RACKS of goat’s milk cheese are lined up in a tiny aging room: little rounds of a tangy young cheese called Petit Marcel; log-shaped buches that in another week or so will have bloomy crusts surrounding their mild, luxurious interiors; and rows of paves, rather majestic blocks of cheese with slightly rumpled rinds and swathed traceries of white bloom -- four-sided truncated pyramids that look like a classic Valencay from the Loire Valley.
But these aren’t cheeses from Sainte-Maure or Berry in France -- they’re distinctly Californian. And unfettered by tradition, the latest wave of California cheese makers are creating exactly what they want how they want, to bold and great effect -- whether mold-ripened goat cheeses with surprisingly complex character or mixed-milk cheeses custom-made for chefs that are much like works of art.
The benchmark for California cheese is higher than ever in a market that finally has caught up with a few pioneers who were way ahead of the curve. Both the flavors and types of cheeses are constantly evolving. From the highest end (an elegant triple creme made with cow’s milk creme fraiche stirred into fresh goat’s milk curds) to the more accessible (a creamy farmhouse sheep’s milk cheese drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper or a buttery, rich, handmade cheddar) -- cheese-wise, probably no other state has as much to offer. California now has the most artisan cheese producers in the country, according to the recently published “Atlas of American Cheese.”
And though European cheese may be the standard by which all else is measured, innovation is one of the hallmarks of California cheese makers.
Not three full seasons into cheese-making and the handmade small-batch goat’s milk cheeses of Pugs Leap Farm in Sonoma County -- the Petit Marcel, buche and pave -- already have made their way onto a number of impressive menus. “It’s remarkable what they’ve accomplished in a relatively little amount of time,” says Nick Peyton, maitre d’ and partner at Cyrus, the Michelin-rated two-star restaurant in Healdsburg.
Two cerulean blue doors lead to the small cheese-making quarters at Pugs Leap, squeaky clean and filled with the lactic perfume of fresh goat’s milk. Cheese maker Pascal Destandau might have a bit of mad scientist in him. “He has endless envelopes of cultures,” says his partner, Eric Smith, referring to the lactic bacteria, yeasts and molds that are added to the curds to promote ripening, or aging.
Like most artisan cheese makers, Destandau grumbles about the law that requires milk for cheese aged less than 60 days to be pasteurized. There’s a depth of flavor that many say is lost during pasteurization, but Destandau says he makes up for it in the cheese-making process -- from coagulation of the curd to the molds that are applied to the exterior of the cheese to promote ripening from the outside in.
He’s working on a new goat cheese called Sotoyome. “I want a really, really original flavor,” Destandau says. “I’m using different starter cultures, different ripening cultures, promoting slightly faster coagulation. I’m still experimenting.”
As far as experimenting goes, “we have a lot of freedom,” says Barbara Backus of Goat’s Leap outside of St. Helena. She has been making and selling some of the country’s best farmstead mold-ripened goat’s milk cheeses since the early ‘90s, such as her Sumi or Hyku. “There’s no A.O.C.,” she says, referring to the appellation d’origine controlee, the French government’s designation for regional food and wine produced under certain historical requirements. “I make what I want, and I call it what I want. Tradition is a resource, but you can’t let it inhibit your creativity.” Nor is the latest generation of cheese makers letting it damp their originality.
Tasting its origins
ON a recent afternoon at Andante Dairy, not far from Petaluma, Soyoung Scanlan (who had experimented with goat’s milk alongside Backus) was packing her first shipment of a new cheese she developed exclusively for chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York -- 20 thick disks of a mixed-milk triple creme for which she stirs cow’s milk creme fraiche into the goat’s milk curds. Although she hews to tradition (“there’s no invention in cheese,” she says, “just tweaking”), her cheeses stand on their own. This latest one is a little richer and creamier than another of her mixed-milk triple cremes, she says -- unctuous and voluptuous when ripe but still gorgeous on a composed plate.
