Point Reyes Invents a New Kind of Blue
When Bob Giacomini and daughters decided to go into cheese-making, they built a cheese plant first and figured out how to actually run it second. If this sounds odd, it was. But the Giacominis not only had pockets deep enough to afford it, they had the milk. They owned a 700-acre dairy farm on Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, with 500 Holstein cows.
After luring the manager of the Maytag Blue plant in Iowa to oversee the new Californian cheese works, they began production in August 2000. The result is Point Reyes Original Blue, a moist and rich blue cheese that may become an American classic.
The test will be if it can wear its business plan origins proudly while still aiming for the top end of the market. Point Reyes Original Blue is to cheese what boy bands are to pop music: a marketing invention. The Giacominis have put their money where their dreams are. If they succeed in launching a new cheese, they may become a model for dairy farmers to keep their herd sizes down and incomes up in the intensive California milk market.
Since buying his Tomales Bay ranch in 1959, Bob Giacomini was largely content to work in this market and send the milk he produced off to the local co-op for pasteurization and homogenization. But as he entered his 60s in 1998, he had accumulated a massive herd of 500 Holsteins. This is roughly 10 times the scale of the average Wisconsin farm and, while increasingly typical in California, it is not ideal for the farmer, the livestock or the environment. He wanted a change.
“I wanted to downsize the herd to take the pressure off me and off the land as far as pollution control goes,” he says. Five hundred cows in one place, he explains, produce a lot of manure, which washes into the bay after heavy rains and poses a threat to local oyster beds.
One way to do this, but retain income, he realized, was to turn to cheese-making. Milk commands a better price in the form of cheese. If he made enough of a type capable of commanding a decent premium, he reckoned that he could reduce the size of the herd. This equation is so basic to the Giacominis that they are still as likely to call Point Reyes Original Blue a “value-added dairy product” as “cheese.”
But the “real main” reason that Bob Giacomini says he decided to go into cheese-making was his daughters. “The girls didn’t want to be in the dairy business,” he says, “but when we mentioned a cheese plant, they jumped up. It’s brought the family back on the farm.”
Three of his four daughters--Lynn, Jill and Karen (the fourth daughter, Diana, works in banking in San Francisco)--then set about deciding what type of cheese they should make. Hard? Soft? Edam? Camembert? “We had no background, no experience in cheese-making,” says daughter Karen. “We all have business degrees.”
So they canvassed chefs, shopkeepers and dairy industry wonks. “Time and again the word ‘blue’ came up,” she says. “We also learned there was no premium California blue, especially a farmstead. We thought, ‘Hey, there’s a hole out there, let’s fill it.”’
After more than a year of research, in June 1999, the father and daughters began converting an old barn into a state-of-the-art cheese plant with two 1,500-gallon vats capable of producing more than a quarter-million pounds of cheese a year. The family refuses to say how much they’ve spent on the project. They knew what to do, says Karen, “from visiting other plants around the country.” But by the spring of 2000, they still didn’t have a cheese-maker and the most they had done to learn cheese-making was to take a several-day mini-course in Minnesota.
Then they met Monte McIntyre. If Point Reyes Original Blue began anywhere, it began in South Dakota, where Monte McIntyre was raised on a dairy farm. “I grew up in a family, what I would term a Velveeta-type family,” he says. “We really didn’t have a taste for fine cheese. But even as a child the few times we would have a meal in town, on my salad, I would always order blue cheese dressing.”
McIntyre drifted through early adulthood until he came back to the lactic magic of dairy. When he went to college for the first time, it wasn’t to study dairying, but the history of the West at the University of South Dakota. After serving in the Army in the 1960s, there were more history courses, business courses, jobs in electronics, sales and even stabs at a construction business.
Only after returning to the classroom to study cheese-making at South Dakota State University did he find his calling. In 1990, at the age of 43, he was hired by the Maytag family, the heirs to the appliance company fortune, who had a blue cheese plant in Newton, Iowa. The Maytags had taken up cheese-making in 1941, for much the same reasons that now compelled the Giacominis: to escape the grind of the liquid milk market. In 10 years there, McIntyre increased the company’s production four-fold and learned to love the challenge of making soft, wet, Danish-style blue cheeses. Steve Jenkins, a New York cheesemonger and author of “Cheese Primer” (Workman, 1996), refers to Maytag Blue, as “an American treasure.”
McIntyre’s move to the Giacominis in July 2000 was the result of matchmaking by the California Milk Advisory Board, which put the two parties together. McIntyre praises the job the family did designing the cheese plant, saying very little tweaking was required before starting production the next month. Where discussion became bracing, he says, was over how fast cheese could be made, how much, how early and how often. “The family had a target and I had a target and what we are doing is somewhere in the middle,” he says.
You’d have to drug McIntyre to get the recipe. As he offers a tour of the plant, he responds to almost every other technical question with: “I’d rather not say.” Pressed about the recipe, he laughs, “We’re not going to tell everyone our secrets!”
But he will explain some basic techniques, and why his blue cheese is so different--so much wetter than Stilton, sweeter than Gorgonzola, so much less pungent than Roquefort, and most like a mild, rich Danish-style blue. The cream is homogenized, he does divulge, pointing out the piping leading to the machine that busts up the fat globules so when the milk finally forms a curd, it will have plenty of little holes. “In blue cheese I want that quality,” he says. “I don’t see it as a defect.”
While he homogenizes the cream, something that most cheese-makers don’t, he refuses to pasteurize the milk, something most cheese-makers do. “We believe there are flavors and taste in raw milk that you lose if you pasteurize,” he says. In the case of his cheese, he says, aging of the cheese takes care of the pathogens.
The blue in blue cheese comes from the addition of special molds. McIntyre won’t say which brand of blue he uses, or how much he adds when the milk is being curdled in the enormous vats. But he will admit that he likes his blue cheese veining to be on the greenish side. The mold develops in the characteristic veins during aging. To promote this, after the curd is poured into hoops and formed into rounds, it is punched with needles to allow air in for the mold to grow.
It is also repeatedly salted. This is done for three reasons. “Number one is flavor. Number two is to expel moisture. It dries out the curd. The third is really antibacterial. It retards growth of undesired bacteria or yeasts and even other molds.”
Finally, Point Reyes Original Blue is aged in plastic bags. These have enough perforation to allow some evaporation, but far less than an old-fashioned cloth rind. So as the cheese ages, it keeps a soft, wet texture, whiter color and far more water weight than, say, a cloth-bound Stilton.
The upshot is something that has a milky freshness, a salty kick and nice zing of the mold. It’s as close as a chunk of cheese can get to a really slamming blue cheese salad dressing while still remaining wedge-shaped.
The pressure now is economic. Karen Giacomini says that the plant is at 15% capacity. Last January, the Giacominis reduced their herd of 500 to 280 but still sell milk to the local co-op because they are only making cheese in one vat two days a week, and have plenty of surplus.
It’s too early to say if the Giacominis have gambled correctly. If they have, they will send an important message to market that dairy farming can clean up its act, improve the quality of its products and remain profitable.
“It’s a lot of hoping and planning and hard work,” says McIntyre.
Point Reyes Original Blue is available in Southern California at better groceries and cheese stores or online (https://www.pointreyescheese.com) or by phone at (800) 591-6878.
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