Walter Nicolau of Nicolau Farms started with one goat. That turned into 200. As a descendant of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores who came to America and had a cow dairy, Walter had farming in his belly. He simply reinvented himself and the farm. His one Alpine goat, that turned into a flock, a trip, a tribe, a herd (all names for a group of goats), then inspired the making of some stupendously unique cheeses.
I taste a lot of cheese, but at least twice a year I discover one that blows my mind. Walter’s Bianchina does that for me. It’s a blend of cow and goat milk, creamy and addictive. Look for it.
Walter, along with his wife Elizabeth, and children, farms on 30 acres, grows hay and makes about a dozen different cheeses. Besides Bianchina, he makes the award-winning Capra Stanislaus, an aged and nutty goat cheese. I’m never one to use descriptives for cheese. I don’t really get all that. But I’m using the term “nutty” because that’s how Walter calls it. 🙂
But whether you know what “nutty” means when it comes to cheese or if you’re just plain “nutty” yourself, know that if you book ahead, Walter will explain it all to you, show you around the farm and creamery, talk cheese stories, let you taste and also purchase cheese to take home. His farm is just outside the town of Modesto, in the Central Valley, down a remote road. He prefers groups of six or more. After all, he’s got to save time to create more nuttiness.
For the first time EVER, a map shows you every open cheesemaker in California. Address, hours and tour instructions included.
Traveling Highway 99 in the Central Valley? You’ve been passing some pretty great cheese.
Gold Country? There are small, sweet farms waiting to show you around.
Pick up fresh mozzarella and ricotta direct from a Los Angeles creamery.
Travel the north coast and get a grilled cheese by the crashing waves.
Pet a goat on the Central Coast.
The San Francisco Bay Area. Well, you knew it was all there, but maybe you didn’t know the specifics. Now you do!
The farms and cheese and cheesemakers are all waiting for you.
Guest Blog by Jenny Holt, Freelance Writer
More to Monterey Than Jack
When I was a child, my mom always told me not to eat any cheese before going to bed. She insisted that it would give me nightmares. But now that I am an adult and have eaten a lot of cheese, often with a glass of red wine, I can tell you the worst thing you will experience is a little indigestion.
The friars of Monterey made their cheese back when the area was part of the Spanish Empire and then Mexico. But go a little ways north to between Watsonville and Salinas and you can brew a nice set of nightmares. There are a ton of haunted places and hikes across California as well as a full make-your-own cheese trail on CheeseTrail.org.
Follow the Cheese
First, the important bit – the cheese. The Watsonville-Salinas area has two great cheesemakers. First, you have the Schoch Family Farmstead on El Camino Real near Salinas. First farmed in 1944, the Schoch Brothers’ descendants still run the farm and is only 1 of 2 dairy farmers in Monterey County. They produce some excellent Monterey Jack, Mt. Toro Tomme, East of Edam, Junipero and Gabilan artisan cheeses which you can pick up at local stores and farmers market.
Just north of Wastsonville you have Garden Variety Cheese based at the Monkeyflower Ranch over on San Miguel Canyon Road, which specializes in dairy sheep cheese. Their products include fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, and yogurts such as Sweet Alyssum spreadable cheese, ricotta, Moonflower, and Black-Eyed Susan. They have a once a year open house with farm tour and BBQ.
And then Follow the Spooks
Start in Monterey, as it’s California’s original capital, and home to a fascinating combination of wrecked ships, exploring Spaniards, frontiersmen and strange goings-on. To maximize your chances of a scare, check out Gary Munsinger’s Ghost Trolly Tour on Wednesday and Saturday nights, or head over to sites such as Restaurant 1833, home to a fake doctor from England who had a stunningly high mortality rate including a Mexican Governor, before he committed suicide and his wife died upstairs. You can also find ghosts in the Monterey Hotel, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Robert Louis Stevenson House and many other places about town.
