We live in locavore’s heaven in the Bay Area and happily it is not hard to find amazing, artisinal crafted foods such as pasture-raised meats, truly free-range chickens, lovingly tended vegetables and fruits and the miracle that is hand-crafted cheese – the perfect combination of milk and bugs and mold.
I swear I practically live at Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry Building and despite my lactose-intolerance I found that I can enjoy goat and sheep milk cheeses, buffalo cheeses to a smaller extent, and well-aged cows milk cheeses without “difficulties”.
Because of my former position giving culinary tours at the Ferry Building and my Wallace-like tendencies towards a nice spot of cheese I feel that I know rather a lot about our local cheeses. Ferran Adria wisely counseled the crowd at the Castro Theater this month that one can never really know everything (or enough) about food, so I happily accepted an opportunity to attend Cheese School with a dear friend to learn a little more.
The Cheese School is a charming studio space down on Powell Street where North Beach rubs shoulders with the Wharf. For a moderate sum one can spend a lovely interlude sipping local wines, nibbling on fine cheeses and Marcona almonds and listening to the tres charmante Colette Hatch talk about the history, method and flavor profiles of some of the most amazing cheeses from our Sonoma and Marin companies.
Colette is a sprite of a lady with the most delectable accent I have had the joy to listen to and is a formidable authority on all things cheese. She modestly states she is a buyer for Oliver’s Market up in Santa Rosa, but is a well respected international cheese authority. She grew up in the Compte region of France where so many lovely cheeses originate. The owner of the Cheese School is Daphne Zepos and I would love to attend one of the classes that she moderates, her background is likewise distinguished.
The space is airy and light with a demonstration area and retail space as you enter and around the corner is a classroom area.
(I need to make some of these chairs)
I joined my friend and sipped on a glass of sparkling wine as we waited for everyone to gather. Each place setting was set with wine and water glasses, a lovely plate of cheese, and dishes of various accompaniments such as Marcona almonds, baguette, Champagne grapes, fresh figs, Frog Hollow dried apricots and June Taylor cherry conserve.
Each cheese was intensely scrutinized and savored according to Colette’s precise directions.
We sipped a variety of wines with each cheese at certain moments.
- NV Domaine Chandon Brut Classic (Napa Valley)
- 2010 Lioco, Sonoma County Chardonnay (American Canyon)
- Marietta Cellars, Old Vine Red Lot #54 (Geyserville)
Colette’s philosophy is that you should focus on the cheese while tasting with no distractions. You should first smell the cheese, then slowly nibble a piece, savoring the flavor, breathing a little, then having another bite.
What do you smell, taste first, is there an aftertaste, does the flavor linger on your tongue, does it taste different before/after a sip of wine?
- Delice de la Vallee by the Epicurean Connection
- Pierce Point by Cowgirl Creamery
- Cameo by Redwood Hill Farm
- Square by Nicasio Valley Cheese Company
- Tomme Dolce by Andante Dairy
- Shepherdista by Bleating Heart
- Two Rock Valley Hard Goat Cheese
- “New Blue” by Pt. Reyes Farmstead
Delice de la Vallee
Delice de la Vallee by The Epicurean Connection is a soft cheese like a ricotta, a farm cheese, it is from Berkeley and uses Sonoma cow and goat milks. Like any ricotta type cheese it should be eaten within a week of purchase. It has a sweet, barely perceptible smell and tastes fresh and milk with a slight tang.
Collete’s favorite ricotta style cheese is one that she makes herself. It has a light and fluffy texture and has a bit of lemon in it. I had the pleasure (and ability) to make my own ricotta this year and it is the easiest cheese to make at home. It has so many uses, but my favorite is drizzled with olive oil and sea salt or spread thickly on sourdough toast and dolloped with preserves.
Pierce Point by Cowgirl Creamery is from Petaluma and is a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese that uses Strauss milk. It is a summer specialty and is rolled in seasonal herbs and spices during the curing process and washed with white wine. It has a bloomy rind and a creamy sticky texture. It’s a camembert style cheese and soft ripens from the outside in. It tastes very creamy with a little tang when you eat the rind followed by a bite of the herbs.
