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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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.

HumboltFog

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

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.
http://www.centralcoastcreamery.com/

tumalo-farms-classico

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/

RedwoodHillFarm_Camellia

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
http://www.redwoodhill.com/goat-cheese/

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/

Andante

Andante
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

kunik-cheese

 

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.

LAUSD students earn Service Learning credits with RootDown LA

Absolutely love and honor RootDown LA and all they do.

RootDown LA

Students in LAUSD schools must earn Service Learning credits to graduate.  RootDown LA now offers a healthy cooking/food systems training series that lets students earn those credits as they design their own community service projects that support the growth of our youth-driven local food sites.

Thanks Vanya Hollis, teacher extraordinaire at Augustus Hawkins High, for putting this video together!

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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.

American Made: On The Vermont Cheese Trail

There he stood, tough looking but with kind eyes a striking amber color. With the name Thunder along with his long black goatee he resembled a character out of the show Portlandia – northwest urban hip. He was just missing the required piercings and tattoos. Oh yeah, and he is a goat.

Thunder was one of the many acquaintances we made while touring Vermont and striking out on the Cheese Trail. He is the main stud at Fat Toad Farm, that magical place where they make the goat milk caramel our students swoon over at our cheese classes. This small family farm, (they have about 100 goats just next to their red cottage), also makes phenomenal fresh goat cheese. I love the one with Maple – but they only sell those locally, out of a shed they’ve turned into a tiny shop.

A goat named Jupiter, who was over with the other females, stole my heart. She nuzzled and cuddled and made me want to move from my modest Hollywood home so I could have a few goats of my own.

The Calf That Ate My Skirt

Over on the Western edge of Vermont on the banks of Lake Champlain we had the good fortune to get a private tour of Shelburne Farms, a farm and educational center set on an old Vanderbilt Estate. Set amid acres of farmland and trails butting up against the lake there is a glorious hotel with huge porches in what was once a summer home for the Vanderbilts. There are also animals, a petting zoo, a farm, classrooms, an old milking barn that hosts performances, a world-class cheese making facility and some of the cutest brown cows I’ve ever met. Cute to the point of being distracting.

So cute that while talking to the herd manager I was oblivious to the fact that this little creature with the huge brown eyes had managed to consume the majority of my long gauze skirt. I looked down and there it was in her mouth! I slowly pulled it out, like a magician with the scarves coming out of his sleeve; it just kept coming and coming. A little slime here and there but no harm to the skirt. Alison, our tour guide, said a cow had once gotten most of her jacket. They’ll eat anything. Ah, the hazards of hanging with the animals.

Vermont Sunset

The Vermont Cheese Trail had been on my to-do list for a long time. Yes, I am a nerd, as is my husband Wally. We spend many of our vacations talking to the producers of our products at Fancifull, meeting with winemakers, cheesemakers, chocolatiers and such. Traveling to the areas where our food is made gives us sense of place. We get to see the operation personally, talk to the people making the food, smell the air, pet the animals, and feel like we are part of a community.

We are very much a part of the community that celebrates American Craftsmen, while also supporting people around the world who grow food responsibly.
I feel very strongly that they are the stewards of the land. They are growing food that is healthy while also taking care of the health of the planet. They ask us almost as many questions as we ask them. What do our customers like? Is the organic label important? This is a big question because, as one farmer said, “to do that you have to let the government run part of your business.” It isn’t because these people don’t farm organically. But the cost and the rules, often inane, can make operating a small farm with limited resources difficult.

We were encouraged when a farmer in the Hudson Valley told us that more and more young people are coming back to the farm rather than going off to college and on to new careers elsewhere. And they are coming back armed with new knowledge and better practices that make farming viable again. So, whereas a decade or so ago many farms were abandoned, now you have some flourishing due to the renaissance of American food. Yes you may pay a little more for artisanal food, but when we meet these farmers and see all the work they put in, we are getting a bargain. For most of them it is a passion, not just a job. They deserve to live comfortable lives as do their animals. The food they are producing is also higher in nutrients, so this is of personal benefit to all of us.