“Cheese is beautiful -- it shows so many aspects of careful production,” she says. “In it I can taste good milk from healthy animals, the dairy farmer’s care, the cheese maker’s dexterity and integrity as a craftsman, the distribution -- when it’s finely carried, and how it is handled.”
Traditionally, California’s cheese industry centered around cow’s milk. Then, from the early ‘80s, pioneer artisans such as cheese makers Laura Chenel, Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove) and Jennifer Bice (Redwood Hill) put the spotlight on goat’s milk cheese. In the ‘90s, Cowgirl Creamery came on the scene, not only producing terrific cow’s milk cheeses but also distributing an array of cheeses from other artisan producers.
The California Artisan Cheese Guild was founded in late 2005 to support and promote specialty cheese makers and their cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses (the California Milk Advisory Board promotes only cow’s milk cheese).
“The variation in our climate and geography -- even ethnicity -- allows us to have a lot of different varieties,” says Lynne Devereux, a Guild representative. “From Northern to Southern California, each of the regions has a distinct style that’s starting to develop.”
In the San Joaquin Valley, cheese makers such as Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese Co. and Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese produce aged cow’s milk cheeses such as Fiscalini’s award-winning cloth-wrapped cheddar. Northern California is known for its celebrated mold-ripened cheeses. Southern California’s ethnic diversity is reflected in its handmade cheeses, whether a Dutch Gouda from Winchester Cheese Co. or mozzarella di bufala from Bubalus Bubalis.
It’s only in the last few years that California has seen its first certified organic goat’s milk dairy.
Elk Creamery is located on a 45-acre biodynamic farm on the Mendocino coast, where about 170 goats roam pastures and Kermit Carter makes cheese with the help of a reconditioned 1947 pasteurizer named Rachel. The best of them is Red Gold, whose rind is rubbed with a blend of 11 chiles grown on the farm especially for the cheese. (“Going out and buying chiles just wouldn’t work,” Carter says.) The cheese ripens nicely -- a layer of creaminess just under the rind, still firm and a little chalky in the center with the tanginess of goat’s milk set off by the smoky-sweet spice of chiles.
Mendocino’s cool coastal climate “is highly preferred for growing mold,” Carter says. “We principally do mold-ripened cheeses. They speak to the character of the soils and climate of the area,” and, of course, the milk. “Higher-quality milk translates to the potential for higher-quality cheese.”
Away from the herd
BEFORE embarking on the cheese-making business, Carter says he looked at opportunities involving certified organic goat cheese. “At that time, there were none,” he says. “And as of today, there’s only us. It was surprising to me that that was an opportunity that had been missed.”
But others may soon follow suit. “A lot of creameries are in the process of going organic,” says the California Artisan Cheese Guild’s Devereux. “It takes a considerable amount of time and expense, and some of these guys are pretty small.”
And while most of California’s cheese makers are working with cow’s and goat’s milk, Christine Maguire of Rinconada Dairy in Santa Margarita is making aged sheep’s milk cheeses. Hers is just one of two licensed sheep’s milk dairies in California (the other is Bellwether Farms of Petaluma).
Maguire’s husband, Jim, is up at 5:30 a.m. to help milk about 115 of her East Friesans and Lacaunes, and by 7 a.m., she’s in the cheese room preparing the molds she uses to make her aged sheep’s milk cheeses -- Pozo Tomme, a nutty, natural-rind cheese with the consistency of Spanish Manchego or Garrotxa, and La Panza Gold, a rustic washed-rind cheese. She also, in a fairly new take for California cheese makers, makes an aged mixed goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese.
“I intend to stay very small,” Maguire says. “I don’t know exactly how much cheese I make. I make what I make and I sell what I’ve got and that’s that.
“And I’m not real keen on sending my cheeses to New York. Maybe it would be good [for business], but I’m not sure it’s all that brilliant for the cheese.”