This is one of my favorite cheeses and you can buy a half wheel from Cowgirl’s shop in the Ferry Building, this is the perfect quantity for two. The softer it feels when pressed the riper it is. You can buy it and let it relax in your fridge wrapped in wax paper or its original wrapping until it ripens enough but not longer than a week or so. This cheese can be frozen at this point, in fact all bloomy rind cheeses freeze very well. If the cheese it is overripe it will have an ammonia-like smell but don’t throw it out! You can make a flatbread or pizza and make sure the cheese is well melted and browned, this will pretty much remove the ammonia scent/flavor.
Cameo by Redwood Hill Farm is an all goat cheese from Sebastopol. The owners at Redwood Hill farm name all of their goats and they are the prettiest little things. Cameo is an aged camembert style cheese, aged for a year with a pungent scent, a soft rind and tangy, creamy tender rind. The flavor lingers on your tongue and is great with red wine. The cheese is not organic but very close to it and the owners are well known for being humane breeders and caretakers of their flock-family.
Square by Nicasio Valley Cheese is from Nicasio (Marin County) and is from pasteurized cow’s milk. It is in the same family as Cowgirl’s Red Hawk or an Epoisse or Tallegio cheese. It is a washed rind cheese that has a reddish appearance and a nice pungency, also known fondly as “stinky cheese”. The interior is buttery yellow and creamy and butter, the rind is a bit more aged and strong tasting with a lasting aftertaste.
The cheesemaker at Nicasio Valley learned from a master cheesemaker in Alsace, home of the Muenster cheese. Muenster cheese was my childhood favorite because we would sing “Monster Mash” as we ate it. This cheese would be wonderful with potatoes such as this potato cake.
Tomme Dolce by Andante Dairy is from Petaluma and is made from pasteurized goat’s milk. It is an aged cheese and has a scent like a Parmesan cheese. It’s very tangy and yet smooth, it has little crystals inside like a good Parmesan but this cheese has a special twist. The rind is washed in June Taylor’s plum preserves with brandy and has a gorgeous sweet, caramelized flavor. What an incredible effect and very creative.This cheese melts very well and I would love to make a pasta with it, providing of course I don’t eat it all out of hand first.
Shepherdista by Bleating Heart is from Sebastapol and is a raw sheep’s milk cheese. The cheese maker, Seana Doughty, is an amazing artist. This aged cheese has a scent like an old cave and an apple orchard. It is aged 60 days (which is why raw milk can be used, more about that later) and has fine grain with tiny holes. It is salty and has a tang with a very chewy rind which tastes like intense mushrooms or porcinis. It has a very long finish and was so delicious with the figs and the preserves.
Two Rock Valley Hard Goat Cheese
Two Rock Valley Hard Goat Cheese by DeBernardi Dairy is from Petaluma and is made from raw goat’s milk. It has a sweet, floral and almost perfumey aroma for a dry aged cheese. A crumb of it on the tongue yields a nutty and tangy flavor, almost like a Parmesan style cheese. Don at DeBernardi recommends serving Two Rock in chunks, drizzed with an aged balsamic vinegar. I have used a Parmesan similarly in the past, drizzled with a drop of champagne vinegar and truffled honey, it’s like the best part of a salad with out the greenery. Save the greenery for the olive in your martini!
“New Blue” is the newest blue cheese from our friends at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Their original blue cheese is a gold medal award winner and their “New Blue” surely must be destined for the same accolades. This is a new recipe of pastureized cow’s milk and is very different from their original. It is very strongly scented, almost like a fresh truffle, with a creamy and grainy texture on the tongue. It is very rich and intensely flavored like a blue cheese should be, with a good salt balance and a sweet finish. This cheese has a slightly squeaky crust when chewed. Point Reyes is selling it at their stall at the Ferry Building farmer’s market, so if you get to try it and you like it please be sure to email them to request it is added to their regular production. Colette likes snacking on “New Blue” with Robert Lambert’s jelly, which I must now go seek out.
