Explore Marin's rural backroads and you'll discover independent dairies and creameries.
Northeast of Point Reyes, Marin County undulates into Sonoma County across lush grassland ideal for grazing. Dairy farms have flourished here since the mid-1800s, when an influx of gold miners and pioneers fueled the demand for butter, milk, and cheese. First, European immigrants brought treasured recipes and cheese-making methods from home; years later, Marin bohemians embraced all things organic and locally grown; and—voilà!—one of the country's finest cheese regions was born.
Today, two-lane roads link the tiny town of Point Reyes Station with sunny Petaluma and coastal Bodega Bay to form a cheese triangle dotted with independent dairies and creameries (see cheesetrail.org). Their artisanal wares are worlds away from supermarket cheddar: creamy Bries, mottled blues, hand-patted wheels flavored with pungent herbs or earthy truffles.
Larger outfits offer free or inexpensive tastings, well-stocked deli cases, and inviting picnic tables. Try the celebrated Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station or Petaluma's Marin French Cheese Company, the longest continually operating cheese manufacturer in the United States. Triple crème fans can compare Cowgirl's pungent Red Hawk, with a reddish tint that comes from a wild bacteria native to Point Reyes, to Marin French's buttery, slightly sweet triple crème Brie, a two-time gold medal winner at the World Cheese Awards.
Anyone who believes cheese comes only in tidy slices should also visit one of Marin's smaller sites for a behind-the-scenes look at the messy, magical craft of cheese making. At Tomales Farmstead Creamery's Toluma Farms in Tomales, tours cover everything from milking to cheese mites and include tastings of aromatic Teleeka, a soft-ripened blend of goat, sheep, and cow milk. Barinaga Ranch is another must-stop in April and May, when visitors can pet and bottle-feed fluffy baby lambs as part of an in-depth look at crafting raw-milk sheep cheese, Basque-style. Even bigger surprises await at Ramini Mozzarella, where visitors can meet docile water buffalo and taste melt-in-your-mouth orbs of fresh mozzarella produced with the herd's ultrarich milk.
Wherever your cheese journey takes you, the drive itself is half the pleasure, winding past weathered barns, cheery farmhouses, windbreaks of eucalyptus and cypress, and the foggy edges of Tomales Bay. Returning home to sample your bounty, you can almost taste Marin's fresh grass, salt brine, and dappled sunshine—the signature flavors of a singular terroir.
Photography by David H. Collier
For places to eat and outdoor adventures, check out Marin County: Beauty Meets Bounty.
This article was first published in Spring 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.