Meanwhile, Southern California’s interest in cheese keeps growing, with new cheese shops opening: most recently, Froma in Los Angeles and ENO and Sapphire Pantry in Laguna. Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles is expanding its cheese counter. Still, the selection of California cheeses often is limited.
In fine-dining restaurants, says Bob Stonebrook, owner of retail store and distributor Aniata Cheese Co. in Del Mar, there’s a great emphasis on sourcing products locally. But, he says, “on the retail side, I find people are less concerned about that aspect so far.”
That may be changing, though. Maury Rubin, owner of the City Bakery in Brentwood, is planning to set up a cheese counter and will stock only California cheese.
“It’s sustainable, and I’m moving to a more stringent protocol in this area,” Rubin says. “There are riches of cheese in California, more than enough for a cheese lover to be happy.”
For her part, Andante’s Scanlan is looking outward. Not only does she manage the cheese programs at a few Bay Area and Napa restaurants such as chef-owner Daniel Patterson’s Coi in San Francisco, but she’s also an exclusive distributor of the cheeses of Herve Mons, a prominent Roanne, France-based affineur -- one who collects cheeses from small producers and practices the fine art of aging and finishing the cheese. And she is hoping to open a cheese and wine bar in San Francisco within a year. “I want to serve cheese properly, a point,” she says, when a cheese shows its truest potential -- its most developed characteristics and flavors. “The way we so often serve cheese is still far from what it could be.”
She also plans to partner with small producers in France to establish cheese-making operations in California, with ambitions to revive here what some in France worry might be waning -- cheeses that are made according to strict traditional standards.
Who knows -- maybe that’ll mean a Petaluma Reblochon to go with that Healdsburg Petit Marcel or Napa Sumi on your California cheese plate.
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California’s new artisanal cheeses
Who’s making them
Pugs Leap Farm. Pascal Destandau’s and Eric Smith’s goat cheese dairy in Healdsburg produces buches -- creamy, mellow, slightly sweet logs; paves -- pyramid-shaped, a little mushroomy, with a slightly spicy finish; and Petit Marcel -- fresh-tasting, slightly tart small rounds.
Andante Dairy. In Petaluma, Soyoung Scanlan makes Minuet, a luxurious mixed-milk triple-creme, with a refined texture; Acapella, soft, creamy rounds or firm pyramids of goat cheese; Picolo, a melt-in-your-mouth cow’s milk triple creme; Nocturne, a rich cow’s milk cheese with an ashed, bloomy rind; Largo, an aged cow’s milk triple creme, creamy, smooth and nutty; and Camembert-like Legato, creamy and soft with strong flavor when ripe; as well as other cheeses.
Elk Creamery. Kermit Carter makes organic goat cheeses in Elk, Calif., including Red Gold, mold-ripened and creamy, with a chile-coated rind; and ash-coated Black Gold, tangy, a little salty, with a peppery bite.
Rinconada Dairy. Jim and Christine Maguire’s sheep cheese dairy in Santa Margarita produces Pozo Tomme, a nutty, rich aged raw milk cheese with a natural rind; La Panza Gold, a rustic, earthy, golden, washed-rind cheese; and Chaparral, a smooth, creamy unpressed cheese made from sheep’s and Nubian goat’s milk.
Where to find them
The following stores carry a number of California cheeses, including a selection from the above producers. Elk Creamery cheese is also available at some Whole Foods stores. Cheese from Rinconada Dairy is available at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market.
The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, 419 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 278-2855, www.cheesestorebh.com.
The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, 3926-28 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 644-7511, www.cheesestoresl.com.
Cube, 615 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 939-1148, www.divinepasta.com.
Artisan Cheese Gallery, 12023 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 505-0207, www.artisancheesegallery.com.
Many California cheeses can also be mail-ordered through Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes, (866) 433-7384, www.cowgirlcreamery.com, or through Aniata Cheese Co. in Del Mar, (858) 847-9616, www.aniata.com.