When was the last time you searched out organic cheese and what is it? And which cheesemakers in California make organic cheese?
Organic certification of cheese comes down to the animals, the ingredients and the method of processing; all overseen by the USDA National Organic Program.
Animals must be raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. All feed must be certified organic (organic pastures, and no pesticides or genetically engineered feeds). Animals must be allowed access to outdoors, including shade and sunlight, clean and dry bedding, and space for exercise (amount of access and pasture required is outlined and determined by region).
If an animal is sick and antibiotics are the only solution to save the animal, organic regulations require that you save the animal, but then remove it from your organic herd. If this happens, farmers then sell their milk as conventional, or more likely, sell the animal itself.
The ingredients must all be certified organic as well. That includes both the milk and the enzymes (which create the curds). Chymosin, the ingredient produced naturally in the lining of a ruminant’s stomach and solidifies the milk and creates curds, is available as a genetically engineered ingredient. This genetically engineered enzyme is the most commonly used enzyme in cheesemaking. As it is genetically engineered, it is not allowed in organic cheese. If you care about that, and you’re not sure if your cheese contains a genetically engineered ingredient, contact the company to inquire. Or, simply purchase organic cheese.
In processing, only cleaning agents that do not leave a residue are allowed to touch equipment or ingredients.
Organic cheese sales grew 15% a year between 2012 and 2015 and are now estimated to be around $570 million annually.
Want organic cheese? Look for the USDA Organic label. Questions about organic cheese? Just ask!
I remember coming to Marin French Cheese Company as a child and drooling over their Breakfast Cheese, a tiny round of a young cheese. It’s like they wrapped it, not quite finished (which can often be a very tasty time in a cheese’s life – depending on the cheese), and let us in on a tasty secret. At less than $4.00, it’s delicious and a great intro into the oldest continually operating creamery in the country. Over 150 years old!
Then pick up some rustic bread, a salami or jam, some drinks (or they even pre-make sandwiches for you), and have your picnic on the lake just beside their shop and creamery.
It’s a lovely lake surrounded by weeping willows. Perfect for the family, or dare I say it…romance.
Inside their shop, you can also sample and buy their cheese as well as rounds from their partner company, Laura Chenel’s.
Marin French is on the way to both Nicasio Valley Cheese Company (another creamery and cheese shop nearby) and Point Reyes. If you’re going for a hike or wanting to shop in Point Reyes, this is a good first stop along the way.
Next Blog: What about that Mold?
You just ate a bit of the cheese you brought home from the store. But what do you do with the rest?
First thing to know is, your cheese is ALIVE! Not like a scary monster, but essentially it does need to breathe. That’s why wrapping that leftover piece in plastic cling wrap is not such a great idea. You don’t want to suffocate it.
The best thing to do is wrap it in Formaticum paper, wax or parchment paper (wax paper is cheapest, so that’s what I use). Then you can actually put some plastic wrap over it OR put it in a plastic tub with a lid. That way it is wrapped to keep it moist but also has air to breathe. This method works for both hard and soft cheeses. Then pop it in the vegetable drawer (the veggies provide a little moisture).
If your cheese starts to seem a bit dry, wrap it in a damp cloth (a clean one!) and place in a plastic tub. And if it’s too moist, then it just needs a bit more air.
Keep stinky or blue cheeses wrapped and stored separately.
And, of course, if you have a fresh cheese like cottage cheese or cream cheese, leave it in the tub you bought it in, and re-seal it.
If it’s a fresh mozzarella, change the water in it every couple of days.
The main thing to remember is to buy only as much cheese as you can eat in a week. Once cheese is cut into, like a wedge or a slice, it’s exposed to other bacteria in your fridge or air, and begins to degrade. So buy less, and eat more!
Next Blog: What to do about Cheese Mold
“Can I – or should I – eat the rind of my cheese?”
Great question. And absolutely you can. Of course, it totally depends on preference.
It’s always easiest – and tastiest – to try the white fuzzy rind of a “bloomy rind” cheese like Brie or Camembert. That’s natural. And believe it or not, that white matted exterior is actually the flower of the mold that helped create your cheese. I happen to love it. But, if you don’t like it, scoop out the interior and leave the rind behind.
The brownish orange of a stinky “washed-rind” is also edible. Go for it.
When it gets to the hard cheeses, it gets a bit more difficult. They can be tough to chew and very hard. A cheese like parmesan, which has aged for a longtime, can be impossible to eat. But keep those rinds. Don’t throw them away. Toss them in a soup (or freeze them in a ziplock bag for future broths).
Some rinds are just plain tasteless. They may taste like cardboard, or be dusty. Feel free to dislike and discard.
But no rind will make you sick.
There is only one rind that you should avoid. It’s the wax rind of the Gouda and Edam, often glossy and colored red, used to protect the cheese. That’s wax, people! Do not eat it!
Next blog: How to Store Cheese.
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.