or Whole Foods.
Matos Cheese Factory: 3669 Llano Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95407
(https://joematoscheeseco.com/). Purchase online, at farmer’s markets or specialty markets in Sebastapol or Marin.
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company: 5300 Nicasio Valley Road, Nicasio, CA 94946
(https://nicasiocheese.com/). Purchase online, at farmer’s markets, specialty grocery stores or Whole Foods.