By Stephanie Hua
We all know it as wine country, but Northern California is also cow country. North of San Francisco in Marin and Sonoma counties, a whopping 22,000 acres of land are dedicated to dairy. Here, happy California cows laze in the sun amidst rolling green hills of pastoral bliss, and the cheesemakers speak of terroir as passionately as the winemakers. Not coincidentally, the fruits of labor on both ends complement each other quite nicely. Here are five local cheeses worth seeking out:
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company
Located near the picturesque Point Reyes National Seashore, the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company benefits from cool fogs, Pacific breezes, a stable coastal climate, and abundant grasslands. Owned and operated by the Giacomini family, Point Reyes Farmstead only uses milk from the family's closed herd of 300 Holstein cows, raised from birth right on the premises. Because everything is located on site, all the cheese is made within hours of milking. You can make an appointment to visit and tour the farm, or take one of the hands-on or demo-style classes offered at the farm's event space, The Fork.
What to Try: Point Reyes Original Blue is complex, with a sweet creaminess that makes it more approachable than most blues. Salty and bold, you can almost imagine the Pacific sea spray playing its part in the development of this cheese. It is perfection with pears, pecans, and Port.
Another family owned and operated creamery, Bellwether Farms started out with sheep, originally purchased as lawnmowers. The Callahan's flock of sheep is still busy mowing and milking, producing award-winning cheeses and yogurt, but the limelight is now shared by some Jersey cows. One taste of Bellwether's Whole Jersey Milk Ricotta and you'll see why it's so special. Most ricotta is made from whey or the addition of vinegar to the milk, which can result in a grainy texture. This ricotta, however, starts with rich, full fat milk which is cultured to allow bacteria to naturally produce the acidity needed to form the cheese. The result is the best ricotta you've ever tasted.
What to Try: Bellwether Farms Whole Jersey Milk Ricotta is unbelievably smooth and buttery. It is so decadent you won't be able to resist eating it by the spoonful. Dollop it over pasta, or serve it as dessert with a drizzle of honey and toasted pistachios.
Marin French Cheese Company
Making artisan soft-ripened cheeses by hand since 1865, Marin French Cheese is the oldest cheese producer in the country. A peek inside their production room and you'll see how everything is still made (ridiculously) by hand, from pouring the curds and whey, to straining it, to filling the molds where the cheese will firm up in preparation for aging. Visit the cheese factory and enjoy the peaceful picnic grounds by the duck pond.
What to Try: Rouge et Noir Triple Creme Brie's claim to fame is that it beat the French in their own game—twice. The American tripe crème brie took home the gold at the World Cheese Awards in 2005 and 2010. Weighing in at 75-80% butterfat, this cheese is easy to love.
Started by two girls with big dreams of riding into the Wild West of the cheese-making frontier, Cowgirl Creamery began in an old hay barn in the quaint town of Pt. Reyes Station. Today, that creamery is still in operation, but the barn is now called Tomales Bay Foods, and includes a retail shop for all your gourmet picnic needs. Stop in Pt. Reyes Station to take a cheese class and tasting or tour the non-retail creamery in Petaluma, also complete with cheese-making demo and tasting.
What to Try: Red Hawk is a triple-cream, soft rind cheese, washed in a brine solution that gives it its signature rusty red hue. Robust and earthy, this cheese is phenomenal slathered on olive bread.
Redwood Hill Farm
It may be cow country, but there's enough love to go around for the goats. One of California's pioneers in goat dairy farming, family owned Redwood Hill Farm is the first certified humane goat dairy in the US. Visit the farm to see the 300 smiling free range goats that call Redwood Hill home. Check out the solar powered creamery while you're at it, and sample goat milk cheeses, yogurts, and kefirs made there.
What to Try: Redwood Hill California Crottin is a classic, elegant goat cheese that gives the original French version a run for its money. It has a seductive texture that coats your entire mouth. The deep herbaceous flavor makes it an excellent choice for salads or beets.
Cypress Grove Chevre
Located further north in the rugged reaches of Humboldt County, perched between towering redwoods and the Pacific Ocean, is Cypress Grove Chevre. This is far beyond wine country, but it's too delicious not to include in this roundup, so here's your bonus #6.
What to Try: Truffle Tremor is pure luxury—velvety ripened goat cheese freckled with Italian black truffle. The combination is sublime, with the grassy tang of the goat cheese draped in a subtle earthiness that blooms as it melts in your mouth.
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Stephanie Hua is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her food blog, Lick My Spoon, chronicles her culinary adventures and love for all things delicious. Her favorite place to travel at the moment is Sicily, mainly for the cannoli and arancini.
Photo Credits:Courtesy Stephanie Hua