I’ve spent what would likely add to up to countless hours contemplating the purchase of various cheeses at locations ranging from Whole Foods to Stinky Bklyn to a “serve yourself” fridge on a country roadside in Western Massachusetts. I clearly remember my first encounter with fancy cheese – most selections likely small batch and artisanal, but I know now that not all were. I had visited the upscale restaurant in Vail, Colorado where my step-sister was a pastry chef and she served my date and me a cheese plate, with the various creamy, salty, and fatty notes counterbalanced by homemade fruit jam or sharp pickles. It was a revelation: like a good relationship, opposite flavors brought out the best in each component. The sommelier suggested a fruity white wine to go with our platter – also a deviation from the typical bold red that we preferred. And he was right, of course. That contrast only heightened the flavors on the plate.
The cheese I remember most from that night was a Dutch Aged Gouda – super salty, with crystals that crunched. Paired with a Colorado peach jam, the saltiness was heightened, the nuances of the fruit clearly defined. We had a deeply stinky blue cheese, I recall as well. Also paired with a bit of sweet. The funkiness of that blue – maybe it was Moody Blue, one of the first artisanal blues that changed many people’s perception of the style in the past decade – was so unlike the crumbles the fancier restaurants I had visited before that time had conservatively plunked atop my side salad. We had (what I would only know to refer to now as) a semi-soft selection as well. As we slowly savored these new flavor combinations, that cheese both mellowed and deepened – getting weirder and warmer and more odiferous in all the best ways. Eaten on its own after we took our time sipping wine and chatting, its flavor was so interestingly distinct from the first taste when the platter initially came out. Paired with a tangy pickle, the fat and funk was mellowed – a counterpoint provided to highlight its best characteristics. My date – now my husband – and I left that cheese course changed people. And today I could recreate a similar platter, that at the time had seemed so revolutionary to my palate – in three minutes flat. But what still keeps me pondering cheese is the eternal search for that same sense of discovery and surprise.
I’ve had enough moments since that day to keep me going: the evening with a group of girlfriends that featured plenty of wine and a wedge of an Italian semi-soft taleggio that sat, ignored, in an increasingly warm room as we laughed and gossiped and drank until we finally dug in to the oozing mass. I had not remembered the flavor of that cheese being so deep and unctuous until it had been submitted to that perfect alchemy of temperature and humidity and a drunken need for exactly that perfect snack. Another moment: my husband was working at a wine and cheese shop and he brought home a new offering from Utah. Beehive Cheese hand-rubs espresso and lavender on a cow’s milk round, creating a product both sharp from aging and sweet from the milk terroir – with complementary notes of flower and earth from the rub. And there have been more revelations at the hand of new cheeses: that moment in deep winter when I tasted the distinct notes of clover from a cheese made from spring cow’s milk, my first burrata, that day I first knew that I was eating a sheep’s milk cheese and could distinguish it from that from a goat or cow – or even buffalo milk selection.
Yet for all of the cheese I’ve eaten, and my relative knowledge of how cheese is made, and even my childhood growing up on a country road with a pair of brown and white Guernsey cows as my across-the-way neighbors, I was still amazed when I first encountered the green rolling fields of Marin County and its corner of the California Cheese Trail. Our first stop, as I traveled with my equally cheese-loving husband, was Achadinha Cheese Company, helmed by Donna Pacheco. Donna met me at 9:30, her morning’s work mostly finished (and mine just beginning). The hills that surround her utilitarian cheese-making building were dotted with cows and goats; this was truly a working family farm with muddy tractor treads criss-crossing the driveway and her eldest son checking in wearing work-stained denim on his way to tend to a field a pick-up truck’s drive away on their property. Her main cheese offerings are a salty goat’s milk feta, a milder cow/ goat’s milk blend that is aged for 2 – 4 months called Broncha, and the more nutty Capricious – a goat’s milk round aged 8 – 12 months. Each was distinct and nuanced, and after seeing the verdant green fields that fed the milk that went into these beautiful rounds (her aging room is a sight to behold for any cheese lover) I couldn’t help but equate these flavors with the terroir around me: wind-swept, sunny, green and lush.
The next cheesemaker we visited was Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Originally a dairy farm, started by Bob and Dean Giocomini in 1959, the cheese side of the business was started with the help of their four daughters in 2000, when the first wheels of blue cheese were made from the farm’s milk. While the view from the cow-dotted green fields was similar at this cheesemaker as at Donna’s just a few miles up the road, the farm also family-run, and the cheese was just as distinct (and award winning! Point Reyes’s new Bay Blue just earned a Good Food Award and is truly a unique blue – when I tasted it, I had another transformational cheese moment), the feel of the place was quite different. The daughters are now primarily in charge of the business-side of the farm, and their father Bob is mostly retired. They have hired a master cheesemaker and keep close tabs on the day-to-day of the farm, but, unlike Donna, are not making the cheese themselves. However, they are still just as concerned with legacy and quality, and while their main office and cheese making building may be a bit more landscaped, the end result is every bit as thoughtful and delicious.
Cowgirl Creamery was our last stop of our brief Marin Country cheese tour. Cowgirl’s story is different still from Achidinha and Point Reyes. They are the big sisters on the block – originally created by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith as a distributor who wanted to help promote and sell the fantastic cheeses they knew were coming out of Marin County and the surrounding area. They eventually added their own cheese offerings, including a unique Red Hawk cheese that can only be made in the town of Point Reyes where specific bacteria and climate conditions are integral to its success. On our visit, we watched a whole team of cheesemakers crafting and wrapping Cowgirl cheeses in their Petaluma production facility from behind large windows. Everything is still done by hand, with close attention to quality, although it is not the relatively small operation of Donna Pacheco’s or the family-run business of the Giocominis. That is not to say that all of the cheese we watched being crafted was not hand made or artisanal – but it does bring up interesting points about the definition of small batch and how companies can responsibly grow, all to be discussed elsewhere.
Which all gives me even more to think about as I peruse an ever-crowded cheese case, in one part of the country or another. Achidinha’s Capricious is unlikely to be available in the northeast, but Cowgirl Creamery often is. I can only hope to encounter Point Reyes’s newest Bay Blue – or their excellent tangy, but meltable Toma – on my side of the country from the best curated mongers. And now I know a bit more of what I am getting (despite their many differences) when I spy a Marin or Sonoma County cheese at my local shop. But what I love most is that I was reminded that I can still be surprised, and often, by cheese – by a unique flavor or technique, yes, but also by the passion of the maker, the beauty of the land from which the milk comes, and the experience of standing inside an aging room just inhaling. For I know that I purchase and enjoy small batch cheese – and any artisanal good – not just for the superior taste and quality, but also for the story behind its creation.