However, if you want to stay closer to the Watsonville area, the Old Stage Road east of Salinas is said to be haunted and could be a good hiking spot. Further north there are haunted places such as the Veteran’s Memorial Building, which is said to be haunted by a little boy, and the Dusty Treasures Antiques and Collectibles housed in an 1899 mansion with a fine array of haunted antique objects, ghostly voices, footsteps, and slamming doors. Want to stay somewhere haunted for the night? Why not try the Bayview Hotel Bed and Breakfast in Aptos, which is said to be haunted by its former owners who died in a car crash.
Not all farmers have always been farmers. Some of them have been “quants” (financial quantitative analysts) or corporate and immigrant attorneys. Well, that’s at least what Andrew and Krista did in their previous lives.
Six years ago they took their four children and decided to chuck life in New York City for a farm filled with heritage cows, emus, pigs, chickens, and dogs.
This farm, Long Dream Farm, is the only licensed dairy and farmstead creamery in Placer County, and can be called “back to the simple life, 2010s-style.” Except that it’s a lot of work. The farm is near the town of Auburn in Gold Country.
Andrew and Krista have a vision. They’d like to prove that farming small-scale, keeping the cows with their calves and milking once a day, is sustainable. They rotate their cows between 30 pastures every 2-7 days on about 370 acres over two farms.
They’re idealists and I love that.
With the 1.5-3 gallons of milk they get daily from their milking cows (the rest go to their calves), they make ricotta, fromage blanc, panela, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Small batches. Charmingly small, handcrafted batches. They bring their goods to the weekly Auburn Farmers Market on Saturdays and a few of the local stores and restaurants.
If you’d like to see their farm in action, you can actually stay on site in a cabin and get up early to watch the cows being milked. Or email ahead for a tour. It’s a lovely place with a really sweet family. And it’s hilarious to have the dogs follow you; one likes to carry his dog dish in his mouth.
Win a stay for you and 7 other friends at the Straus Home Ranch in Marin County on Tomales Bay, right in the heart of cheese country. The historic farmhouse (where I happened to have grown up) is on a 166-acre working organic farm. It’s surrounded by eucalyptus and cypress trees and is a 30-second walk from the beach.
While staying at the farm, you can take the Marin County Driving Tour, visiting Nicasio Valley Cheese, Marin French Cheese Company, and Cowgirl Creamery. Plan ahead, and you can take either a scheduled or private tour at Tomales Farmstead’s Toluma Farm or picnic with the water buffalo at Ramini Mozzarella.
All of these cheesemakers are within a short drive of the farm.
The raffle will be held on Sunday, October 30th. Tickets are limited, and cost $5 for one and $20 for five. As of now, whew, your chances of winning are really great!
Second prize is a basket of local artisanal food products (including cheese, of course).
The raffle supports the Cheese Trail – a nonprofit project that helps promote and support California cheesemakers, and by extension, small farms, and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which has, to date, permanently protected nearly half the agricultural land in Marin County.
California is lucky to boast approximately 70 cheesemakers of all types. Most do not have a budget to promote themselves and count on the Cheese Trail project to send them visitors, and customers, while letting the world know about their spectacularly made cheeses.
I head to Los Angeles from time to time and I always drive. The Central Valley is FULL of cheesemakers. And I’m not kidding. It’s sprawling, flat farmland, remote and mysterious. As I headed back to the Bay Area on my latest trip, I decided to stop by three cheesemakers I hadn’t visited before.
The first stop was Dairy Goddess. Barbara Martin, a 3rd-generation farmer, along with her husband Tony, just opened an unpretentious farm stand on the road in front of their 100-acre cow dairy. Housed in a trailer, she carries her own fresh fromage blanc plain and flavored as well as fresh curds with herbs.
I’m always asked where you can get fresh curd, and these are cheese popcorn, in that they didn’t last very long once I opened them. They’re soft and squishy and delicious.
Barbara also sells local meat (from their farm), pickles, jam and dairy items.
Barbara makes cheese with her daughter Tara, who also makes cheese down the road at Peluso Cheese.
