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Los Angeles Times
Nibble and sip your way along Northern California's Cheese Trail
By Kazz Regelman,
The blue cheese ice cream sandwiched between gingerbread cookies at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. isn’t the only surprise in Northern California’s wine country.
Just as wines put Napa and Sonoma counties on the map in the 1970s, farms there and in neighboring Marin County are attracting attention with tours and classes on cheesemaking, as well as offering tasting tables groaning under the weight of cow, goat and sheep cheeses. It’s a whole new way to experience wine country or, should we say, wine-and-cheese country.
“On the map” is not just a figure of speech: California’s official Cheese Trail map shows almost 80 cheesemakers, with the highest concentration in wine country north of San Francisco. Many host regular events, including the first on the alphabetical list.
For $30, Achadinha Cheese Co . in Petaluma offers Saturday morning tastings and tours of the ranch’s 600 goats and small herd of Jersey cows. Owner Donna Pacheco brings visitors to the open-air milking parlor and "loafing" barn “to see the animals, their shiny coat and how healthy they are.”
Cheesemaking classes are on hold until the pandemic subsides a bit more, but in the meantime, don’t miss tasting the Broncha, a European-style hard cheese with notes of hazelnut and sweet grasses, made with goat and cow milk.
Nearby Point Reyes Farmstead also hopes to reopen soon for tours, taking visitors around the ranch to learn about its ecological efforts, watch self-milking machines in action and see a photograph of Milmay, a bull whose sale put the founder’s four daughters through college.
The Farmstead has reopened cheese tastings on the patio overlooking the rolling hills, where visitors can take virtual tours of the property by tablet. Two 90-minute tasting options are offered: the Cheese Lovers ($45) and Taste of Point Reyes ($35) on Fridays and Saturdays with seatings at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Both cheeseboards include its biggest seller, Original Blue, its cousin Bay Blue, and nutty Gouda and Toma, accompanied by artisanal crackers, olives, dried fruits and chocolates. The Cheese Lovers experience includes several variations of the Toma: Japanese-inspired spicy TomaRashi, French herb-infused TomaProvence and earthy TomaTruffle.
Tastings can include charcuterie, gourmet grilled cheese, specialty mac and cheese, and — if you’re brave enough — quirky, cheesy ice cream sandwiches.
During the pandemic, Point Reyes Farmstead built a small film studio to allow distanced events, which were so successful they will continue post-pandemic. Co-owner Jill Giacomini Basch said, “It lets us reach a bigger audience than could ever visit in person, to people all over California and the U.S.”
Guests receive deliveries of farm-made cheeses (and wines or ingredient lists, as needed), then log on for a virtual farm tour followed by conversation, education and tasting.
Basch thinks calling these sessions “virtual” is a misnomer because “there’s nothing virtual about tasting these cheeses and foods. It’s a totally real, authentic experience. The cheese is there and you’re really enjoying it.” On one call, as many as 300 people signed in from all over the country to experience the process of cheesemaking.
Sheana Davis, owner of the Epicurean Connection , a small gourmet caterer and cheese school in Sonoma, hosts in-person classes on Thursdays and Saturdays in a warehouse so airy it was classified as outdoor space under pandemic regulations.
Her most popular offering is a 90-minute class on how to make ricotta. The $125 fee includes a cheese cloth, ladle, recipe card, artisanal cheese and wine tasting. She also leads plant-based cheesemaking classes and, coming soon on Fridays, a class for French-style chèvre, crème fraîche and fromage blanc, and one for feta three ways, with cow, goat and sheep milk.
For Davis, the pandemic gave rise to virtual classes in which supplies (cheese cultures) and shopping lists (for milk, cream, salt and vinegar) are sent in advance, with the cooking class happening online in real time. Now that visitors are showing up in person, these online events are for groups only.
By the end of a virtual cheesemaking class, students have their own 2- to 3-pound wheel of cheese as well as recipes for chowder and poached salmon that use the whey byproduct. A cheese-and-wine tasting is held in conjunction with Benziger Family Winery, with both cheese and wine the products shipped to your door.
Davis also teaches groups at the Silverado Resort and Spa, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa and at the Kendall-Jackson Estate wine and cheese pairing program.
As wine country is more than just grapes, cheese country is more than just cows. Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales has goats, sheep and a herd of water buffalo used to make Italian-style, handcrafted mozzarella di bufala.The two-hour, $45 tour and tasting includes the chance to “snuggle with some baby buffalo,” said owner Audrey Hitchcock. The calves, which start at 60 pounds but might weigh as much as 200 pounds, are born year-round.
Hitchcock’s late husband and company co-founder, Craig Ramini, used to say that, as with wine, “There is definitely a terroir that comes with milk. This is pasture-raised. … These animals convert grass to milk, and I convert milk to cheese. It’s that simple.”
Just as visiting wineries and vineyards educates and expands your palate, touring these farms gives you a heightened appreciation for the cheeses and for the labor that goes into making them.
As we emerge from the pandemic and vaccination rates rise, we can expect a return of even more cheese-related tours, tastings, pairings, classes, book signings and themed meals.
Reservations are usually required — and may be difficult to get. When operating at full capacity, Point Reyes Farmstead posts on its website signups for live events, tours and classes once per quarter on a Wednesday at 11 a.m. — and they are often sold out by 11:03. It’s like trying to get a Beyoncé ticket, though Basch said, with an inadvertent cheese pun that’s probably an occupational hazard, “We do churn through the waitlist: There is always hope.”