Ray Bair's Visit to Barinaga Ranch
Cheesemonger Ray Bair, of San Francisco's Cheese Plus, puts out an occaisional newsletter for customers and fans of his wonderful shop. His most recent note caught our eye: besides featuring a great roundup of NYC-area cheese shops, he also described his visit to Marcia Barinaga, maker of our fall centerfold, Baserri. He graciously allowed us to reprint it here:
A Tale of 2 Thursdays, part 2
Back home in San Francisco, my niece Stefanie is visiting from Arizona. Still jazzed from my fast tour of Manhattan specialty food stores, I arrange for a tour of Barinaga Ranch near Point Reyes while she is visiting. Coincidentally, it's the following Thursday.
The drive up is typical of a San Francisco Bay Area summer day. Fog in the city, so thick you can't see the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge as we drive across. Once in Marin, the sun comes out with the sunshine until we reach the coast again. Then the fog kisses the rolling hills and soft landscape above Point Reyes providing a picturesque and comfortable (especially for visitors from 112 degree Arizona heat) atmosphere.
The 800-acre Barinaga ranch is located on the Marshall - Petaluma road, just
a couple miles off the coastline. In addition to raising sheep and making cheese, The Barinaga's lease most of their certified organic land for cattle production. New to farming and cheese making, Marcia Barinaga left a career as a scientist and journalist to get back to nature and give back to the community. Milking about 65 sheep, she produces a handful of great cheese in a small cheese making room and aging cave fashioned from 3 steel shipping containers.
We arrived around 11:30 and were greeted by the dogs, and Marcia's cheese making assistant. The cheesemaking was completed for the day, and the cheese were being pressed into their forms. The cheesemaking room was warm and moist, and had a delicious smell from the milk. The late morning sun was peeking through the fog and in the window, and if possible I might have just laid down and taken a nap there in that happy place. Marcia was very excited for her new pneumatic press and stainless table, which support the cheese at a slight angle allowing the excess whey to drain off the cheese while the press gently squeezes the modest stack of cheeses fresh from the vat.
From the cheemaking room we visit the aging "cave" - really just a walk-in cooler, but calling it a cave is more romantic, don't you think? There we see a few hundred wheels of cheese in various states of aging. The freshest cheese from a few days ago are still very soft and white, while the older cheese have more color and texture, and are significantly smaller from their plump newborns. Marcia describes how she brines her cheese in a saturated salt water solution for a few hours, then as the cheese matures she "washes" them in a culture solution of b. linens and geotrichum to give maximum flavor.
She says her heritage is Basque, so her cheese is also Basque in style, and name. She went back to Spain to learn about cheese making in the mountains there. She said it solidified her desire to be with her sheep and make cheese, but her true cheesemaking skills were developed while training at a sheep dairy in Vermont. And man is she ever a great cheesemaker! I believe it's her killer combination of being a super human being, plus her love of science, and her overwhelming love of her sheep.
Back out to the cheesemaking room, her assistant is applying soft rubber numbers to the cheese, Today's batch is #50, and so she applies the rubber numbers "backwards" so that once the cheese is aged and firm they will read properly on the surface. Each number is cut by hand and has a unique shape and style, adding to the handmade character of the cheese.
We ventured out to the milking parlor, and to the pasture where her sheep were resting. What a beautiful bunch of gals they were. Sheep are often nervous and tend to stay together, so we just hung out with them for a few minutes and before you knew it, they were coming over to get their heads scratched and get some lovin'. Marcia told us some great stories about the sheep and their names - like "miss panties", whose wool is colored in a way that it looks as if she's wearing underwear.
Marcia told us some heartbreaking stories, too, about the unfortunate responsibilities of raising and sometimes culling sick and unproductive sheep. She mentioned that it might cost her $100 to purchase an animal, and she might only be able to sell it for $200, but if the Vet is called out that's $100 per animal minimum, so there is no profit when that happens. I asked her if she ever experiments with making some unique or different cheese for kicks. She reminded me that each animal only gives about a quart of milk a day, so financially, there is no way she would ever experiment like that. Her goal is to break even financially - she's not sure she'll ever really turn a profit from the sheep dairy business, so every penny counts.
She did however have a little raw sheep milk we could taste if we were interested. If we we're interested? Yes, please! She explained that after milking there is always a little left in the line that is hard to remove, so they just pour it through a few layers of cheese cloth and use it for fresh milk in the house. We all had a small glass - 4 of us - that's just about the entire production from one of her girls that day - a rare and expensive treat. Let me tell you, that was some good milk! My niece's boyfriend, who's relatively reserved, just lit up with joy! It was thick and buttery, and as sweet as vanilla ice cream. Hours later I could still taste that rich butterfat in my mouth - YUM! 3 days later, Ty (the boyfriend), was still talking about that milk.
Marcia had a journalist stopping by, so she had to run. We we're off to get lunch and visit Cowgirl creamery down the road, before exploring the Lighthouse and Point Reyes coast. Thanks Marcia, for a great tour!
We feature Marcia Barinaga's Bi-Bat and Basseri regularly at Cheese Plus. They're great Basque-style sheep cheese made near Marshall, on the Marin coast.