After I picked up my items, I drove the twenty minutes to Peluso Cheese where Rene, the general manager, sat down with me and told their story. I knew some history, as Peluso Cheese, makers of the famed Teleme, started in Tomales near where I grew up. It was sold by the 2nd generation to a distributor about ten years ago, along with the original recipe. Today you can pick up Teleme along with cheeses in a cooler at the factory, or they will ship. — Or find Franklin’s Teleme, made by Franklin Peluso, grandson of the original cheesemaker, in stores around the state.
Half an hour later, I stopped by the Portuguese cheesemakers Farmstead Fagundes Old World Cheese. Once again, you can pick up large wedges of cheese for around $4.oo – just as reasonable as the cheese at other stops. Their unique St. John, an ACS winner, defies description. It’s unlike any cheese I’ve tasted, and that’s always a good thing.
Anyway, I encourage you to start your cheese adventure around the state. It’s a great way to see parts of the country you might never visit otherwise. Click here for the full Central Valley Driving Tour.
Being profitable making cheese, let alone breaking even, is no easy task. Especially when you’re small.
Audrey Hitchcock of Ramini Mozzarella has had even more to contend with.
Following her degree in Architecture she designed houses in the Bay Area for nearly two decades. But she’s a farming and cheesemaking newbie. Her husband Craig Ramini, who started and ran Ramini Mozzarella, passed away suddenly after a battle with cancer less than two years ago. Until then, her full time design career helped support Craig’s dream to make fresh buffalo mozzarella with water buffalo milk. Buffalo Milk Mozzarella is a rare and difficult product to make for many reasons and RaminiMozzarella is one of two or three U.S. creameries making buffalo mozzarella.
Left with dealing with her grief and a herd of buffalo that she’d fallen in love with – each named after a rock star – she put her design business on hold and devoted herself to the farm to keep the dream they shared alive.
She now works 15-hour days, caring for the animals, making cheese and delivering it to the handful of restaurant customers who covet the rare product.
She’s an energetic and determined force. She’s making a cheese which is known to be one of the most difficult to properly craft. Crazy as it sounds, she told me that until six months ago, she’d never been on another farm.
Audrey is charming and honest in the spectacular tour that she gives of the 25- acre farm she’s rented which is just a mile or so from the small town of Tomales (an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge). During the tour, she relays the journey of the creation of Ramini and the struggles of running the business. She explains how she keeps the calves with their mothers, a rarity when it comes to a milking herd. She’s figured out how to get the animals, who can be on the stubborn side, into the barns to be milked.
These water buffalo produce one-two gallons of milk a day, a fraction of a cow’s supply. However, this milk has more fat and less cholesterol than cows milk, 11% more protein, 37% more iron and 9% more calcium.
On the tour, everyone gets to see the animals and the barn. You’ll get a generous taste of the mozzarella and can buy some on the way out. You’re free to bring your own picnic to eat within view of buffaloes Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt. The highlght of the tour is when she gives everyone a wire brush to massage the animal’s backs until they curl their tails in pleasure and collapse on the ground in pure happiness.
Book a Saturday tour that starts at 2pm or request a private tour by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Want to take a picture of my ass?” Charley of Jollity Farm asked me. Sweet, reserved, Charley. I’m smiling, but I’m not getting it. Turns out Charley is pretty darn funny. Because then he showed me his donkey, “Otie.” Get it? Don Quixote. Donkey Otie. Yeah. I’m slow.
Charley bought 13 acres – his “Shangri-La” – in 2006, in Gold Country. His place is just a few short miles from the original Sutter’s Mill where gold was first discovered, and the American River, where hoards of fun-lovers come to raft and fish. (half an hour from Hwy 50 or 80 as you make your way to Reno or Tahoe).
The property, located on a gloriously wooded mountain, is covered with oak trees and manzanita. Of all the goat farms I’ve seen in California, this one is truly a goat’s Shangri-La. Goats prefer scrub and brush over pasture. They love the oak leaves and branches, the bark on Manzanita (which regenerates), and even the invasive Scotch Broom. The slightly dried green oak leaves on the ground are their “potato chips” and the acorns are their candy. They’ll scramble to find them amongst fallen leaves.
