Savoring the West

Where to discover firsthand why "It's the Cheese."

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You can make mozzarella too! It's easy!" At the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley's St. Helena, the cheese maker smiled reassuringly as he juggled a lively mass of curd and plunged it into a tub of water. He swirled his fingers around mysteriously, like a magician who prolongs the suspense before producing his surprise. And then, presto! A smooth pearl of cheese the size of a golf ball lay glistening in his outstretched palm.

"OK. Now you try it." The curd felt like a blob of Silly Putty. I knew I was supposed to put it in the water, as he'd demonstrated, and stretch it quickly into a plump round. Instead of coalescing obediently into a satin pillow of mozzarella, my blob drifted apart into rags. What I produced looked more like a handful of egg drop soup than anything you'd slice onto a pizza. Nevertheless, I did learn a thing or two about California cheese makers. They have a lot of patience with cheese maker wannabes and are madly in love with their work.

With more than 50 cheese makers turning out some 130 types of cheese, California produces more cheese than any state but Wisconsin. In addition to its optimal climate, California owes its leading position to its chefs, home cooks, and food-appreciative population. As wine's natural partner, cheese has become increasingly popular in the land of the grape.

Producers are always happy to explain the traditional, hands-on processes involved in producing their cheeses. Some artisan cheese makers have created cheeses that are unique. Their efforts are, according to the Guide Michelin, worth a special journey to your local cheese shop or farmers market. Look, for example, for tangy, melt-in-your-mouth crescenza and the semihard, golden carmody, both from Sonoma's Bellwether Farms; Redwood Hill Farm's nutty-tasting, camembert-style camellia; or Joe Matos's flavorful St. George, based on a Portuguese recipe the Matos family has been producing in the Azores for five generations. The prizewinning teleme from Los Banos's Peluso is soft, tart, chewy. Humboldt Fog makes a silky chèvre with a ribbon of ash in the middle. From California's pioneer cheese maker, Laura Chenel, come sublime goat cheeses, such as the mound-shaped, slightly crumbly taupinière and creamy-textured crottin that is piquant and rich. Both have been crowned "American Treasures" by cheese expert Steven Jenkins, the first American inducted into France's Chevaliers du Taste-Fromage.

Some producers invite you to tour their farms and facilities. Perhaps one of the most picturesque, and certainly one of the newest, is Cowgirl Creamery, housed in a rambling hay barn at Point Reyes Station. Under the direction of Sue Conley, former chef/owner of Bette's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, Cowgirl produces fresh cheeses. Mild, young, unaged, they sparkle with the sweet taste of the organic milk from Straus Family Creamery in Marshall. Choices include fromage blanc, cottage cheese, water-packed mozzarella, a buttery crème fraîche, a lush mascarpone, and quark, which resembles a cross between cottage cheese and yogurt.

Visitors can watch cheese being made and sample the results in the cheese shop, which is also stocked with handmade and farmstead cheeses from Bellwether, Redwood Hill, and Matos. (Only cheese made on the farm where the animals are raised qualifies as farmstead.) Picnickers can find all the makin's in the deli run by former Chez Panisse chef Peggy Smith, who specializes in pâtés, salads, and charcuterie. Perhaps the deli's most popular item is its Picnic Map, which provides complete directions for nearby picnic sites.

Walk into the Vella Cheese Company, off the square in Sonoma, and you might bump into Ig Vella coming from his office to conduct an informal tour of his 70-year-old family business. Vella is a mentor to cheese makers everywhere. His Bear Flag Dry Jack, developed as a substitute for Parmesan when it was unavailable during World War I, is a masterpiece, a California original that holds its own among the world's finest. Vella's Asiago isn't far behind, along with the rice-paper-wrapped teleme, mild to sharp cheddars, and Monterey Jacks.

A century-old factory building in the dairy town of Loleta is the setting for Carol and Robert Laffranchi's 16-year-old business. The cheese room makes for dramatic viewing for visitors, who can sample the 14 types of cheese being formed before their eyes. Cheddar and jack are the Laffranchis' main claims to fame, especially those flavored with smoked salmon, salami, or jalapeños. Queso fresco, a fresh cheese with a crumbly texture and ricotta taste, is a favorite, along with Havarti, fontina, and the limited-production organic white cheddar.

If you're going...

Contact the following for visiting hours:

  • Cowgirl Creamery
    Point Reyes
    (415) 663-9335
  • Vella Cheese
    Sonoma
    (800) 848-0505
  • Loleta Cheese
    Loleta
    (707) 733-5470
  • Oakdale/Bulk Cheese
    Oakdale
    (209) 848-3139

The following do not have tours, but offer mail order:

  • Bellwether Farms
    (888) 527-8606
  • Redwood Hill Farms
    (707) 823-8250
  • Joe Matos Cheese Factory
    (707) 584-5283
  • Peluso Cheese Inc.
    (209) 826-3744
  • Laura Chenel
    (707) 996-4477
  • Humboldt Fog
    (707) 839-3168

For a map/brochure on California cheese, contact the California Milk Advisory Board, (800) 871-3444.

Walter Bulk immediately felt at home in the farm country around the Sacramento Delta. The orchards and dairies reminded him of the family farm he'd left in the Netherlands. He was soon replicating some of his fondest taste memories in the form of the Gouda that he and his wife, Lenneke, began producing in the early 1980s. Preceded by three generations of cheese makers, Bulk picked up tips from notes his grandmother had scribbled in 1898. Following tradition, he ages the flattened rounds of semihard, pale yellow cheese from 10 weeks to eight months to develop its sweet, nutty flavor.

At the Bulks' 4-acre farm, visitors can sample Goudas-plain, smoked, or flavored with cumin, garlic, jalapeños, or basil. A spreadable, slightly tart quark is wonderful with fruit from the on-site farmers market. The Bulks' small bakery makes quark cheesecake brownies, crusty French bread, and, given notice, picnic lunches for groups. Picnic tables on the porch, near the fish ponds, and around the grounds, which include a barnyard with ducks, geese, and llamas, invite lingering. Visitors can watch Walter Bulk at work in the processing and ripening rooms.

There is also a 12-minute video that explains what Laura Chenel calls the "mystery of milk" and the wonders of cheese making. It may look easy; it certainly appears idyllic and even romantic in a back-to-the-earth kind of way.

But take it from an authentic wannabe: It's a lot easier to walk back into the cheese shop and buy whatever you want.

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