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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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Baby goats

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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.

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A goofy looking one, but persistent in getting attention

I want this one

I want this one

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Artisanal Cheese Definitions

There is much talk of Artisan food in the world right now, we wanted to take a moment and clear up a few terms .

Artisan: Made by hand by traditional methods. A person is there during every part of the process, checking each stage. Artisan Cheese will more reflect the environment and the differences in milk from season to season. Craftsman is a synonym. A skilled person is at the helm.

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Farmstead cheese from these goats at Fat Toad Farm

Farmstead: The animals are on the property where the cheese is being made. The cheese makers have a farm and make the cheese there. Not all artisan cheese is farmstead, Cowgirl Creamery, for instance, gets their milk from Strauss Organic Dairy.

Commercial: As the name implies commercial cheese is made in large batches. It may not have the variations of an artisan cheese but some of it can be quite good. Rembrandt Gouda is one example of a popular commercial cheese. Fromage Affinois is another. It depends on the company and the care and pride they take in their product. And of course, it always comes down to taste.

Industrial Cheese: This is larger than just commercial. There is one company in California that makes 2.4 million pounds of cheese a day. No one sees the milk, it is piped in, pasteurized, put in a tank, buttons are pushed, cheese comes out. This is often sent to restaurants, pizza parlors, food service and used for private label.

Processed Cheese Food: Has a minimum of 51% dairy product by final weight – meaning milk or whey. And it may contain one or more optional ingredients. Whereas there are some spreads that are okay, many add oils, chemicals and artificial flavors to make them shelf stable for years.

At Fancifull great care is taken in selecting the cheese we carry in the shop and design into our Gift Baskets. We take pride in the research we do regarding the food on our shelves and are committed to bringing you the best in a variety of price ranges.

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher's in Seattle

Hand Flipping the curds at Beecher’s in Seattle

Goat Cheese being drained

Goat Cheese being drained

The Golden State

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Opening Night Cheese Tasting

The Golden State

“Eureka! There’s gold in them thar hills.” That was the cry of the 49ers who came to California in the 1800s looking to score a fortune in the gold rush. Now up in the hills of Marin and scattered throughout the state, is gold of different kind. It still of the land, but in the form of milk and dairy products.

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Northern California has long been considered a food epicenter – focusing on family owned farms producing organic product. The establishment of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) helped assure that the area of Marin would continue to support farmers and green space rather than being overrun by condos. You can learn more about MALT here: http://www.malt.org/

The call of gold lured me and Wally to load up our wagon and head up north to those very same hills in March to attend and help with the California Artisan Cheese Festival which was held in Petaluma from March 22nd-24th.

The weekend was filled with tours of local cheese makers’ facilities and farms, seminars (beer and cheese at 9:30 am anyone?), tastings, meals, and a Marketplace on Sunday. We attended our first festival last year and immediately became members of the Guild which gave us the opportunity to help set up and run their booth at the Marketplace. Having to be there at 9 am was difficult, but talking about the work the Guild does and the classes they offer in conjunction with the College of Marin was gratifying.

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New Kids on the Block Seminar

Since we teach classes and hold tastings in our shop, we like to get as much insight as we can from the Cheesemaker perspective to share with our students. This lead us to the New Kids on the Block Seminar early Saturday where we got to listen to and ask questions of four Cheesemakers who were bringing new cheese to the market. They spoke frankly about their development process and the challenges in introducing a new cheese to the American public. Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle lead the discussion with the cheesemakers and asked pointed questions to keep the info flowing. One of our favorite new cheeses is Point Reyes Bay Blue. Cuba, the cheesemaker for Point Reyes, talked about how he has refined this recipe for years before releasing it. While visiting Point Reyes two yeas ago we had the opportunity to try it in its first stages! Patience pays off. The new Bay Blue is astounding and already winning awards. But it took over two years to get it right! That is a lot of time and effort. We felt fortunate to be able to experience its evolution, it gave us terrific insight into the process of taking a pretty good cheese and turning it into a great one.

New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

Luckily for our Fancifull Customers we have an in with the dairy, so they shipped us a wheel even though it isn’t in wide distribution yet. Nice to have friends in high places.

