A Day on the Farms

We got to see baby Water Buffalo! That may not be enough reason for you to get up in the early morning fog and hop on a van that promises to take you to three farmstead creameries, but that was enough incentive for me. Luckily Wally, my partner in adventure and my husband of 35 years, will jump on any bus that holds the promise of fresh Water Buffalo Mozzarella.

water buffalo at Ramini Mozzareally

Water Buffalo at Ramini Mozzarella

The tour was part of the California Artisan Cheese  Festival that is held in Petaluma each spring. We chose this one because each creamery had animals on property (so we got to see baby animals), each had different animals, and all were family run.


First up: new kid on the farm Ramini Mozzarella.

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

Milking Barn and Cheese Room

One of only two small Water Buffalo farms in Northern California, Ramini is determined to duplicate his Italian ancestors steps in making top quality Mozzarella de Bufala. Listening to him enthuse as he speaks of his herd – 36 buffalo with only 10 milking currently- and the process of milking and making the cheese all in one day you know this is truly a passion. Why else would you spend all day milking your buffalo, hand making the cheese, and taking exceptional care of all your animals? It is one loooong day.


IMG_4398But his pride is evident, as is the taste, as we sample a plate of his cheese with tomatoes and basil. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.
Some facts about Water Buffalo Farming and the Cheese: The milk is about 10% fat, three times the fat of cow milk. His babies stay with the mom for about a week, then go down to nursing once a day, but they will naturally start eating grass after about 3 days and will be on full grass after a month. He keeps them with the moms during the day, they both do better as a result.

Second: Valley Ford Cheese Company, they’ve been a dairy farm for over 90 years.


Valley Ford

The Cheese Company was started in 2008 but the roots to this dairy go back to 1918 when Pietro and Maria Bianchi bought 640 acres for dairy farming.   It has stayed in the family all these years and its primary business is still to sell milk, with Clover Stornetta being one of their clients.   Pietro’s granddaughter, Karen Bianchi Moreda, who had been working with the dairy most of her life decided she wanted to try her hand at artisan cheese making as well.   Leaning on her family’s Northern Italian heritage, but using the terroir of Northern California, she fashioned Highway One, a semi hard Fontina style cheese with grassy notes, and Estero Gold, a harder cheese with a nuttiness like Asiago, that develops and crystalizes as it ages.   She sells the Estero Gold at 6 months and 18 months. She now has a 12 month Estero Gold that we love, but sadly it isn’t on the open market just yet. But we are standing by.


Valley Ford Cheesemaker, Joe Moreda, giving us a peek of his test batch of gorgonzola



Calf at Valley Ford


Third: Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese, an irrepressible couple who, in addition to running a cow dairy, decided to make goat cheese so Bonnie, the wife, could keep all of her goats. All 160 of them!  Bonnie and Don have been married for 49 years, their enthusiasm for their goats and their cheese provided laughter and inspiration.


Bonnie DeBernardi

Ah, I’ve heard this story before. It could almost be the beginning of a joke: A woman buys a few goats…kind of like, “a man walks into a bar…” or “there was a priest, a rabbi and a minister.” This time the woman is Bonnie DeBernardi and she buys 2 cute Nubian goats (those with the bunny like floppy ears) for her grandkids to play with. That was back in the 1990s. Now she has 160 goats which she tends personally while her husband Don makes goat cheese three times a week. This is in addition to running a dairy farm. Those goats, so cute, so alluring. And thank goodness! The cheese Don is making is delicious.

Don DiBernardi

Don DeBernardi

Like many farmers we’ve met in Northern California Don is of Swiss and Italian Heritage. He decided he wanted to do what his Granddad did, so off her went to study cheese making with relatives in Switzerland. He also had an expert come in and help him after his first few batches had gone wrong. He has the smallest cheese making room I’ve ever seen and a small shed that acts as his aging room. At the age of 70 he still finds joy in each batch and expresses wonder at each one, somewhat amazed by it all. After tasting his goat brie and his 6 month semi hard goat cheese I was amazed too. I hope to have his cheese at Fancifull soon. Right now he is only selling in Northern California, but if I have my way, I’ll get a wheel or two down here as well.


Baby goats


Mom and Baby

I relish the opportunity to visit these farms firsthand. One gets to smell the air, meet the animals and get a true view of what it takes to bring a cheese to market. This isn’t something you do because you have nothing better to do.

The word passion comes to mind often as I talk with these artisans. I look it up and see it comes from Latin, Pati which means “suffer.” Now that is interesting. I don’t think any of these people would say they suffer, but they do work long hours, are slaves to their animals, and will throw out a whole batch of cheese they have worked on for months if it isn’t right. They wouldn’t have it any other way.



A goofy looking one, but persistent in getting attention

I want this one

I want this one

American Goat Cheese

Goat Cheese Assortment

I can’t believe I ever hated goat cheese. Seems impossible, as I gladly slice a piece of Central Coast Goat Gouda, looking forward to its rich nuttiness and creamy texture. I had the same arguments many of my clients post when coming to our shop, “it’s too earthy, too goaty, tastes weird.”

