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Best Cheeses: Northern California

Cowgirl Creamery Hilary Green Interview - Tomales

From San Francisco to Humboldt County, if there’s one thing cheesemakers on California’s coast can agree upon, it’s that the region’s milk can’t be beat. A longer growing season works in tandem with the ocean’s tempering effect, creating an ideal environment for lush, fertile pastures that livestock can graze upon for much of the year.  

“Because of the climate, the geography, the shared philosophy for raising animals with respect and integrity, and the commitment to sustainable farming practices, our milk is of the highest quality and the best flavor,” says Jill Giacomini Basch, co-owner of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. And as we all know, great cheese begins with great milk, and if you really get it right—as many of the area’s makers do—it’ll sing of its terroir.   

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese

Tamara Hicks, co-owner of Toluma Farms & Tomales Farmstead Creamery, also attributes the success of the region to pioneers that had enough foresight to enact laws to protect it. In the case of San Francisco’s Marin County, the first land trust focusing on agriculture was established in 1982—as of right now, 50,000 acres are safeguarded with plans to double that number by 2040. Add to the mix a new generation of consumers dedicated to sourcing locally and supporting small businesses, and social media that allows small-scale farmers to market themselves for little to no cost, and you’ve set the stage for a burgeoning artisan cheese scene.  

So, how do you experience this phenomenon for yourself? Hicks has a few recommendations. First, head over to cheesetrail.org and use their interactive map to plan out your curd-filled adventure. In addition to showcasing California’s up-and-running dairies and creameries, the trail also provides info on whether these operations are open to the public for tours and tastings. Speaking of guided excursions, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust provides self-guided ones for those who want to learn more about the state’s agricultural history, while tour company Food & Farm hosts a day for “Cheese Lovers,” taking you to the makers themselves and capping it all off with a gourmet picnic.  

If you’re in it for the munching (let’s face it, we all are), then schedule your visit around the weekend-long California Artisan Cheese Festival held in Sonoma. Another great chance to get your curd on is at the San Francisco Cheese Fest, held annually in September. In need of retail therapy? Artisans such as Cowgirl Creamery, Marin French Cheese, and Wm. Cofield Cheesemakers have shops open year-round to scratch the itch.    

Lastly, don’t forget the state’s Artisan Cheese Guild—unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of its kind in the country. The association works to strengthen and highlight all of the Golden State’s producers and as a result is the best resource for all things dairy in the area.

Best Cheesemaker of California

Central Coast Creamery

When most of your 28-year career has been devoted to facilitating the process of 200,000-plus gallons of milk a day, well, things start to look like a piece of cake—or in Reggie Jones’ experience, a hunk of cheese—when you transition down to small batches of 1,000 gallons. But that doesn’t mean the change has been any less rewarding for Jones, cheesemaker-owner of Central Coast Creamery in Paso Robles, Calif. In fact, it’s translated to over 35 awards since the company’s founding in 2007.  

Before Central Coast, Jones worked for some of the largest dairy and culture corporations in the country. Not only did he develop and troubleshoot dairy products, but he also focused on improving quality and uniformity of production on a national scale. This experience positioned Jones as an ideal candidate for pursuing his own cheesemaking program—if and when he was ready.

With the encouragement of his wife, Kellie, pursue he did, eventually choosing Paso Robles as the creamery’s location. Cool temperatures, long growing seasons, and burgeoning locavore scene aside, the Central Coastal area was also appealing due its long-standing—yet nearly forgotten—dairy history. Amidst abandoned farms, Jones hoped to revitalize and honor the legacy of the land with his venture. Another plus is the proximity to California Polytechnic State University: “Also known as the best dairy university in California,” says Jones. “Paso Robles is a great place to live and, with the wine growth here, it is a natural place where artisan cheese should be produced.”

dream weaver

Central Coast Creamery Dream Weaver

Today, Central Coast Creamery crafts about 180,000 pounds of curds a year and currently offers eight highly acclaimed aged wheels. What makes them a cut above the rest? For Jones, it all starts with the sourcing of local, hormone-free milk from dairy families that Jones and his team personally know and whose practices they’re familiar with. “Without superior-quality milk, you cannot produce superior-product cheese. These close relationships with our dairy farm partners are key to our success,” says Jones.  

Jones also attributes his success to supplementing his own invaluable knowledge with that of his four full-time cheesemakers, all who completed degrees in either dairy, food, or animal science. “We have developed what I believe to be the best team possible… Having strong, educated leaders allows us to continue to improve product quality and consistency.”

At the American Cheese Society competition this year, the creamery won four blue ribbons: one for their aged sheep’s milk Ewenique, one each for their Goat Cheddar and sheep’s milk cheddar Ewereka, and a fourth for Bishop’s Peak, an aged, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese. Seascape, a cheddar-style goat and cow’s milk wheel, also won Best of Class at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest. With no intention of slowing down (Jones hopes to increase output to 300,000 pounds per year) or lowering their impeccable standards, Central Coast Creamery will continue setting the bar high for the rest of California’s artisans, one “ewenique” wheel at a time.

Best Cheeses of California

Bay Blue
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company
Point Reyes Station, Calif.

Featuring a natural rind with blue-green veins punctuated throughout the paste, Bay Blue is as gorgeously rustic as the seaside pastures it hails from. The cow’s milk blue is modeled after Stilton and aged for three months in six-pound wheels. During this process, the blue develops a crumbly yet creamy, dense, fudge-like paste that has garnered much attention for its flavor progression: It begins sweet and earthy on the palate with balanced notes of fruit and nuts before finishing with a gentle tang of salted caramel.  

Fromage Blanc
Cypress Grove  
Arcata, Calif.

An irresistible twist on a classic French recipe, goat’s milk Fromage Blanc from Cypress Grove is an impossibly soft, cultured fresh cheese—not unlike the dairy’s blue-ribbon chévre. But, with the addition of whey, the spreadable curd has a higher moisture content and acidity that translates into a delicate, pillowy texture, a creamy mouthfeel, and a bright, goaty tang. Lightly salted, the fromage blanc is clean and milky to start with citrus notes on the finish.

Bellwether Farms
Petaluma, Calif.

When it comes to most foods, salt and pepper is a dynamite combo. So, why not apply the same logic to cheese? Cue Bellwether Farms’ Pepato, a raw sheep’s milk cheese that’s studded with black peppercorns and aged for two to three months. Smoother and less sharp than the Tuscan pecorinos that inspired it, Pepato still retains a pleasant saltiness with milky sweet and tangy undertones. Whole peppercorns impart earthy, spicy notes that balance out the flaky yet creamy pale ivory paste and, if bitten into, will only intensify—rather than overwhelm—the harmonious balance of flavors.

Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise, Haystack Mountain Cheese Gold Hill, Central Coast Creamery Seascape (left to right)

Central Coast Creamery
Paso Robles, Calif.

For some, the term “seascape” conjures images of beautiful, rugged coastline. For others, it’s a mouthwatering reminder of Central Coast Creamery’s cheddar style by the same name. Produced with an equal blend of local, hormone-free cow and goat’s milk and aged for three months in 10-pound wheels, Seascape is slightly crumbly yet still silky in texture with an off-white paste. With a flavor reminiscent of buttermilk and undertones of smoke and caramel, this semi-firm cheese has a balanced tang and sharp finish that wins over cow- and goat-cheese lovers alike.  

Polina Chesnakova

Polina Chesnkova is a Seattle-based food writer, cooking class instructor, and the author of Hot Cheese: Over 50 Gooey, Oozy, Melty Recipes.

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