Toward the end of the seminar, our moderator, Janet Fletcher, let us know that she had just released her latest book: Cheese and Beer . I bought one immediately (and had her sign it). It has lots of information that should contribute to some tasty classes at Fancifull in the near future.

At lunch, we shared our table with the folks from Cypress Grove, another of our favorite cheese companies. Wally would eat Humboldt Fog every morning if he could and I have to say the same about Midnight Moon.

The afternoon held a wine pairing seminar with old world and new world cheese and wine. Old World basically means Europe while new world speaks to the U.S. and Australia. The class was very similar to what we offer in our classes at Fancifull but it was fun to be a student rather than the teacher. There is always so much to learn and Laura Werlin, author of several books on cheese, was a terrific tour guide.

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

This cheesy weekend left us brimming with ideas and new product to bring into our shop. There is just so much great cheese out there, how do we sell it all? Answer: One wedge at a time.

OId World/New World Wine and Cheese

Old World/New World Wine and Cheese

How to Assemble a Great Cheese Platter

Cheese, Salami, and Nuts

 Pick 3-4 Cheeses to serve. A general rule is 4 ounces a person but it depends on the time of day and what else you are serving with it.

Vary the consistency of the cheese: a soft fresh cheese, a semi hard and a harder cheese like Parmesan.
Provide three different milk types: a goat, a sheep and a cow’s milk for variety.

Serve at room temperature. Leave the wedges whole with a knife to cut, or cut a few slices to get it started. Decorate the platter with grapes, cucumbers, apple slices…
A nice jam to serve with it would be fun, like Laura Ann’s Blackberry Bayleaf or Raspberry Habanero! Serve with fresh bread. You can also add some simple crackers or a nice crostini.
Open a bottle of wine!!

Suggestions: A Fresh Goat Cheese or Crottin, Point Reyes Toma, Aged Gouda, Ossau Iraty Sheep Cheese
California Cheese: Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam, Central Coast Creamery Goat Gouda, Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar, Cypress Grove Lambchopper
American: Nettle Meadow Kunik from N.Y. (a creamy blend of Goat and Jersey Cow milk), Beehive Cheese Barely Buzzed, Utah (rubbed in coffee), Beecher’s Flagsheep, WA (voted best cheese by the American Cheese Society).

We have a great selection of cheeses in our store. Need a basket with fresh cheese? Try our Cheese 101 Gift Basket or check our Gourmet Gifts page for other delicious gifts.
Need help? Come to our store or call us at 855 313 5680.

Terroir

Terry August in Burgundy at the Romanée-Conti Vineyard

Recently, at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, I was being instructed by a man, bordering on zealot, as to how to try his chocolate. He had what is known as Single Origin chocolate bars, bars made with cacao beans from a specific region of the world. In this case he was talking emphatically of specific plantations. “No, try this one next,” he said, gesturing to the end of the row. “But first rub it and smell, then put it in your mouth, inhale and notice the strong scent of blueberries.” Okay, okay… But, oh wow! A strong taste of blueberries and chocolate indeed. The next bar, from Ecuador, was all about green bananas. The Venezuelan was dark and earthy. Why such a startling difference in taste?

The French word terroir (tair-wah, literally soil), often used in discussing wine, explains a lot of the variation. The idea of terroir is that a specific place, the soil, water, flora and fauna and other factors, makes itself known in the foods that are grown there.
A chardonnay grape grown in France will be different than one grown in Napa. Cows eating grass in England will produce a different milk than cows in Vermont. Which brings us back to chocolate. Oh, doesn’t everything!

Come to a chocolate tasting at our shop on Melrose and taste the difference in fine single origin chocolate or just pick up a few choice bars and have your own private tasting. It might be the most delicious research ever.

Cheese Bread

Wally and Terry in Italy


If there is just one thing I love about my husband (and there are many) it is his attention to detail. This trait of his is one reason he is known for his Cheese Bread. He’s made it ever since I’ve known him. Even when on the road with his band in the 70s, Wally had an electric skillet in the bus so he could make it.

Yes it is simple, but the taste is in the details. He toasts the bread (sourdough) just so, fits the cheese like a tile layer putting together a mosaic, then the salt… I’ll let him give you the full rundown, if he will indulge.