But then a trip to France in the ’90s, and a baguette with goat cheese, basil and tomato bought from a street vendor, changed all of that.

My theory is that much of American’s exposure to goat cheese came from France in the 1980s and ’90s. It was shipped over and sold who knows how long after it had been made. Goat cheese is a perishable product. And whereas old goat cheese won’t kill you, it can get stinky, lose its texture and be extremely disappointing. I am sure many a distributor hushed complaints and said, “It is supposed to taste that way.”

Ash covering, a traditional way of finishing goat cheese that also helps its P.H. levels, helped cover flaws and contributed to the misconception that these were blue cheeses. I still have many customers ask me if the ash down the middle of some goat cheeses in a blue mold. No, it is a line that traditionally separated the morning milk from the evening milk. It is also said that housewives in the Loire Valley, where much goat cheese comes from, would make it and then cover it with ash to protect it. It is more decorative these days.

The one and only "cheese master," Mark Keen from Cypress Grove Creamery.

The one and only “cheese master,” Mark Keen from Cypress Grove Creamery.

Fast forward about 10 -15 years and goat cheese production in the U.S. is huge. It often starts off small; goats are easy animals to have if you have some land. Mary Keen from Cypress Grove got a few to have an inexpensive source of milk for her kids. One goat leads to more and then you have more milk than you need, so you of course make cheese. That is sort of how it happened with Cypress Grove, one of the better known goat cheese makers in America.

You find many women goat cheese manufacturers just for the reason that goats smaller and easier to handle than cows and require a lot less land. It starts off simple and then just mushrooms from there.

Knowing American tastes, American makers have now found ways to temper the goat cheese and indeed make it less “goaty.”

Tumalo Farms in Oregon told us that they keep the male goats far away from the female goats, in their own “bachelor pad.” If the females get a whiff of them they will release a hormone that can flavor the milk.

Tumalo Farms has French Alpine and Saanen (Swiss) goats.

Tumalo Farms has French Alpine goats.

The way the milk is mixed can have an effect on the taste; beating too much can release an enzyme that will flavor the milk. The result of this technique for Tumalo Farms is a delicious cheese with notes of brown butter and nuts, as well as 3 consecutive gold medals at the annual convention of the American Cheese Society. Even die-hard, “I don’t do goat cheese” people have been converted.

Goat cheese has come a long way from the French Crotin or Pyramid. We still love a good crotin, one of our favorite cheeses, but there are just so many options out here in the wild terrain that is the American Cheese Industry. There are restrictions that exist in Europe; the AOC/DOP status that means a cheese, or wine or other product, must be made following well known and laid out rules. We don’t have such limitations in the U.S. which makes for some really interesting cheeses.

On a molecular level, goat cheese has a different structure than cow’s milk. One major difference is the size of fat particles, which are much smaller in goats milk and makes them easier to digest. The protein and calcium content is different as well. We have found many people who say they can eat goat cheese but have difficulty with cow’s milk. Also, the more a cheese ages the less lactose it has, so if lactose causes you discomfort but love cheese, pick a more aged cheese like a Parmesan or aged Gouda.

I began this article mentioning Central Coast Creamery, made in Paso Robles, California. I’ve listed below some American goat cheeses and mixed milk cheeses that are worth a taste. It is not a complete list, but some Fancifull Favorites. If you find others we should know about, please let us know.


Humboldt Fog, Cypress Grove
A Grand Classic, never get tired of this one. This company and their cheeses all have a touch of whimsy.

Goat GoudaGoat Gouda Central Coast Creamery

A semi-hard cheese made with goat milk and some added goat cream that is aged four months or more. This ivory colored cheese is firm, dense and smooth with the slight graininess of a long-aged cheese.


Classico, Tumalo Farms 

This semi-hard, farmstead cheese has a flavor of brown butter and roasted nuts. A hint of honeysuckle lingers on the palate . http://www.tumalofarms.com/


Bucharest, Camilla (goat bloomy rind) Redwood Hill
This small northern California goat farm and creamery is known for their exquisite goat cheeses ranging from classic crotin to their Camilla bloomy rind

Vermont Creamery CoupoleCoupole, Vermont Creamery 

This American original is named for its likeness to a snow-covered dome shape and is one of the creamery’s signature geotrichum rinded cheeses. In the landscape of cheese varieties, it stands out as a distinct goat cheese. http://www.vermontcreamery.com/


Small batch hand made goat and mixed milk cheese worth seeking out http://www.andantedairy.com/

Mixed Milk

Seascape, Central Coast Creamery Seascape

Seacape is a semi-soft goat and cow milk cheese with a smooth, creamy texture and a complex tanginess that make this cheese a true American Original.


Kunik, Nettle Meadow Farms



Rich Creamy Goodness from New York http://www.nettlemeadow.com/

Cremont, Vermont Creamery Cremont

Named for the “Cream of Vermont” is a mixed-milk cheese combining local fresh cows’ milk, goats’ milk and a hint of Vermont cream.