Thunder

I will try to stay off my soapbox, which I keep handy at all times, but I do think this celebration of American Food is vital to all of our survival. Organics and sustainability makes sense for our planet at large. I often get asked, “Is this fascination with food just a trend?” I hope not. I don’t think it is a trend at all. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not “artisan” food, it was just food. Big industry came in and took over and often went for the cheapest solution, not the best. I think producers will come and go and maybe our zeal will lessen as this becomes the new normal. With any new movement there is bound to be some overdoing. We all don’t necessarily need to know where every particle of food comes from and we certainly should never be pretentious or snobby about it. The people we meet aren’t. They are hard workers who want to create great food. My theory is that once you begin to eat real food it is hard to go back to industrialized food as your main diet. The stuff that is being created by Artisans the world over is just too darn good. And I intend to keep meeting them, one by one, so I can better understand the process and help bring their food to market. That is my passion.

Kitchen Meditation

About to hit the frying pan

Down comes the knife, it glides seamlessly through the fennel. First I cut it lengthwise, along the green veins; four long slices, then I hold that together as I cut along the width, making nice small bites. The 8 inch chef’s knife I am using, one of the few possessions I care for lovingly, was picked up after a knife skills class at Sur La Table. The teacher emphasized the need for a good one, that it was a personal decision, it had to feel good in your hand. Mine fits me perfectly. I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and start slicing.
I hear the leeks sizzling on the stove, and Etta James wailing At Last as the orchestral strings swell in the background. I feel all the worries of the morning slip away as I cut nice even squares of fennel. I breathe deeply, sway a bit to the blues coming from the cd, and concentrate on making small uniform pieces. This is where I relax, in the kitchen. A few minutes earlier I was thinking, thinking, thinking – making arrangements to meet my sister in Italy, who will get over to help grandma with her lunch, organizing the fundraiser at my shop tonight, which flight do I put Rene on, I need to make hotel reservations for New York , oh I forgot to answer Gary’s email, a client is coming at 9 am, can Wally handle it or should I be there…and so on and so on and so on.
But now I have asparagus on the counter behind me and it needs tending . I add a little lavender salt to the mixture of leeks, fennel , celery and garlic I have in my treasured oval copper skillet that used to be my mom’s. I remember the day in the early seventies when we were at the store buying it, another one for her collection of Revereware. She loved looking through the catalog to decide which would be next, hung them on the wall of the kitchen, but rarely used them. “I don’t want to get them dirty,” she would explain. As a teenager I used them as a mirror, loving the copper tone they gave my skin. I’d put my hair in braids and pretend I was Native American, vogue in the mid seventies – this was the era of Cher and songs like Half-Breed. It is the skillet I use the most, partially as a connection to my mom.
The music has shifted to the funkier horns of Tell Mama and I pick up my dance moves as I watch the spinach curl up as it hits the heat. Luckily I am alone so I can do all the very jive dance moves I want – that is part of the therapy. My IPod has playlists for most of life’s activities including cooking. Sometimes it is the jazz/blues styling of Ella and Etta, but then Dean Martin is always a good cooking companion. My guilty pleasure is pure 80s with Footloose, Kung Foo Fighting and some Wham thrown in. That’s when my dancing is at its best – sliding across the floor, hands in the air, maybe a twirl or two.
I know some people unwind in a bath, candles lit with a glass of wine, or maybe a good massage. My sister loves the sense of running, running away from her house and all the responsibilities therein. But for me, it is the rhythmic chopping of vegetables, Wusthof knife in hand, with my favorite music playing. Give me a counter full of washed vegetables and a good knife and my blood pressure drops.
I look at the pan admiring the comingling of the different shades of green and add in chopped tomatoes. The bright red just pops. I sigh, both for the visual appeal and how good this is going to taste. Food for the body and the soul.