We lingered over the delicious wine and discussed the vineyards. The Lioco Chardonnay was quite nice, not oaked which is something I quite appreciate. The tasting room is located in Santa Rosa and an appointment is needed to visit. The Marietta Cellars Zinfandel has been a favorite of mine for a while, because I love Zins. This is not a haute couture wine but valued at a good price for the right reasons. They don’t have a tasting room so please order some wine and trust me.
Colette discussed at length the problem we have in the US with the FDA laws against unpasteurized cheeses. While the intent of the FDA’s stricture against raw milk cheeses except those aged over 60 days is commendable – protect the public against harmful bacteria like Listeria – but it has a decided negative effect against the quality of our cheeses. If you have had good cheese and wondered why the neon orange grocery store cheddar doesn’t taste like English Stilton the answer is raw milk. Of course England now faces the ban of raw milk cheeses, as perfectly illustrated in my favorite episode of Chef! from the BBC.
Many cheesemakers are lobbying to government to allow them to make and present their product in the manner in which they choose, and not to be blindly regulated nor restruct their rights and freedoms while respecting the necessity for cleanliness and sanitation. A cheesemaker will not be in business long if they do not follow tenants of proper sanitation and we rarely hear of anyone dying in France from cheese consumption, except perhaps through excess consumption.
Despite the bureaucracy the cheeses made with pasteurized milk are delicious, as I hope you will learn once you try a few of these local gems. Imagine though, in your minds eye, just how much better they could be if our cheesemakers had a free hand to legally craft the kind of cheese they aspire to create with raw milk as it has been done for hundreds of years. Sigh.
Another question people commonly have about these artisan cheeses is why they cost so much more in comparison to “commodity” cheeses. A lot of has to do with the price of materials, method and time. Sheeps milk, for example, is very expensive in comparison to cows milk. A dairy sheep only yields one gallon of milk per day! The quantity of cheese from the raw materials and the net loss in weight due to aging the cheese results in a higher cost to the cheese connoisseur. Whatever the milk used in a cheese, the hand crafted cheeses are just that, they are handled, inspected, washed, aged, and loved and the result of this work is flavor and texture that just can’t be duplicated in a huge machinated factory.
How do you keep a good cheese good at home? It is very important to consult with your cheese shop about the ripeness of the cheese you purchase and when you plan to serve it. They will advise you how long your cheese will stay in your fridge and when is it optimal to serve. Cheeses are best stored by unwrapping it from its plastic cover, should it have one, and rewrapping in waxed or parchment paper. I purchased some lovely French wrapping paper from the Cheese School that has a special permeable plastic layer fused to parchment paper but the less expensive alternative is good old waxed paper. Do not use plastic wrap or zippy bags! The cheese is a living organism and will sweat if kept airtight.
For some cheeses like cheddar the mold that forms on the outside is not a bad thing, the cheese is continuing to age and the moldy parts just need to be cut away before using. A mold on a soft cheese like a goat (other that what appears on the rind naturally) is probably not a good thing and should be discarded. The wrapped cheeses should be stored in a box, ideally, to retain moisure as a refrigerator is a drying environment. Every time you use the cheese throw out its old wrapping and wrap with fresh paper before replacing it in its box. Cowgirl Creamery has an adorabe wooden box for cheese storage, I treated myself to one and adore it passionately.
A few final thoughts about cheese that I believe are the most important, which is about serving cheese. Forget about an overly sweet dessert the next time you have friends over for dinner. Present a cheese plate instead! Pick a cow, a goat and a sheep’s cheese and cut thin slices like Colette did in our seminar. Allow the cheese to come to room temperature before serving, not warm but just to get the chill off. Sometimes it is best to do this after you slice the cheese because a firm, cold cheese is easier to handle. Serve with some quince paste, nuts, dried or fresh fruits, a few favorite crackers and perhaps some chocolates. Accompany your beautiful cheese plate with a dessert wine or port and you have a delicious and memorable dessert that everyone will appreciate. And if for some odd reason they don’t appreciate it, then you have more cheese for you!
The Cheese School
The Epicurean Connection, cheesemaker Sheana Davis
Redwood Hill Farms
Nicasio Valley Cheese
Andante Dairy, cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan
Bleating Heart, cheesemaker Seana Doughty
7955 Valley Ford Road
Petaluma, CA 94952
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company