If every chef has their star dish, this would be Wally’s. It has been his staple for breakfast for many a year. Our kids grew up on it. Today I watched him as he grabbed the Point Reyes Toma, like an artist with new paint. “Ahhh…Toma and my fresh tomatoes….”

Cheese Bread. I like the fact that it still excites him after more than 35 years of making it.

But that is another thing I love about him…

Wally: How I Do It.

Ah, so much hoopla about so little.
The first and most important thing is to start with good ingredients.

Bread: No light, airy, squishy breads, please. I generally like a good sourdough although a bit of the fig bread from the Breadbar is also a wonderful choice.
(The Fig Bread is also available at Fancifull and is finding its way into many of our gift baskets.)

A good cheese: Almost any kind of cheese works – but nothing pre-sliced! Cheddar, Brie, Goat Cheese – and today’s choice Toma, are all great.

Options: Fresh tomatoes from your garden are a great addition. Fresh herbs if you like. Slices of hard boiled egg would be great, too.

Toma Cheese Bread


1) Slice the cheese thinly – 1/8th inch. Could be grated but it’s easier to use slices.
2) Slice the tomatoes, chop the herbs and have ready any other ingredients you might want.
Tomatoes need to be at room temperature. (They should never be refrigerated anyway.)
3) Turn on the broiler or toaster oven to 400 degrees.
4) Toast the bread lightly in a toaster. For a richer version you can pan fry the bread in butter lightly on each side. Mmmmmm… Today I just used the toaster.
5) Lay out the cheese slices on the bread. I try not to leave any gaps. Don’t let the cheese hang over the edge – it will melt off and fall into the oven. Cover the bread
completely with the cheese.
6) Place the bred in the oven – you can put it on a piece of foil to catch drippings.
7) Let broil for 2 – 4 minutes. Time will vary depending on the type of cheese! Watch it. When it’s melting over the entire surface it’s ready.
8) Pull the rack out and add the tomatoes.
9) continue to broil for up to 1 minute.
10) Add fresh basil if desired. A pinch of salt if desired.
11) Enjoy the aroma while the cheese cools enough to eat!

You remembered to make your tea or espresso, right?

By the way, it was delicious! And my tomatoes this year are absolutely mahvelous.

Fancy Food Show 2010

Attending the Fancy Food Show in New York is not for the weak of mind, heart or stomach. It fills a cavernous 675,000 sq ft jammed with over 180,000 products from 2500 exhibitors representing 81 countries. Whew! You have 3 days to explore and find the lucky ones that will make it back to your shop. You either want to run out screaming or sigh and take a toothpick and start tasting, regretting those reservations you made for dinner because, let’s face it, you won’t be hungry for hours after the convention floor closes.

Exhausting as it is, I do get the chance to meet vendors, see new product and compare products through tasting. This is a godsend when trying to determine which is good enough to make it onto the shelves of Fancifull or be designed into one of our gift baskets. I once was sold on a cherry in liquer that had good packaging. Two rows over there was another manufacturer, with a simple label, but oh my, they were so much better. There was no contest.

I really am a bit crazy about tasting and finding the best. I found a fantastic cheese from Utah that is rubbed with espersso beans giving it a slightly sharp flavor that melts as you hit the more mellow cheese. Next booth over was the guy from Colorado who made wild boar sausage better than what I ate recently in Italy. Sampling, comparing and talking gives me an opportunity to get to the heart and soul of the food, rather than buying due to convenience, marketing or a glitzy package.

The number of artisan producers who had booths at the show surprised and thrilled me. This is an industry ruled by the big boys, who mass produce with often more care to the bottom line than the quality of the product. (I do have to say there are some big companies who do it right, I don’t want to slight them or anyone making a great tasting product). I am proud of the number of American Craftsmen out there who are creating cheese as good if not better than Europe and the chocolate makers sourcing fair and good chocolate as well as the many women I met starting their own baking companies. The good ones really stand out – small doesn’t always mean better which is why tasting the product is an imperitive. Their passion and dedication is contagious and I can’t wait to share their products with you. I delight in introducing you to new artisans and delicious food, it is a mission with me, and one which we can all savor.