Charley took this treed property, with its own abandoned gold mine, and built the barn, the milking parlor and the creamery. He has about 40 goats, which include his original Alpine. His fiancée MaryLisa – whose exuberance and graciousness bowled me over – recently brought over her award-winning herd of Miniature Nubian, which has increased the butterfat and adds a creamy element to the cheese.
Charley makes chèvre and feta, and starting mid summer, an aged cheese that becomes wondrously nutty due to the acorns the goats eat. Because his milking parlor adjoins the creamery, the milk is never jostled. Jostling the milk is one factor in creating that “goaty” taste. Charley’s chèvre isn’t “goaty” at all (Not that “goaty” is bad. It’s just a matter of preference). The cheese is rich and creamy and full of flavor. After I left I couldn’t keep my hands out of the feta. It was my candy for the rest of my drive.
You can pick up Jollity cheese locally in Placerville and at various farmer’s markets close to the farm. Plus, the farm is open Tuesdays from 9am-noon. You can peek into the creamery and see the goats and purchase cheese. Or if you come by when the farm is closed, at the bottom of the hill, you can park your car and pet goats hanging out close to the road.
Charley, is a really nice guy, and he makes some really nice cheese.
Yup. There’s a newly updated App for Cheese Trail. And if you’re into cheese, it’s a slam dunk way to get yourself off to visit cheesemakers. The best thing about the app is the google map integration. You can pick the cheesemakers you want to visit and it will create a driving itinerary for you.
Or if you’re wondering what cheese events are happening now, or even next month when you might be visiting a certain area, check the Events for a listing by date of what’s happening, from classes to festivals to tastings.
But honestly, my favorite part is the Driving Tour section. If you’re planning a trip to the Central Coast, it will suggest what cheesemaker is available for visits. The Central Valley has five open cheesemakers, making a drive to or from the Bay Area to Los Angeles a whole lot of fun.
And if you live in Los Angeles, did you know that you can get bulk fresh mozzarella and burrata directly from the cheesemaker?
If you’re looking for something different to do on the road, and you love cheese, this is app to have. (oh, the same information is on the website!). Download links are below.
I’m a sucker for visiting farms and cheesemakers. So, I jumped at a full day Central Coast cheese tour with
First stop was Central Coast Creamery in Paso Robles, where Reggie Jones, owner and cheesemaker, took us for a tour. He led us through his immaculately laid out new creamery and we sampled his full line of cheeses made with goat, sheep and cow’s milk. His Holey Cow is the only Swiss cheese made in California. It doesn’t taste like one of those rubbery swiss cheeses I’ve disliked my whole life. It’s amazing and creamy! He told us the cows that provide this milk eat a truckload of carrots each day, which is why the cheese is so yellow.
Once we left, the bus turned off coastal Highway 1, onto a road no one would take unless they had a reason. The bus driver drove at a pace reserved for turtles, up small hills (more like bumps) and around corners, along a five-mile road. We could see nothing ahead, until we came to the opening that is Stepladder Creamery. If I lived there, I’d probably be too lazy to ever leave.
Jack Rudolf, the grandson of the owner, greeted us amidst a charming cluster of vintage barns. The compound was both quiet and filled with projects. In exchange for managing the ranch, Jack raises his goats and makes cheese in a creamery he’s built inside the historic barn. You can’t even tell from the outside that it even exists. The farm also has beehives, producing, honestly the best honey I’ve eaten in a long time, plus passion fruit and avocados. Everyone was allowed to play with the kids (baby goats). Then lunch made by a local caterer was served.
Like many goat and sheep farms, they have their guardian dog, who makes his home with the animals.
Our final stop was Rinconada Dairy where we watched the goats being milked, gazed at huge sheep and sampled cheese and wine from Seven Oxen. Sadly, I’ve recently heard that they’ve stopped making cheese since our visit. But as far as I know, they’ll continue to milk their goats for other cheesemakers.